The Ride of His Life

Rolling Family Reunion Reaps Lessons of Life, Love and Legacy

Journalist Mike Leonard packed up his parents, Jack and Marge, his wife, and their grown kids for the trip of a lifetime – a rolling, cross-country RV adventure that brought everyone closer together. His book documents the bigger life lessons learned along the way.

What was he thinking?

Mike Leonard took a sabbatical from his job with NBC news to embark on a five-week, cross-country odyssey. Heartsick that his elderly parents seemed unhappy and stagnant after a move to a retirement community, Leonard packed them up, along with his wife and grown kids, into two rental RVs and hit the road.

His goal? Take his live-wire parents on a sentimental journey, seeing new parts of the country, revisiting old haunts and reconnecting. The trip achieved that, and then some.

“Sometimes you don’t get to read the label of your parents’ lives,” Leonard said. “Life goes by too fast. But when you have nothing to do but read the label, you begin to know every ingredient. This trip was like that.”

You may have caught some of Leonard’s funny, sometimes poignant reports from the road on NBC’s Today Show. But that was only part of the story. The trek has also spawned a book about life, family and love of the open road.

In the meantime, Leonard heard from hundreds of people who realized that they’ve been missing an opportunity, either vowing to attempt a similar trek or simply wishing that they’d thought to do it years ago.

We caught up with Leonard recently to reflect on the experience and what he gained from it. The Ride of Our Lives: Roadside Lessons of an American Family, (Ballentine Books, paperback).

Before you came up with the wild idea to take two RVs on a cross-country trek – along with your parents and kids – you knew very little about RVs. What was your impression of the RV world before you actually jumped into it?

I was always kind of fascinated with the idea. So many of the stories I’ve done for NBC are in regular, small town communities. I like those kinds of communities, but didn’t always enjoy the process of going to them – slogging through the airport, renting a car… it made the journey more difficult. I always wished there was a way to roll through those other places, to discover things I didn’t know existed when you drive past them.

I have four kids, so I could never do what Charles Kurault did. I always felt that everyone had a story there to discover, but you have to see them to discover them. You can’t do that with a guidebook.

The problem was that I’d never driven an RV. Not even pulled a travel trailer. We’re not a camping family. The thought (to do it) just came to me. When my parents moved to this rental home, they couldn’t walk anywhere and an RV represented mobility. I just thought it would be kind of interesting. Dad was 87 at the time. Mom was 82. I didn’t want to schlep them through airports. This way we could drive a few hours, stop, interact with people – which my Dad loves to do.

Also, meeting people who were not their own age group and background was stimulating.

At the time, there was no book in mind. I was just going to do it and videotape it for us. But in the back of my mind I thought it was a really good story – the story of every family.

What was the biggest surprise about adapting to the RV lifestyle?

Just the sense of, “Wow, I’m driving this big bus, making the right turns!” I don’t live in the city. I’m not a commuter. I work in my house. My mom is terrified of riding in the backseat of a car. This was a Big Rig.

I was more interested in driving the wide open spaces, which was fun. It was easier after a day of it. Couldn’t believe you get about an hour of training and then they let you loose. But once you had a sense of size, it was easier. In high wind situations, you just have to pull off and let it pass. But there was a lesson in there, too, about not being in a hurry. We shared driving, which helped. Of course, we crashed one (of the RVs) 30 minutes after we started (damage to a storage compartment at a gas station), but that was OK. It was early in the journey, relatively minor.

Your experience emphasizes that families need to spend time together to understand their own legacies. Did you have an idea when you embarked on this mission that there was something deeper to be found here?

I always do things from a gut feeling. I knew it would be good; didn’t know it would be a good chance to spin yarns. I’m not a big TV watcher, and loved the fact that when the kids were growing up, when they were at home, we always had dinner together. It was a good time to converse, and great things came across the table.

In an RV, there was really no other place to go. We’d eat our meals in the RV. The conversations followed.

For my 19-year-old son to learn about what the Depression or World War II was like for an average person, the day-to-day Ken Burns-type stories – you just have to keep hitting the pump handle on that information and great stuff comes out.

