Family Road Trip Through the USA

Family Road Trip Through the USA

After driving nearly 14,000 miles in eleven months to Panama and back, Wesley had delivered us to Laredo, Texas, with 12 days to go 2,000 miles to NJ for my niece's baptism. With our spectacular border crossing in the rear view mirror, we found a Worldschoolers family north of Houston who is in the midst of selling their house and belongings in preparation for their own around- the-world-adventure. Israel, Michelle, and their three boys Joaquin, Jovani, and Judah, were gracious hosts who allowed us to use their beds, eat their food, swim in their pool, and stick around their house for two days while the epoxy we used to seal Wesleys’ leaky engine coolant recovery tank cured. This tank was the part that burst its seams while crossing into the U.S. and Israel talked me into taking the extra day to remove the part from the engine compartment and seal it rather than invest many dollars in extra coolant to keep the tank topped off during our drive home. It was a good call and has spared R and me a lot of anxiety during the long days of driving.

A Spectacular Border Crossing

A Spectacular Border Crossing

On Monday we crossed the border from Mexico to the United States at Laredo, Texas. This is the same border crossing we used in August 2015 to get from the US to Mexico to begin our year-long overland adventure. We would have liked to take a different route back to see new things but our second choice of crossing, at Brownsville, TX, is only accessible by Mexico Route 101. This road was recently dubbed the most dangerous highway in Mexico by NPR due to the proliferance of kidnappings and carjackings by bandits and organized crime gangs. We thought that being left naked in the desert would be a bad way to end our year of overland travel, though honestly, everything we have with us is threadbare from a year of constant use so would likely have no value to anyone. Only Wesley, our 1985 VW Westfalia, which has a brand new coat of paint and sparkles like a Kristy McNichol smile from “Little Darlings” would attract any attention.

How Frank Zappa educated my children

My Mom was a teacher. Her daddy before her was a caddy master at a golf course and her mom sold cosmetics. My Dad worked on Wall Street and his parents weren’t teachers either. R’s father is of Mormon heritage and her maternal grandfather had three wives simultaneously. There’s a lot of mystery, intrigue, aunts, uncles, and cousins on her side of the family. None of them are teachers. We come from a long line of non-teachers and Coconut and J were quick to call our bluff. “You’re not my teacher”, they said when we tried to teach them the things we told the Alexandria City Public School system that we would teach them in this year of homeschooling so that they could be placed into an age appropriate grade whenever we get back to that version of reality. Though, looking on the bright side of failure, J may be able to drive himself to middle school, which would save R and me some time in the mornings.

We’re both pretty smart people though, R and I. We’ve been around the block a few times - R a few more times than me given her advanced age. Since both our kids were reading above grade level and were selected for advanced placement math when we took them out of school for this trip, I proposed we could surrender on the education front and when we re-enrolled Coconut and J in public school the other kids in their age group would hopefully have caught up. While that would be a nice, easy solution to eliminate the daily stress R and I experience trying to get Coconut and J to do a math lesson or write in their journal instead of watch 6 consecutive episodes of The Amazing Spiderman cartoon before 9 a.m., R convinced me that it was an abdication of parental responsibilities. That’s why we’ve agreed to rely on others to educate our children.

Coconut and J learned from the Frank Zappa song “Why Does it Hurt when I Pee?” about sexually transmitted diseases and we’ve now enrolled them in a project-based learning school in San Felipe del Agua, just north of Oaxaca City, where over the next month, they will have social interaction with children their own age, eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and decide whether or not they like the color yellow.

Coconut and J walking to their first day of Mexican school in uniform - yellow shirts and long pants. There was not too much protest so we think they were both somewhat excited about it.

All it took to enroll them for the month was some money and they started that day - no transcripts, placement tests, health records, or questions about allergies. Mexico is so simple! And to put a grand finale on their first week of school, they got to walk around town in a parade led by a professional brass band in celebration of the Day of the Dead. R and I could not have topped that in our version of school.

Everything that we read before leaving on our trip (when I say “we read”, I mean that R read the articles and forwarded them to me where they piled up in my inbox) about road-schooling - a version of homeschooling performed in the back seat of some type of wheeled vehicle - condemns the rote structure of the traditional classroom learning experience where children are told how, where, and when to learn certain subjects, and are held back by their peers who learn at a much slower pace (i.e., they’re borderline dumb), and trumpets the virtue of taking the child out of the classroom and letting his or her natural inquisitiveness with regards to a particular thing dictate the learning process - even if that interest is imagining the offspring of two extinct species of fish.

