Heading back to the airport, I find myself looking around the van that has carted me back and forth to classes, to our motel miscellaneous stores for the past five days. I take in the mix of chaos and order — clothes hanging, boxes neatly tucked beneath a large comfy platform bed, the maps, the phone chargers, the random pairs of shoes, the cute little touches of hand sewn curtains, a succulent plant hanging on for dear life.
From the outside, you'd steer clear. The "rape van" joke is a pretty accurate assertion as the first impression one might have. I recall the airport pick up on my first day: the big, white, bug encrusted, lumbering American-made mass rumbling into the airport lines, and in front, in their beloved captain seats, both beautiful and quirky, Tressa and Kelsey. They had navigated through shiny taxis and late model cars, parked, and hopped out to greet me. I was promptly cheesed with a Wisconsin cheese hat, followed by an excited group hug.
There they were, happily adjusted to this life, their van life. Nearly two months into their seven month journey, driving barefoot and sweaty, excited for the next chapter, in which they would join me for a respite of hot showers and meals, while I would take my fifth and final insurance class and test for a hard earned designation I had started four years earlier.
I had coordinated this last class all the way to Wisconsin in order to intersect with the girls' travel path through the United States. Regardless of where the timing coordinated us, we planned to get in a day of visiting and sightseeing. And so it was Waukesha, Wisconsin of all places.
I was unable to secure a room at the fancier Marriott where my classes were to be held, so we settled for what seemed to be a family style Ramada Inn nearby. Though the rooms and service were borderline shabby, the atmosphere and lackadaisical attitude were a much better fit for the five day lifestyle we chose. I had no desire to pay extra to house two more adults, though I did request two queen beds. Could I have ever snuck past the snooty Marriott desk with two giggling girls, several bags of food, dishes, a propane stove, and a large sticker-covered ice chest? I am not so sure.
The Ramada could care less. By day two we were utilizing the camp stove, frying potatoes and eggs, boiling rice, sauteing veggies, and making sandwich wraps from the ice chest filled with a never ending supply of motel ice. Between that and the early morning continental breakfast kitchen, these girls had surely rubbed off on me; I joined in, capitalizing on free food and preparing cheap meals with them. In the most recent weeks prior to our meeting, they had taken to sustaining solely on cooked rice for some days at a time in an effort to save money, so the motel life was like a vacation for them. For me, it was downright fun.
The first day they dropped me off for my class in front of the Marriott, they sent me off with motherly advice such as, "Make good choices!" Their afternoon pic up was even more precarious as they arrived wearing mustaches and captain hats. In true van captor fashion they hollered, "Get in the van!" at me. Oh my...
And so the next few days went — some of which included them posting up at the fancy Marriott for a steady of supply of free wifi, quality coffee with real cream, as well as pastries and cookies from my classes, which I supplied at each hourly break. I received some amused and skeptical glances from fellow classmates as I climbed in and out of the unlikely vehicle each day, making the entire even that much more hilarious.
My studies were intense, but between note cards and reading, I was still able to enjoy and witness their easy banter, their daily lists of projects and crafts, and the plotting of their upcoming destinations. I got to see how they worked with each other in and out of the small space, how they wordlessly took turns with the various tasks of driving or navigating, cooking or cleaning. They clearly had developed a routine and a way with their travels. They were diligent in the home check ins, their writing and photography, and yet seemed to take in the world around them.
There was quiet reflective time, there was dancing and loud music, cooking and food prep, chatting and grocery shopping. They endured my endless out-loud ramblings as I rattled off insurance definitions, concepts and calculations, even in my sleep! And finally the Saturday morning, following my two and a half hour exam, we were able to do some Milwaukee sightseeing! The girls were very excited about taking a Pabst beer tour, which has developed a bit of a cult following.
I think what I found most amusing about this tour was coming directly from a Risk Management class, to a beer drinking group tour through the facility's construction zone where the owner excitedly shared his plans of creating a Beer, Bed & Breakfast suite, complete with beer on tap in each bed's headboard. Was he serious? The tour continued through cords and ladders, debris and dust. And the best? One of the carpenters watching us from atop a story-high scaffolding in the middle of this construction, enjoying a PBR! Oh the risk, the risk, the risk! I just couldn't believe it.
So what better way to dive into this debacle, but to make friends with him AND with the owner after our tour? We discovered them both to extremely kindhearted and full of stories of the various states represented in their facility tours. I did my best to draw out of them some thoughts relating to home and what it means to them, in the interest of the girls' trip theme. The girls appreciated my outgoing nature and were happy to join in. I took several pictures of them in front of the Captain Pabst statue and we drew some glances as I shouted, "Talk to the camera, speak to me!" while they struck various poses.
The day continued, once filled with lofty ideas of getting tattoos and singing at a karaoke bar, to snacks and rented RedBox movies back at the Inn. After many hours of walking around town, watching the lift bridge and the boats passing through, losing my beloved Pabst souvenir T-shirt at either a Spy Cafe or an Irish Pub — both too annoying to write about, we three rather craved to climb into our beds to watch movies instead.
A greasy diner breakfast in the morning, and back to the airport I am taken. I surprised myself in the back of the van with a large lump in my throat. I was just so happy for them, sad to leave, amazed at their adventure, impressed by their courage, terrified of them backing up the large van in parking lots. (It's one big blind spot, that thing!) They had their next stop planned: camping in Michigan, then a new couchsurfing host in Duluth, Minnesota.
Being a mother of a beautiful young daughter, traveling the way she does, I get that people often worry or wonder about her safety. Tressa has been traveling since she was 16. She is such a mix of wit and innocence. She plans and she frets. She laughs and she loves. Kelsey, who I have known and loved since she was a preteen has this easy way of shrugging off the little worries and diving into tasks with a can-do attitude. Between the two of them, they seem to have it all dialed in. They are careful to lock up, to close their blinds; they have each others' back and these girls mean business.
Tressa texted me later that last day, reflecting that I have managed to join her in every one of her big trips. I hope she continues and that I am able to pop in again at all the various stages of her life. I hope they both push against the pressures of what society says it means to grow up and follow their dreams this way, meeting different people in different places all around the world. The perspective, the empathy, the openness of it all. These girls are truly inspiring. I say, carry on ladies. Thank you for letting me join the fun.
(Tressa's mother and one of our most supportive donors and followers!)