For the past several months, Sara Zittlow said the people she’s encountered seem to think that she’s either: a) nuts, or b) lucky to be living out a once-in-a-lifetime adventure.
On the "adventure" side, she’s taken a leave from her real estate career and has embarked on a road trip that will take her to all 50 states.
On the (well, in the view of some) "nuts" side, she’s discovering America in the 24-hour-a-day company of her three school-age children. For nine straight months. And spending most of their nights with strangers.
"As this trip has gone along, more people are being more supportive, and there’s a lot less judging (by outsiders)," said Zittlow. "We had more ‘You’re crazy!’ from family."
Zittlow admits that even she harbored doubts during the first weeks after she packed the kids — Andrew, 11; Megan, 9; and Ryan, 7 — into the family Volkswagen and set off from Howard, Wis., near Green Bay, where she had worked as an agent for Shorewest Realtors.
"We have tended to have some bad days," Zittlow said. "But we pull ourselves together and go on. We had one rough time after three weeks (on the road), where I said, ‘Maybe this isn’t right for all of us — maybe we should go back."
The kids overruled her, she said. So they pressed on.
Since leaving Wisconsin on Sept. 13, the quartet has put 11,000 miles on the car and has visited 30 state capitals, with the goal of seeing all 50 by May. But she’s not obsessed with racking up miles on the car: The nationwide tour took a several-week break through the holidays to visit Zittlow’s parents in Florida.
The Zittlows’ first stop: Capitol building in Madison, Wis.
The idea of chucking the day-to-day routine and hitting the road with the kids came to her last year after visiting Israel with her father, she said.
"When I came back, things were different," she said. "When you go somewhere, you experience life in a different way. You’re not just seeing pages in a book — it’s a whole-body experience."
She and her husband, Robb — about once a month, he journeys from Wisconsin, where he’s still working, to wherever they happen to be, she said — decided to offer the children a similar eye-opening experience, Zittlow said.
"The kids were reading the rich culture of our history in textbooks and memorizing it," she said. "I said, let’s walk across it — you’ll never forget it."
The Zittlows in Montpelier, Vt. — stop No. 11 of 50 planned.
But the logistics were a bit daunting. There was the cost, for one thing.
"I told my husband, ‘I think I can do it for $15,000,’ " she said. "I’ll sell enough homes to pay for it." So far, the family has stayed on budget, Zittlow said.
But driving to Alaska and (particularly) to Hawaii seemed a little complex, she said.
Her parents agreed to help underwrite some of the cost of an Alaskan cruise and airline tickets that would get the family to the 50th state, she said. To pay for the rest, the Zittlows sold their home, and her husband is staying in her parents’ Wisconsin condo.
But that original $15,000 estimate contained a major "if": The only way to manage the cost, she figured, was to forgo hotels and stay with relatives or friends — or friends of friends — at most stops. They’ve spent only a few nights in motels, she said.
The result has oftentimes made them the guests of people who are more or less strangers — though that circumstance, too, has benefited the kids by reinforcing their social graces, she said.
They’ve stayed at others’ homes for a day or more, using the extended visits to work in some home-schooling. Zittlow has a master’s degree in education and was a teacher for about a year before she became a stay-at-home mom; she became a real estate agent three years ago.
(She said the several weeks’ travel hiatus with her parents in Florida have given her the time to catch up on their academic lessons.)
The drive times from capital to capital generally haven’t meant spending days on end in the car, Zittlow said.
"Really, you could do one (capital) a day," with careful planning, she said. "Our longest driving day has been seven hours, the shortest an hour. Sometimes, we just take a break."
In addition to the state capitals, the four have taken in numerous natural wonders and other spots of interest, she said, "anything from state history to historic homes. We toured the U.S. Naval Academy and lots of museums — even a Corvette museum. We had an extra hour, so we figured, why not?"
The biggest hits with the kids seemed to be Niagara Falls, and Acadia National Park in Maine, she said. She’s been posting photos from the trip and other tidbits at their Website, 50statecapstour.com.
The shorter legs of the trip have meant that she doesn’t have to worry much about making sure everybody remains occupied, she said. And one rule, after a couple of weeks on the road, became firm: No electronic games or devices in the car, she said.
"I do not let them have computers, phones — nothing," she said. "So often, they would miss something on the road. I would say, ‘Did you see that? It was neat.’ But they weren’t looking. So I told them: ‘This trip is not about keeping your necks down and (it’s not about) video games."
Kids being kids, one envisions a certain amount of bickering while confined in such close quarters.
"Sure, they squabble," she said. "But we’re all teaching each other manners — and (the kids) do learn. I compare them to being in a Petri dish, which is the car. And I am the microscope."
The only real negative so far, she said, has been road food.
"It’s horrible," she said. "By the time we got to Kentucky, we all agreed: no more fast food, we’re done with that. We have a cooler, and we go to the grocery store. We eat cheese and peanut butter and we have sandwiches and apples. It’s brain food. We all feel better."
Now that the holiday season is done, they’ll depart for the Southern states they haven’t seen yet, and will land for another extended stay in Colorado for skiing. ("I decided from the beginning we wouldn’t be driving during Advent and Lent," she said.)
After Easter, the plan is to wrap up the continental U.S. in May, then visit Alaska and Hawaii. What will happen after that is unknown, she said.
She said the children have talked about extending the travel sabbatical into other countries, and she’s considering it.
She’s unsure where the family will reside when all is said and done — with their home sold and her husband professionally flexible, they could live anywhere, and she has used the road trip to check out possible landing sites.
"I loved parts of Maryland and Delaware," Zittlow said. "The kids loved North Carolina and I liked South Carolina. Now I’m really liking Florida because it’s warm."
She’s not even sure she’ll return to real estate.
"I know I would miss it," Zittlow said. The state of the housing market in the Green Bay area wasn’t a reason to leave, she said — she described her business before she left as steady, and in the year before she hit the road she had formed a partnership with another agent that she said was working well.
But the freedom of the road has made her open to all possibilities, she said.
"I have no idea what we’ll do," she said. "Let me focus on this trip and see what we feel like next. I don’t even know if the children are going to go back to standard schooling."
But there are no regrets at this point, she said.
"Someone said that … every mile you travel is like a book read," Zittlow said. "We have traveled 11,000 miles."
Mary Umberger is a freelance writer in Chicago.
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