We read about road-schooled children - world-schooling is another kitschy name that people use to try to get you to read their blog where they sell space to companies trying to capitalize on the growing world-school market - who willingly do science or creative projects, “collect” photos of historical buildings or fancy churches they’ve seen, and go on hikes or bike rides through nature that doesn’t exist in a Minecraft world. My kids don’t do anything willingly, but I shuddered to think what level of greatness I could have reached if only I had been released from the drudgery of classroom learning and left on my own to pursue my real passion - idealizing Old West gunfighters. Alas, it was college and law school for me, and a stack of Weird Western Tales comic books.

Sometimes, road-school works out really well, like when Coconut helps out her brother with a tough math problem.

Now, us road-schoolers, (I use that term loosely as it regards myself) recognize the value of knowing addition, subtraction, and using the proper verb tense when speaking, and we have the same hopes for our children that our parents had for us - love, health, happiness, and beer money. The difference is we are more in tune with the research, numbers, and hypotheses that tell us the right way to achieve those things.

To be brutally honest - which I am sometimes too much so, to the point of being offensive - I don’t think the decision we road-schoolers make to pull our children out of the traditional American education system for a lesson in comparative analysis of traffic signs is completely borne of wanting what is best for our children. Some of it must be motivated by self-interest - we’ve been sitting behind a desk for the last pick a number of years while the days of our lives tick by without us being fully engaged. It’s depressing to think that meeting a deadline is all life has to offer for those of us who have always daydreamed about some kind of nomadic existence. As a kid, I used to watch the medians between highways on car trips thinking about whether it would be a good campsite, by criminies! I’ve spent too much of my adult life where the highlight of my year was receiving the revised edition of the Internal Revenue Code. Enough!

Nevertheless, despite this trip being perhaps R’s and my idea of a good time more so than Coconut and J’s, R and I have spent a good deal of time discussing whether what we are doing is in the best interests of the kids. Yeah, we had those conversations before we left on the trip too, but we got caught up in the articles we read about how an iPad is a tool for learning and not just for playing Asphalt 8 (not in this family!) and how much fun it is to learn math by converting foreign currency into dollars and kilometers into miles (combined, these “lessons” took about two minutes before the kids got it.)

We didn’t put the pieces together and figure out if the style of self-motivated learning was a fit for our children. Maybe we didn’t know our children that well (we thought they had interests!), or maybe it’s too soon to say whether the model is a success or failure for us, but so far, the picture that we are drawing of road-schooling looks like something a preschooler would do - there’s a lot of coloring outside the lines. It could be us too. Maybe we are too caught up in "book-learning" and our expectations of what road-school is supposed to be were something different than how things have turned out so far.  Because, looking back over our three months, we've done some pretty cool things that we may not have had time, opportunity, or money to do back home, and from which they might have learned something.

Here, Coconut learns about physics and locomotion by driving a quad on the streets of San Miguel de Allende. Is this happening in the streets of Alexandria? Not without a traffic ticket!

J loved spearfishing along Manzanillo Beach in hurricane like conditions - a hurricane warning had been issued for further up the coast and the swells at this Puerto beach were larger than usual.

So, road-school, we haven't given up on it. But after three plus months on the road, we wanted to stop and reintroduce the kids to something more familiar to them - classroom learning with their peers. R and I also needed to catch up on our afternoon naps.

Before we left on this trip, someone asked me what I hoped to gain from it. I answered, perspective. R and I want the kids to understand that what they see and hear and know in Alexandria, or in the U.S., is not the only thing that they can see and hear and know, and that different things are important to people in different ways and for different reasons. Basically, we want them to try and live by accepting things for what they are, and to be who they are. As Frank Zappa sings, “Who cares if you’re so poor you can’t afford to buy a pair of mod a go-go stretch-elastic pants. There will come a time when you can even take your clothes off when you dance.” In other words, differences don’t mean one way is right and one way is wrong, unless you are planning to vote for Donald Trump for president. That’s just wrong.

So, perspective on the world is one lesson we want them to learn, and perhaps just exposure will enable them to think this way. Being in a school with kids in Oaxaca, Mexico, will give them perspective. The other lessons we want them to learn are those that will get them a high school diploma.

Road-schoolers do not test because it is a false measure of intelligence and categorizes kids as either smart or dumb, which could damage their confidence and discourage them from thinking of learning as a joy, so it is hard to gauge what Coconut or J have absorbed substantively from our three months on the road. We didn’t think Coconut was paying any attention at all when we went to the Martin Luther King, Jr. museum or the other sites we visited during our Civil Rights tour through Atlanta, Alabama, Mississippi, and Memphis, but then one day weeks later she compared teacher strikes going on in Mexico for equal pay and working conditions to the U.S. civil rights movement. Cool!

