The Ultimate Road Trip: One Local Family’s Year off the Grid

By Connie Barnard

The Ultimate Road Trip: One Local Family’s Year off the Grid

Scott and Beth McNew’s friends and associates all agree: nobody saw it coming. “At first we were shocked,” their close friends Pete and Chris DeSantis confide as they recount Beth’s visit to their home to share her family’s plans to spend the next twelve months camping across North America. “The shock came not only from the fact that we’d never thought of Beth and Scott as campers – but also the enormity of doing it full time for a year!”

On August 15, 2013, Beth, Scott and their children, Delaney age 11 and Declan age 5, rolled out of Myrtle Beach in what would be their home for the next 12 months: a Ford 350 Super Duty Diesel truck with a Jayco Eagle 5th wheel travel trailer in tow. During this life-changing experience, the young family visited 39 states, stayed at 80 different campgrounds and put 30,000 miles on that new Ford truck, completing their adventure just in time to celebrate the 4th of July at home with family. Looking back on the year, Beth laughs and says, “I was a pioneer with a microwave!”

In truth, the adventure was not as impulsive as it might seem. “It was something we had talked about for a long time but in a someday kind of way,” she says. “Later we started considering it more seriously but held off due to a long list of practical considerations.” Then one day in March of 2013, Scott looked at Beth and said, “Let’s do it!” Over the next five months, the McNews leased out their home to friends, arranged the details of Scott’s sabbatical from his commercial real estate firm, said good-bye to a host of family and friends and began their incredible year-long road trip across America.

The Ultimate Road Trip: One Local Family's Year off the Grid

“The timing of the trip was right for our family” Beth says. “Our kids won’t always want to hang out with us. We wanted to expand their horizons in ways you just can’t do in a brief summer vacation.” The McNews also recognized a deep need to take a break from a lifestyle she referred to as the race to nowhere. “It seemed like we were in a constant contest to win the prize for being busy – all good and worthy things, but they had taken over our lives. We felt the need to reduce our family’s consumerism mentality and spend more time outside with each other in God’s creation.” Discouraged by public school trends toward too much testing, too much homework and too little quality, the McNews also wanted better control of their children’s education for a while. A former teacher, Beth looked forward to developing a home school curriculum for each of her children built around their first-hand experiences.

Fortunately, through the magic of Wi-Fi, they were able to stay in close touch with home. Beth’s online blog, “McNew Family USA Road Trip,” made it possible for friends and family to travel vicariously in their shoes and be assured they were okay. “When we received an e-mail notice about a new posting,” Chris DeSantis remembers, “we would huddle around the computer like families did around the radio in the days before television. Each week we could see how experiencing the adventure together was strengthening their relationship with each other and with God.”

Though Beth had limited experience in this new rugged way of life, Scott had camped during summer breaks with his parents who were educators. They had a general idea of the places they wanted to see but purposely did not lock themselves into a rigid itinerary. “For us, it seemed best not to over-plan,” Beth explained. “When you put it on paper, it just doesn’t work. We had a general time line which included touring the West and Northwest before cold set in and getting to California by December in order to fly home to South Carolina for Christmas with our family. Then we flew back and trekked the camper through the Southwest and Deep South in time for Easter with family in Conway. The final leg took us north to New England and Quebec.”

Following a general pattern of visits to significant scenic and historic sites interspersed with opportunities to re-connect with friends and family around the country, the McNews first headed to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Pigeon Forge, then visited the graves of Scott’s grandparents in Greenville, Tennessee. From there they headed through the Midwest with plans to reach the westernmost states before winter weather set in. “For me, perhaps one of the greatest surprises was the vast amount of empty space in the middle of the country. We drove miles and miles with nothing but corn fields out our window. There were few fast food franchises or even gas stations and convenience stores. I took advantage of these hours to do school work with the children.” She adds that the lack of accessible fast food and shopping probably contributed to healthier eating and less spending. “The children quickly adjusted to this, and I soon realized that having the time together was important to them as well. Monetary treats were limited to an occasional candy bar and a few carefully selected mementos. We celebrated birthdays with handmade cards and simple, creative celebrations – memories we’ll always treasure.”

