Unity, New Hampshire
by Samantha Adler
Florida palm trees, luxurious naps and bingo: these are the things retirement dreams are made of.
But, if you travel up to woodsy New Hampshire and ask Maureen and Larry Gelo they’d beg to differ. A couple of retirement rebels, these two fill their time seeking new adventures on America’s open roads, breaking away from the status quo of retirees.
The two lived, worked and raised their children in Connecticut. He worked as a police officer in a small town on the shore and she worked as a nanny. Larry’s a handyman who can fix all and create any device you’d ever need from scratch. Maureen’s gentle and loving with a dash of cheeky spunk. After retiring at age of 62, they bought a motorhome and set off on a series of spontaneous road trips in North America, driven by curiosity and an unfulfilled wanderlust. It’s been over a decade and they’re still going, insisting there is so much to see in this big, beautiful country of ours.
This pair of serial roadtrippers happen to be my grandparents (+10 cool points for me) and two of the biggest supporters of the road trip. I recently visited them in Unity, New Hampshire, their home base. When they’re not out on the road, Larry does woodwork with materials from the forest behind their house (Check out some of his amazing work), visit friends, hike and enjoy their rugged New England home.
Before settling down over the kitchen table, we went on a short hike in the nearby Quechee Gorge. A few remaining leaves hung off wiry branches, clinging on against the chilly late autumn breeze. We got home, tore off hiking boots and unbundled. After putting a log on the furnace, we gathered around a plate of brownies and they shared their stories, travel advice and all their coveted road trip knowledge in their usual hilarious banter.
First off, why the travel retirement?
L: There’s a lot of places we’ve never been and we’d like to go there.
M: That pretty much says it all. We just wanted to travel and see this beautiful country.
Why roadtripping in particular?
L: Because you can see a lot more. And with a camper you can stop wherever, whenever and for as long as you want.
M: To get off the beaten path and see things. We’ve had so many surprises, especially in these little towns along the way. [There was] one place in Nebraska we ended up. It was the end of the day and we were tired. We just about got into this parking lot, when we saw there was a museum. Well, we ended up staying there for three more days because this museum was blocks long. A man had collected everything from soup to nuts; from cars to buttons. And he had all these buildings with all these wonderful things, like the earliest telephone. We found out that he was the creator of bubble wrap! And he just collected for years and years and years. But like I said when we pulled into this place it looked like nothing, it was just a place we stopped at because it was the end of the day and we were tired. So that’s the wonderful thing about traveling across this country in a vehicle.
Did you travel when you were younger?
M: I think the farthest we ever went was to visit my father’s sister in New York. And that was about three or four times in my childhood. Neither of my parents liked to travel, they were homebodies. So that gave me the wanderlust.
L: When I was single in the service and my teenage years, I used to travel down the East Coast, and that was it. But I did get to go to college in Alaska and loved it. About forty years ago we got the chance to take a cruise up there and loved it. Then we went back and spent eight or ten weeks traveling around in the motorhome.
What was your first road trip?
M: We had a trailer and we went up to Canada, Quebec and Niagara falls, on both sides. There again, we found this wonderful little town that we would have never found if we weren’t riding around.
L: We first started with a truck, we camped in the back of the truck, then we got a little trailer, then we got a little bigger trailer and then we decided [to get the RV] when we got close to retirement.
What was the best trip or route you’ve taken?
L: I think Alaska was probably the greatest. They’ve all been great. One time we went down Route 50 from the East Coast all the way out to California. It was the old 1950/60’s. Most of it’s disappeared by now, but it was kind of nostalgic and off the beaten path. It was stuff we remembered from when we were young.
M: Route 66.
L: Yea, a lot of it was Route 66. Another time we went along the Canadian border all the way west, then down the coast to San Francisco and then back along the southern coast. That was an amazing trip.
What was the craziest thing you saw because you were driving?
L: We’ve seen just about everything. We’ve been in tornados, major thunderstorms, hailstorms, windstorms where we thought the camper was going to flip over. Anything you can think of we’ve been near it, too near it for comfort or right in the middle of it.
Have you made any friends along the way?
L: We’ve met all sorts of people. You never know who you’re going to run into. We stopped in one place in Canada and met people we’ve been in touch with for seven or eight years now.
M: All nice people from all walks of life.
L: Everyplace you stop you should talk to somebody. You’ll talk about where you’ve been and where you’re going and they’ll tell you what you should go and see. And if they’ve been to places you’ve already been, they’ll tell you about places you missed after you thought you’ve seen everything there is to see. We went to Wall Drugs a few times going across country. It’s a big, big drug store and big tourist attraction. And almost across the street, were the Badlands. We drove right by it. The third time we finally figured it out after chatting with people.
What are the best things you’ve picked up along the way?
L: She likes to shop. We had to go all the way to Alaska to go to Walmart.
M: No. My best souvenirs were in Sequoia National Park, we filled our trunk with great big pinecones.
L: Then we found out it was illegal.