There's always something going on in the Zocalo in Oaxaca - like teacher protests and women dancing with baskets balanced on their heads!

There was a lot of U.S. and Mexican history printed onto the walls at the Alamo which Coconut and J were too bored and hot to read, but J took an interest in James Bowie and his knife, and when we googled those things later, we learned that Bowie wasn’t quite the hero we thought he was going to be, though he did get stabbed and shot about twenty times at the Sandbar Fight without dying so whatever else he was, we know he was pretty damn tough. We also learned that a Bowie knife is sharp on both sides of the blade, among other features. Padrissimo!

In Dolores de Hidalgo, we learned that Mexico has a history and good ice cream.

We saw in Dolores de Hidalgo that Mexico has its own story of revolution for liberty from foreign oppressors, and Coconut noticed that the heroes and villains in that history have streets in every major city and minor village named after them, and we learned at the archaeological sites of Monte Alban and Yagul that there was a rich cultural and spiritual (and violent!) pre-hispanic society in Mexico to rival any in the world at the time. We also learned a heck of a lot about sea turtles. Chido!

What we saw and learned about sea turtles at Playa Escobilla was unforgettable.

We may not be marine biologists, but we've spent a lot of time in the water.

Maybe in twenty or thirty years Coconut and J will remember some details about these things, or maybe they’ll just have an inkling of the concept, or have forgotten everything. Who knows? Sometimes they don’t appear to be enjoying what we are doing - we know this because we can read their cues, usually preceded by something along the lines of “when are we leaving?” - and R and I think we are failing them. But then everyone that we’ve talked to whose parents did this to them in their youth, before road-schooling was a term of art, look back on the time fondly now that they are adults, so we are hoping that whatever anguish Coconut and J are feeling now will be recalled positively. As evidence this is possible, J said this week that he remembered his preschool days as a fun time, which was good because what R and I were afraid he would remember was that he cried every day at drop off for his entire three-year preschool career. Anyway, I told them the two most important things for them to do this month are 1) stay alive, and 2) learn to speak Spanish. They both laughed, so at least I know they were listening.

Crossing the Border into Mexico - There and Back Again

The sun rose like a tinderbox throwing gasoline on the shadows it cast before us and great billows of steam rose from the blacktop as it heated up after the cool of the night.  We kept our eyes forward as we crept along through the rising vapors, certain the attack would come from the dilapidated shack at roads end where heads furtively peered over bulwarks and eyes cast stealthy glances through knot holes.  We knew they didn’t like foreigners in these parts; especially Americans with squeaky clean driving records and a disregard of fried food. Cries of “Murir, gringo” broke the silence of the morning seconds before the rat-a-tat-tat of machine gun fire kicked up divots of dirt around our ankles. I dove behind the wheel, gunned Wesley’s engine, and headed straight for the ramshackle structure where the enemy, Mexican customs officials, remained hidden like cockroaches. R, Coconut, and J, jumped on board and threw our dirty laundry at them like hand grenades. If this was how they wanted it, they would have my dirty socks to pay for it. We’d come too far to be turned back now. The view from behind Wesley's windshield as we approached the bridge over the Rio Grande. Little did we know we would see this for a second time later in the day.

A Mexican border crossing as described above would be worthy of national news coverage and what most of us know about Mexico we learn from the news. And let me tell you, the national news does not run stories about how our border crossing went, and how hundreds of border crossings every day go – uneventfully. And the national news does not run stories about the oasis of a hotel and campground where we are now holed up – a mere 146 miles from the border – because the only thing that happened here today was that we swam, napped, and ate. And because the national news won’t run our story, I’m going to have to tell it to you myself.

R and I gave some serious thought to what we needed to do to cross the border into Mexico in the most painless and efficient way. Everything we had read advised spending as little time as possible in border towns, in particular on the South side of the border, so our plan was to spend the night in the U.S. border town of Laredo, Texas, cross the Rio Grande first thing, and put the pedal to the metal and drive 200 plus kilometers to Monterrey, Mexico, for the night. One guy we mentioned this plan to advised against spending the night in Laredo, but after searching for options north of Laredo where we could spend the night and still get to the border pretty early, we realized there were none and that his story was as full of holes as the heads of the boaters on Lake Laredo that the cartel used for target practice – may they rest in peace.

