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48-State Sojourn

A father and his new-driver daughter embarked on a 27-day adventure throughout the country in the same car in which he learned to drive.
By Mark Langenfeld with Julie Langenfeld

“Dad, this feels just like any drive around the block,” said my daughter, Julie, as she turned the corner in front of our house in Cape Girardeau, Mo., on day one of our adventure. Julie, who was 16 at the time, had earned her driver’s license only four months earlier. We were embarking on a journey to visit all 48 lower states. Driving around this “block” would give Julie a lot of driving experience.

At Yellowstone
The Langenfelds spent a full day touring Yellowstone National Park, which was a luxury. To maintain their schedule, they had to average at least 400 miles per day and typically didn’t have much time at any one stop.

Experiencing our country from sea to shining sea in this compressed timeframe gave us a profound sense of having wrapped our arms around it and given it a loving hug. Time with my daughter was special beyond words. This was indeed an incredible “drive around the block.”
– Mark Langenfeld

Not only did I get to see my country, I got to drive it. As dad shared memories about my grandparents during the trip, I came to realize just how cool these extraordinary days with dad were. He reminisced how glad he is to have had the short time with his parents that he did. He advised me to take advantage of things while they exist. I told him I already was, and that I’d like to repeat this trip in the same automobile with a 16-year-old child of my own.
– Julie Langenfeld

Julie dreamed up this adventure when she was 10 years old. She wanted to tour the country in the car her grandparents drove; one I first drove when I was 16. That special automobile is our 1968 Mercedes-Benz 250 SE. Not only would this car be our transportation on our odyssey, it emotionally linked a third-generation driver, Julie, to her grandparents who died years earlier.

As various life constraints narrowed our time window to one month, we researched possible routes that would have us touch all 48 lower states while keeping total distance around 10,000 miles. We had to be really selective about what sights to see knowing that we needed to average nearly 400 miles per day.

Among top priorities were the Grand Canyon, Death Valley, San Francisco, Yellowstone National Park, the Maine coast, New York City, Skyline Drive in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park, and the Gulf of Mexico. But we also resolved to make time for unplanned daily discoveries and to spend meaningful amounts of time at various places to avoid photo-stop experiences.

With this basic plan in mind, and our AAA Premier® card in hand, we visited AAA Sales Agent Jim Burke in Cape Girardeau to see how AAA could help us. Auto Travel Counselor Michelle Crow did a fantastic job preparing TripTiks® for us. Our planned route mapped at 9,550 miles. At last, we were on our way.

Day 1 We knew things were going well when we found ourselves on the road to Success, Ark., tucked away in the northeast corner of the state. We continued northwest and hopped on Route 66 at Springfield, Mo. When our car was built, Route 66 was still the highway. Cruising the Mother Road today is a fascinating contrast to our modern interstates.

Day 3 A sudden cloudburst in Albuquerque dazzled us with huge floating raindrops that appeared to be diamonds falling to Earth. Brilliant sunshine broke through, producing a radiant rainbow. My mother and Julie’s grandma loved rainbows, and we sensed her presence in our family time machine, wishing us Godspeed on this adventure.

Day 5 For spectacular views while dining, we highly recommend the dining room at Grand Canyon Lodge on the North Rim. After lunch, we hiked along the rim to take in the canyon vistas. Later that same day, we drove through Zion National Park in southwest Utah at dusk when reddish light created brilliant colors.

Days 7 and 8 In San Francisco, we loved riding the cable cars, dining at No. 9 Fisherman’s Grotto, driving the twists and hills of Lombard Street, and bicycling along the coastline and across the Golden Gate Bridge. Departing Frisco, I glanced over at Julie’s hands on the steering wheel and realized that the previous time that I’d crossed that bridge by automobile, my father’s hands were on the steering wheel. We headed north up the Pacific Coast Highway to savor astounding views and touch the cold ocean waters. Continuing north into Oregon, we made a right turn in Portland and were now eastward bound.

Day 13 We devoted a full day to Yellowstone National Park where the Old Faithful geyser show was marvelous to see. We finished that special day savoring a sunset along Beartooth Highway in Wyoming at 10,947 feet. It was breathtaking. We breathed in the thin mountain air while we walked on snow in mid-July and marveled at the mountain beauty. This was a unique moment among special days on our daughter-father road trip.

We spent the night camping under the Big Sky soothed into sleep by a mountain stream near Red Lodge, Mont. The next morning, we passed the trip’s halfway mileage point in eastern Montana, having visited 16 states and still had 32 more to visit.

Day 15 Our longest mileage day was clocked today–785 miles arriving at Milwaukee, Wis., from Chamberlain, S.D., passing through Nebraska, Iowa, and Minnesota. Early the next morning, we caught the ferry across Lake Michigan to Muskegon, Mich. That was the first time since crossing the Atlantic in 1967 that our family car had been on the water. We all enjoyed a break from driving even as we advanced 82 miles on our journey.

Day 18 At dawn on my (Mark’s) birthday, we bicycled along the waterfront of Chautauqua Lake in western New York. Good fortune enabled us to rent a sailboat to enjoy the sparkling waters that I loved sailing during college years. That shared father-daughter day ranks among some of my best birthdays.

Days 19 and 20 We celebrated our arrival at the East Coast by dining on Maine lobster, just 10 days after leaving the Pacific. The following morning, we dipped our toes in the Atlantic and breathed in its ocean air while bicycling to the Nubble Lighthouse at York, Maine. In great contrast to the West, we covered six states in one day from Maine to New York City.

The Show-Me State girl made her Big Apple debut by driving along Broadway. A friend from New York City was our tour guide and we loved strolling the streets of Manhattan, riding the subway, visiting parks, and gazing at the Statue of Liberty. After experiencing the mountain marvels of the West, it is amazing to wander the city canyons of New York City.

Days 24 and 25 Skyline Drive in Virginia allowed us to compare eastern and western mountains. Then onward to the Gulf Coast, where friends served delicious scamp, a type of grouper. We had enjoyed Pacific Dungeness crab, Lake Erie perch, Atlantic lobster, and now Gulf scamp. Truly, a taste of our nation!

Days 26 and 27 From the Gulf Coast, we headed north on Interstate 55, the same road we’d traveled four weeks earlier when we left Cape Girardeau. We had experienced our country by dipping in both oceans, crossing a Great Lake, and swimming in the Gulf. Crossing over the Ohio River near Cairo, Ill., we viewed the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers as we entered the final state of our journey.

As we crossed the Mississippi River on the Bill Emerson Memorial Bridge into Cape Girardeau, family, friends, and a television camera crew welcomed us home onto Missouri soil. We had traveled 9,979 miles in 27 days.

Mark Langenfeld is a AAA member and lives with his family in Cape Girardeau, Mo. His daughter, Julie, currently attends college in Rolla, Mo.

Related article: Teen Driver Safety

Sept/Oct 2012 Issue

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