M: And then I got a piece of wood from the Petrified Forest. Which was...another illegal thing. Nothing I bought. I have a chunk of rock from the base of Crazy Horse. And that was legal! They said I could take it.
L: Every place we’ve gone to I’ve gotten a walking stick emblem.
I know you’ve had some run-ins with pretty large critters.
L: We saw every animal you could think of in Alaska: mountain lions, moose, bears. I’ve walked up on a moose. Not intentionally. I was walking along the road and right next to me a moose started snorting. I said “oh that’s not a smart idea.” I kept walking and he went back on to minding his own business.
Advice for aspiring roadtrippers?
L: It’s the most exciting way in the world to go. You don’t have to go on an airplane and go through all that crap. Travel as much as you can. You get a whole, totally different outlook on the world. You see it’s more than this little town you live in.
M: Enjoy the ride and the surprises. In Saint Louis we ended up seeing the Clydesdales from the Budweiser commercials at Grant’s Farm. That was a surprise that we came upon. It was in this beautiful nature park that had all types of animals. And it was totally free.
L: Talk to everyone you can talk to.
M: I like stopping at visitors centers because you can get all the information you need. It’s always good to stop there.
L: If you see something interesting you should stop. The most important thing about traveling like this is being able to stop when you see something interesting and if you don’t make your destination, fine.
The one place you must see in the US?
M: Grand Tetons.
L: When we were traveling to a balloon festival in Arizona, we hit every presidential library in the country. That was amazing, I never knew the presidential libraries had so much to offer.
What route do you recommend for someone who wants to road trip for the first time?
L: I think Route 50 was one of the nicest. If you can stay off the main highways, do it. The interstates are beautiful things for when you want to get somewhere fast, but you miss everything.
There’s so much to see. What should someone base their route on when planning?
L: No matter what you’re interested in look for things that are in that area. Like history, if you’re interested in battlefields you could spend months visiting them all in the southeast. Or if you find a writer you’re interested in...anything!
M: Just seeing the country and riding along.
L: We’ve got friends who like to go to zoos. They just travel all around the country going to zoos. It’s whatever you’re interested in.
M: I wanted to go to Savannah because I heard there was a museum here that had Scarlett O’Hara’s dress from Gone with the Wind. I was so excited because that’s one of my favorite movies. I never thought i’d be able to do that. Especially because I never traveled when I was younger, so it’s amazing to be able to hop in the motorhome, drive down and see something as ridiculous as Scarlett O’Hara’s gown.
L: One time we tried to hit as many national forests and parks as we could.
Has anything you’ve seen changed your perspective?
L: It’s changed our outlook on life. Before we started traveling the north east was basically it. Yea, I’d gone down south a few times for the service. But I’ve probably never gone more than 100 miles from the Atlantic Ocean. And it’s amazing. I thought everyone in the world lived in New York City; that was civilization. Then you find out Chicago is bigger. And the first time we went across country, to see how big this country is, where you’re driving and you can see fifty miles ahead, drive for hours and see nothing else. You can’t wrap your head around that or visualize that from reading a book or watching TV. You can’t appreciate it until you see it. And to see how different people live. It’s changing a bit now. But we’d hit totally different cultures and foods. I do carpenter work and I’ve seen carpenters make the same thing I make but in totally different ways, with different tools and different methods. That’s where you learn things.
So, you guys are the cool nomadic kids in your friend group.
L: We dare a little more.
M: Some of our friends don’t follow us cause they feel we’re too old. They don’t want to get off the beaten path.
L: We’ll just go and if we stop, we’ll stop. We’re a little more daring, but everyone is different. It’s still nice to get home. Then regroup, reorganize and then take off again.
Black Hills, South Dakota
by Cassia Reynolds
My friends and I stared at Mount Rushmore for the recommended 10 minutes (how long can you really look at a statue in the distance?). After we perused the equally gigantic maze of the accompanying gift store, we wandered back onto the crowded walkway where I immediately lost my buddies in the mob of tourists. I couldn’t see over the sea of shoulders (thanks again, genetics) so I climbed on top of a stone post for a better view. After a few futile minutes of scanning the masses for familiar faces, I gave up and sat down on the pedestal to wait for them.
While I waited, I flicked through the images on my camera. I noticed I’d only taken a few snapshots of the actual monument. This didn’t concern me; it was like photographing the Mona Lisa or the Statue of Liberty. Pictures just don’t do justice to an in-person visit to such a grandeur piece of history.
Instead, my memory card was chock full of photographs of random tourists who were hanging out at the national memorial. And that’s when it hit me: a profound understanding of why I felt that visiting Mount Rushmore was such an important cultural experience. The actual presidential portraits were just happenstance. It was the swarming hordes of American people who, like me, had flocked to this place, drawn by a desire to witness this historical landmark. It was the fact that though we came from totally distinct parts of the country and lifestyles, we all somehow felt so connected to Mount Rushmore that we traveled (sometimes for weeks) through plains, forests, mountains, and deserts to see it. This place was truly a crossroads of American life.