We booked a night at the Family Garden Inn in Laredo and arrived there from San Antonio just in time for happy hour – free hot dogs, nachos, and beer – and to find out there is truth to the adage that freedom isn’t free – the hot dogs were mushy, the chips were smothered in that fake nacho cheese crap, and the beer was Lite. I had indigestion before I finished my first hot dog.

Family Garden Inn Suites in Laredo

Coconut at the Family Garden Inn pool

The border opens at eight in the morning for those hoping to cross legally and we roused Coconut and J at 6:45 for our sugar-coated free breakfast and hit the bridge shortly after eight. The Mexican official poked his head into our van for about ten seconds, waved us through, and there we were – spit out into the streets of Nuevo Laredo. No guns, no threats, no hassle.

We had printed instructions about what documentation we needed to obtain visas for ourselves and import Wesley into Mexico to prove that we owned it and didn’t plan to sell it and after a few wrong turns we arrived at the customs house with our paperwork in hand and eager to be fed through the assembly line.

It was here that we learned that the Certificate of Title and registration that we had received from the Virginia DMV for Wesley had the wrong vehicle identification number on it. The customs official actually removed himself from behind his glass window, walked with us out to the parking lot, and confirmed this by comparing our paperwork to the VIN punched into Wesley – there was an X where there should have been a Z.

We were then presented two options – return to Laredo to get a temporary registration for Wesley in Texas with the correct VIN which would allow us to obtain the proper paperwork from Mexico to enter with Wesley, or leave Wesley behind. Since that second option wasn’t really an option, we drove back to Laredo. By this time it was 10 a.m. and about 100 degrees.

It was hot in Laredo and Mexico on Tuesday! The reading on the left is inside Wesley. The reading on the right is the outside temperature.

After going through U.S. Customs, where we wondered if the officer would make us throw away or eat the bananas that we had purchased the day before in Texas, and stopping at a traffic light on every street corner in Laredo on the way to the County Assessor’s office, the light started flashing that Wesley’s engine was overheating. This is the problem I thought I had solved the other day with a wire brush and some electrical tape. I guess I’m not the mechanic I thought I was - or rather, I am that mechanic.

We managed to get to where we needed to go in Laredo, were directed to a parking spot by a Sheriff’s Officer, were met at the door by a woman who made the copies we needed and directed us to the window where we could complete our transaction, and were presented with our temporary registration in about fifteen minutes. How impressive is that? Go Texas.

All during this time – from Mexican customs, back through U.S. Customs, and to the Texas office, Coconut and J were reading their books and playing Plants vs. Zombies on their screens without complaining about the heat, their hunger or thirst, or asking why we didn’t check the VIN when we received the VA DMV paperwork in the first place. In short, they made a stressful situation less stressful by being awesome.

Even after getting the Texas permit, we still had two situations to deal with. First, the permit is only for 90 days and it seems that we have to be present at VA DMV to be able to correct our VA DMV certificate of title to show the correct VIN. Since we won’t be present to do this, we are not sure what is going to happen when we try to leave Mexico after 30 days have expired to enter Belize with paperwork that shows the wrong VIN. Maybe we won’t be allowed to enter Belize?

Second, Wesley’s cooling system appears to have a problem that I can’t fix. While Texas was doing its thing, I fiddled around again with what I had fiddled around with the other day. This time I also added some water to the overflow coolant tank. However, once we had the right paperwork, I still hadn’t started the van so didn’t know if I had accomplished anything. Wesley might overheat at any time.

After a short discussion around these two issues - should we stay or should we go - R and I decided to go for it. We were going to Mexico.

When we arrived back at Mexican Customs, the official stamped us as official, charged us some amount of money – about 5000 pesos - to give us our visas and Wesley his sticker, and sent us on our way – which was into the now hot and throbbing streets of Nuevo Laredo with no data access – R had removed us from Verizon the previous night. So, essentially we were travelling South (compasses don’t need data plans) hoping the coolant light wouldn’t go on, hoping to stumble across the right exit to put us on the road to Monterrey, and hoping to find an ATM to withdraw pesos and a store to buy a SIM card to make our phones work again.

As I sit here typing this at La Posada camping and lodging in El Potrero Chico recreation area near Hidalgo, Mexico, which actually was our destination rather than Monterrey after R did some late night research on the free WiFi at the Family Garden Inn, I feel really fortunate that we did not allow the day to turn into the disaster pie for which it had all the fixins’.

We pitched our tent in the middle of the campground so we could have this view of the mountain. We made the right choice to leave Laredo.