Asked about the specifics of her home school curriculum, Beth says she joined Vine and Branches Home Educators, (VBHE), a local home school association through which she maintained Delany and Declan’s records. She hand-selected the children’s texts using the Charlotte Mason nature-based curriculum guide. Delany took violin lessons via “oovoo” (much like Skype) and French, music and history lessons on CDs. The most creative aspect, however, was giving their children first-hand knowledge of American geography and history. In each area of the country, Delaney studied classic American novels related to its setting. At Yellowstone, the children had a hands-on science lesson about thermal dynamic activity, watching amazing geysers erupt like clockwork. They even studied a chapter about the Grand Canyon while visiting it in person!

Of course, each moment of the trip was not perfect, and living so closely together intensified every aspect. There were hitches along the way but no major disasters. Illnesses were limited to colds and stomach bugs, and technical bobbles to losing their hot water supply for a few days. Winter weather came sooner and stronger than anticipated. “We experienced our first snow at the Grand Tetons in late September. The wildest snow experience, however, was a week later in Scotts Bluff, Nebraska,” Beth says. “It was unlike anything we’d ever seen – blowing sideways, stinging our cheeks and freezing our hands. We woke up to discover icicles inside our windowsill! The next day, however, temps were in the 50s with clear blue skies.”

The Ultimate Road Trip: One Local Family's Year off the Grid

The only potentially serious incident occurred on the last leg of the trip in upstate New York en route to Niagara Falls. They sensed something was a bit off balance with the camper then realized that passengers in other cars were waving them over. Scott pulled off the highway to discover that the camper had lost its back tire and the axle was dragging. Amazingly, at the very next exit was a rare sign for a Hampton Inn and a service station. They were able to have repairs done and get back on the road two days later.

In her on-line blog Beth provided a running commentary on the variety of campgrounds and campers who frequent them. National parks were their favorite, and the “America the Beautiful” $80 annual pass gave the family full use of any national park in the United States. At the other end of the spectrum was a tiny campsite in a Midwest cornfield which charged 25 cents for a six minute shower! In between, they discovered a wide assortment of commercial campgrounds, many with full recreational and entertainment facilities, others more of the mom and pop variety. Over their year’s journey, through trial and error the McNews became adept at spotting campgrounds built adjacent to airport runways, train tracks and sewer lines!

Asked which places they found most memorable along the way, the McNew family unanimously agreed that Yellowstone was a definite favorite. Beth was also greatly touched by Montana’s quiet beauty where she saw more horses than people. Declan liked visiting the battlefields, particularly the Custer Memorial, and learning to snowboard, while Delaney loved the quaintness of Maine and getting to ski at Lake Tahoe. For very different reasons, the McNews will also remember a certain spot in the California desert. Clemson alums, Scott and Beth, along with the kids, posed for a photo wearing full orange regalia in what they half-seriously refer to as “the other” Death Valley.

All too soon the family’s journey was over. “Now that we are home again,” Beth says, “It almost seems like a dream.” Yet even as they fall back into familiar routines, Beth vows to hold on to the sense of calm they experienced on this journey that so enriched each of their lives. A few days after their return, Declan asked his mom when they were going back to the camper! Katie Bence, Beth’s closest friend since their days together at Conway Middle School, says, “When I learned about their plans, I was so surprised. Yet on another level, I completely got it. Beth is solid to the core. She saw this as an opportunity for quality time with her family before it slips away. Most of us can’t do this on the same scale, but we can all learn through their experience.”

Readers may view details of the McNews trip through Beth’s on-line blog:

About this writer

  • Connie BarnardConnie Barnard traveled the world as a military wife and taught high school and college composition for over 30 years. She has been a regular contributor to Sasee since its first issue in 2002.

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