And so to conclude my Mount Rushmore series, I give you my interpretation of this American cultural experience through a collection of scenes:
The Bud Light Retirement Fund
The Classic Unhappy Toddler
The "Road Tripper Burnout" Stance
moments of reflection
Black Hills, South Dakota
by Cassia Reynolds
Disclaimer: I’m not a big fan of touristy stuff.
I still visited Mount Rushmore. It was one of those you’re-in-South-Dakota-and-you’re-NOT-going-to-do-the-one-thing-people-do-in-South-Dakota-and-for-the-love-of-the-friggin-bald-eagle-aren’t-you-American things. The image of those four dead guys chiseled into that rock has been carved into my brain since I can remember. It’s not just a national memorial. It’s the (excuse the pun) commander in chief of national memorials.
So I waited in the 45-minute car line with every other freaking road tripper in South Dakota, chipped in for the $11 parking fee, and made my way up the stone walkway to have a little face time with Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Lincoln.
And in the few hours that I spent at and around the Mount Rushmore national memorial, I had several revelations. Here’s the first.
It was a long, crowded walk from the megamall-esque parking garage to the memorial. I was attempting to dodge a herd of screaming children when a woman’s gasp pierced the air. Mutterings of awe echoed through the congregations. I peered ahead and glimpsed a large creature with shaggy white fur, sharp, curved horns, a long snout, and a heavy-set, muscular frame.
And because my natural instinct when I think that I finally have the chance to meet the Abominable Snowman is to say ‘hi,’ I scrambled past the people in front of me. I was so focused on my possible encounter that I didn’t notice the wide berth everyone else had given this furry visitor. Then I heard a child cry out, “billy goat!”
Forgive my ignorance of America’s wildlife, but I’d only ever seen mountain goats on Discovery Channel. And they just didn’t look this monstrous. Maybe because they were clambering over steep cliffs and enormous mountains, not standing in a pedestrian crosswalk. But I couldn’t help thinking in that moment that damn, I know nature in essence is beautiful, this is one ugly product of evolution.
Now that I knew it was just a goat, I was fearless (In hindsight, I’m an idiot). My camera was out and I was snapping away, quickly closing the distance between it and myself. When I was about ten feet away, I crouched down for a better angle.
The goat heard the incessant clicking of the shutter or maybe just smelled my arrogance and it turned toward me. I lifted my eye away from the viewfinder and found myself staring into the those bottomless, jet pupils.
And that’s when I heard the security guard behind me shouting at the top of his lungs. “Don’t take another step closer! Everybody stay back!”
I kept eye contact, slowly lifted my left foot, and scooched backwards. The goat took a step forward.
How sharp are those horns?
Another step toward me. And because if nothing else I am a documentarian, even if it’s of my own possible death, I noticed that the lighting was fantastic at this angle. I lifted my camera back up to my face to take another photograph.
When I dropped eye contact, the trance broke, the goat lost interest and continued on its way. I scrambled backward, dodging the annoyed security guard and shaking off the chills running down my spine.
In all seriousness, meeting this mountain goat was no joke; no encounter with a wild animal is. In the past few years, there have been more and more reported incidents of mountain goats behaving aggressively toward people. Though the first and last report of death-by-mountain-goat-goring was in Washington in 2010, the reality is that encroaching on the territory of wild animals is stupid.
I’m not sure why this mountain goat decided to wander up to a crowded memorial site (possibly for salt, which these critters are known to scavenge for), but it had obviously been around humans enough that its natural skittishness was gone. And that’s not necessarily a good thing. A huge part of what makes America’s national parks and natural landscape so incredible is the ecological diversity, the one that isn’t domesticated. Bears, mountain lions, eagles, deer; all these creatures have their own niche that defines the larger environment.
Mountain goats were introduced to South Dakota’s ranges in the 1920’s when several escaped from an enclosement in Custer State Park. Within twenty years, they had grown from a population of 10 to upwards of 400. Still, this region is technically new to these creatures. Even though men brought them to this area, it’s probably best for them to find their place in this unnatural habitat with as little extra human interaction as possible. And for the sake of science, it’s even more difficult to study the effects of an invasive species on a site if there are outside influences affecting the activities of that species. Here are some tips from the United States Department of Agriculture if you ever find yourself hiking in a goat’s environment:
- Keep your distance! Stay at least 50 yards away from them – half the length of a football field.
- If a mountain goat approaches, slowly move away from it to keep a safe distance.
- If it continues to approach, chase it off by yelling, waving a piece of clothing, or throwing rocks.
- Never surround, crowd, chase, or follow a mountain goat.
- Do not feed the mountain goats or allow them to lick your skin or backpack.
- If you need to urinate while hiking, please go away from the trail to avoid leaving concentrations of salts and minerals near the trail.
Just in case you do find yourself face-to-face with an especially irritable creature, Slate wrote an article on what you should do if attacked by a mountain goat. And as my last piece of mountain goat love, here’s a gift of absolutely adorable baby animal goodness: a video of a baby mountain goat braving rapids.