In our lives now, we’re separate, hurried, not a lot of time to sit around and talk. In fact, a lot of the conversations happen when you are moving down the road. Things you would see would spur conversations, spur thoughts. At the time I thought it was an amazing experience. I’ve heard from so many people since then who’ve decided to give it a try.

The thing is, the book isn’t just about RVs; it’s about life. The RV was the vehicle that got us across the country. Just as you need an instrument to make music, we needed a vehicle. It wouldn’t have happened any other way. The changing scenery changed discussions.

Five weeks went by quickly. There were relatively few scary moments, other that my mom screaming in the backseat as we were going over a bridge. The biggest surprise was how comfortable it was to sleep (in an RV). All of us said we’ve never slept better. A couple times we ended up going into hotels because of certain situations, but nobody could sleep. It was much more quiet than I thought. The beds and environment were comfortable. That was the biggest surprise. To hear the rain on the roof was great.

A couple of times we were in state parks that were kind of spooky, which was kind of funny. We imagined everything out there, including werewolves. Darkness freaks us all out, anyway. So if WE can do the RV experience, anybody can. I mean, I was out there with an 87-year-old man! I decided that if he died on the road, at least he died with his boots on.

What experiences will remain with you? Do you think more people should be willing to take a chance like you took, given the rewards?

I realize there is so much more to see. People sit around and ask themselves, “Where do we go this year?”

We’ve been to Charleston, the Alamo… but there are so many neat places in between. It’s the regional factor – being in Bayou Country, the Rockies, New England, just hearing the accents, talking to locals, going into small town squares, sitting in a diner. All of that made me thirst for more. I could do this every year and not run out of places to go.

It made me realize how much “out there” is out there.

When people say, “I don’t have much time,” I say, “Fine, go a couple hundred miles from where you live; you won’t believe what you’ll find.”

The other part is, you end up there and together. It becomes a shared experience. People say, “I couldn’t do it; we’d be at each other’s throats.” Don’t let it bother you. Things get tense? Change the subject. It’s not as if there’s no chance to change it.

You start to realize how easy it is to not be bugged. There’s no place to go; there’s no escape you have to make it good. That was my job; I’d change the subject. I’d say, “What about this?” We’d divert the conversation and interesting stuff came out.

You realize what a wealth of information is around us and in us. We found out stuff about my parents that we never knew, and they’re my parents. My kids learned stuff about our country and history they’d never learn in a book. You just have to find a way to pump that fountain.

It ended up being the best trip any of us took. I’d do it again in a second. Since I did it, I’ve gotten hundreds of letters from people around the country who found me, told me they were inspired, saying “I wish I’d done this,” or “I’m doing it,” or “I’m doing something like it.”

You rented RVs for your road trip. Would you consider owning one?

If I could, I would. Right now, I’m too busy to even contemplate it. We have this production company, and people are wanting us to do work for them. I’m being pulled in a lot of directions. But it’s for a finite amount of time, and then you get back to normal. In a perfect world, if I had what I don’t have now – time and space to park an RV – I would buy one and go out often. In fact, who knows? Because of the way this is and some projects people are talking about doing, I may get there.

There was so much to like about it. It’s like being at home, but looking out the window and seeing a new neighborhood everyday. That was a neat thing. Everyone longs for the comfort of home but has the itch of seeing what’s over the next hill. This (RV) was the compromise. We had our musical instruments, video equipment, baseball mitts, and food, but the neighborhood kept changing.

These days your parents live closer. Did the road experience influence that?

My parents now live about 20 minutes away from me. It’s been interesting for them. Everyday they go to a restaurant and somebody stops them. They’re not people who would have gone through life recognized. It’s the journey, but it’s the journey through life that inspires people. My dad is 90 now. This is his swan song; he’s heading down the other side of the hill right now. He’s probably read the book 15 times, and keeps going back to that journey. My parents both say it was their greatest adventure.


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  • I read this post the other day and was in total awe and forgot to cmoment! Definitely a magical spot and putting on my list of places to visit. I always forget about it!

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