This hotel and campground is beautiful and we are the only ones here. There is a cool breeze blowing that makes the 113 degree temperature we reached today a distant memory. The space we are in is set in a valley between two world class climbing mountains. There are beautiful, shaded grounds and a wicked pool which we’ve already been in twice, and I know my family is content and asleep in our tents which are just out of sight in the wall of darkness created by the lit porch where I am typing this. I know that as soon as I walk out of this canopy of light, and my eyes adjust, I’m going to walk over to Wesley, crack myself a final Tecate beer, and sit back and enjoy a sky full of stars.

J relaxing in the hammock hung over the pool after taking a swim.

Here's another photo of the pool and grounds at La Posada


Remember the Alamo

We drove from Austin to San Antonio to spend the night for two reasons – to shorten the drive to Laredo and the Mexican border and to visit the Alamo. We checked the Alamo off the bucket list this morning. The church at night - this church was part of the Alamo compound.

I’ve been excited by stories of the Old West since I saw the Brady Bunch episode where Bobby idolizes Jesse James as a hero only to have the grandson of one of his victims relate the story of how James shot his grandfather in the back as evidence that he was a lowdown, dirty, train-robbing, scoundrel. That did not have the desired effect on me, however, and I’ve always romanticized James and other Western characters like Cole Younger, Billy the Kid, Doc Holliday, and Wyatt Earp, not as heroes necessarily, but I admired their grit under pressure, their ability to thrive in harsh living conditions, and the fact that they probably never changed their underwear.

The Alamo, being from that same general era of history, holds the same appeal for me. Now, I’m not going to go so far as to say that visiting the Alamo was a dream come true for me, but one of the first things I thought of when we planned our route to Mexico was going through San Antonio to see the Alamo. You could say I was pretty jacked about it. Yet, everyone I know who had ever seen it was, shall we say, less than impressed.

Well, I say, pistachios to them! While it is true that most of the compound that existed during the battle is buried under the asphalt and concrete of modern day San Antonio, the façade of the church, perhaps the most recognizable feature, remains intact. I don’t know if I would have been satisfied if that was the only thing I saw, but fortunately I don’t have to say because there was a shrine and museum attached – both free, otherwise we might not have gone in – so we got to see important artifacts like James Bowie’s knife and Davy Crockett’s hair brush (they both died at the Alamo) and get a history lesson that allowed us to rate the experience two thumbs up.

All our pictures of the Alamo during the day came out crummy. Notice the Crockett hotel in the background.

I’m going to condense three centuries of Alamo history into a few sentences, and - spoiler alert! – I am going to reveal the ending. The Mission San Antonio de Valero, the original structure on the Alamo site, was a church and out buildings built by the Spanish in the early 1700’s as a means to convert Indians to Catholicism and thereby increase Spanish rule. It was eventually abandoned as the Spanish lost influence in North America and then re-established in the early 1800’s as a strategic military outpost because the town it was situated near, San Antonio de Bexar, was a crossroads and center of commerce. It was referred to as the Alamo starting from this time in honor of the hometown of the Mexican cavalry that was garrisoned there and the name stuck. In Texas’ fight for independence from Mexico in 1835-36, which ironically was brought on in part by Mexico’s restriction on further immigration of U.S. citizens into Texas, it was the scene of a famous battle where the greatly outnumbered Texans who were defending the compound made the decision to stay and fight rather than surrender. They were all killed, but their bravery in electing certain death gave rise to the rallying cry “Remember the Alamo” which inspired an outnumbered army led by Sam Houston to defeat the Mexicans at San Jacinto just a short time later and secure an independent Texas – which was admitted to the Union as the 28th state in 1845.

Surprisingly, Coconut and J were relatively interested in all this because when we stayed in North Carolina a few weeks ago with a sister of a college friend, Frank the husband let us know that his ancestor had been killed at the Alamo. Having this connection made it more bearable for Coconut and J to go through the exhibits looking for his name and reading about what an honorable guy he was. It turns out that James Butler Bonham was one of four commanders and had snuck through the Mexican siege line at one point to get help. Upon learning no help would be coming, Bonham snuck back through the lines, which the other couriers that had been sent out did not do, to let his compatriots know that they were on their own. He died with them on March 6, 1836. One has to wonder why, if it was so easy to sneak through the Mexican lines, the whole army didn’t sneak out and attack the Mexican rear, but I’m not a military strategist so I guess it didn’t make sense at the time.


pointing to Bowie and Bonham's names

We didn't do anything else in San Antonio, except leave our iPad in the hotel lobby. After we reached Laredo and realized it was missing we called the hotel but it had not been turned in as lost and found. It's a bummer, but the only things that are irreplaceable on it are some photos that we took with the GoPro and potentially all of our personal banking information.

hotel in San Antonio