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The Petoskey News Review...
The Blondins are a family of five from Boyne City who loaded up a 34-foot motor home on Sept. 30, 1996 and headed out to see America. Together with the family dog, Mark and Betsy Blondin and their three children, Donald, 14, and twins Kelly and Stacy, 11, set out on the adventure of a lifetime with no firm agenda, no rigid schedule or travel route.
One of the many unique aspects of their voyage is that they created a web site on the Internet prior to leaving Northern Michigan. The Blondins keep track of their sights and explorations by making entries on the Internet, and classrooms and individuals across the country keep track of them by visiting their web site.
Their site is www.blondins.com
The following is an interview with the family that was conducted over the Internet. They will return to Boyne City next week.
Traveling down the road in a camper, the Blondins may appear to unsuspecting motorists as just an ordinary family and their dog on vacation.
The Boyne City family, in fact, is anything but ordinary. And their trip is not merely a vacation.
From the children's point of view, the nearly year-long adventure has meant leaving behind friends, their bedrooms, skiing and winter activities, and a regular school with all the social activities.
But in return they gained immeasurable experiences and knowledge. Traveling more in one year than most people do in a lifetime, the children have met people and made friends they never would have imagined had they stayed in a small town in Northern Michigan.
Touring some of the country's largest museums provides the three students with a wealth of knowledge. Doing their homework on the Internet for Northwest Academy Charter School in Charlevoix has completed their educations while traversing the United States.
"We are moving at an intense 'vacation' pace, going to 'school', navigating, building the Web site, and doing the mundane activities like groceries, laundry, banking, maintenance, and more," said Mark.
"It's like a job, but the hours are longer," he said.
Mark and Betsy have gained the self-gratification that their risky decision paid off for both children and family.
"The children seem to have a sense of purpose and an understanding of the importance of what we are doing," Mark said. "It helps that we have fun together."
What they are doing is turning an unplanned, unwanted mid-life career change, after searching Northern Michigan for comparable employment, into a unique opportunity for their family.
"Fueled by the probability of relocation, the desire for a hands-on educational opportunity for our children, and driven by the technology of our time, our family (including our golden retriever, Buddy) embarked on a tour of the United States."
Heading south of Michigan, the Blondin's motor home, nicknamed "the Beast," traveled to New York and down along the East Coast.
During their visit to cities like New York and Washington, D.C., they spent two weeks going non-stop into the city for entire days. These periods were intense, not much 'regular' schoolwork was accomplished, but learning did occur.
"We visited the best museums in the country, discussed a wide range of subjects, toured national treasures and came home exhausted," Mark said.
Winding their way through the southern states, eventually they ended up in the western area of the country, taking in the sights along the way. After extended trips including the Grand Canyon, the Beast made its way to the West Coast.
Leaving the Beast behind, the family crossed the Pacific and discovered paradise in Hawaii. Once back on the mainland, the Blondins toured more of the west coast, visited the Olympic Peninsula and Glacier National Park, before heading back across the continent and seeing Yellowstone, the Grand Tetons, Salt Lake City and Arches National Park. They have gone white-water rafting in Colorado, rode horses in the Badlands and are now heading home.
They are due to arrive back in Michigan this weekend, and back home in Boyne City early next week.
"From top to bottom, ocean to ocean, the United States has been both our playground and classroom," Mark said.
Traveling and living together in the motor home's 180-square feet of space, five people can get on each other's nerves, Mark admits.
"The sanity and the integrity of our family have been maintained by spending most of our time outside 'the Beast,' " he said.
The Beast has a broken hinge on the refrigerator, outside bay door handles that don't work properly, needs a wash and wax, has two dysfunctional screws that are designed to hold down the sofa and needs a spare tire.
The sleeping arrangements for them are compact. Kelly and Stacy share a fold-out coach, while Donald gets the fold-down table.
As the trip progressed, a jealousy arose over mom and dad's bed, which is pretty nice, Mark said.
"The children have adapted unbelievably well to the Beast and to the lack of routine or structure," Mark said.
The family's satellite vehicle, a 1988 Plymouth Voyager they towed behind the motor home, could also use a little tender loving care.
"If we invested about a grand in both vehicles, our confidence level would soar," Mark said earlier this year. "We need to develop a meditation chant for continuing performance from our vehicles."
Weather changes, traveling to different climates and experiencing unusual seasonal weather has added to their adventure.
"It snowed in Big Bend National Park, Texas, which happens once every 20 years or so," Mark said. "Our water froze at a campground outside New Orleans."
One of the better experiences of the trip was the week the family spent in Tucson in early February, near Saguaro National Park.
"We are now able to identify many desert plants and
animals," Mark said. "While in the area we took in the Living Desert Museum (very nice), Tombstone and Bisbee, among other places. Tucson hosts the world's largest gem show every February, and we visited several booths."
From Tucson they traveled north through Arizona to Prescott, Sedona and the Grand Canyon. Statistics show the average time spent viewing the Grand Canyon is 15 minutes. They camped three days.
Prescott is one of the many fast-growing areas in the Southwest with a beautiful, temperate climate. Sedona is a unique place famous for its red rock formations, Mark said.
"While there, we had fun tracking down the lesser known attraction Ñ energy vortexes Ñ that new age people believe supply unique energies for body and soul. These energies come in many varieties and each vortex harbors a unique form.
"Our quest took us to Boynton Canyon on an extended hike through some of the most amazing scenery of our trip, but the energy vortex remained elusive."
Simple things, such as finding gasoline, result in some of the family's biggest adventures and misadventures.
A broken hub on the car dolly as they traveled through the desert from Las Vegas to San Diego ended them in Barstow, Calif. in the middle of the Mojave Desert.
Running out of gas in the middle an Indian reservation in Northern Arizona resulted in them being ushered off the reservation by the tribal police.
But even that experience taught them to have faith in people, as the Blondins were helped by the very people they inconvenienced.
"They joined the many people we have met who go out of their way to help complete strangers," Mark said.
"We felt the police were trying their best to move us off the reservation Ð for our safety or theirs, we're still not sure."
From the brown, but beautiful desert, they traveled to Carlsbad, Calif.
"Everyone said how unusually green it was because of recent rains," Mark said. "After three weeks in the desert, we were struck by the lush terrain."
They camped overlooking the Pacific at Carlsbad State Park and caught their first, west coast, glorious sunset.
As they often do, the Blondins picked the next route depending on their collective moods and the things they've heard about sites down the road.
They formulated a plan to head as far south as possible, then make a slow trek north along the coast to Seattle. They drove to Coronado, Calif., and parked on the beach at the State Park.
"We enjoyed several days visiting San Diego, truly an American city," Mark said.
They spent several weeks in California, with its remarkable weather.
"The state is diverse and our exploration of it has added to our perception of a huge and varied state," Mark said.
"Until we saw California, Arizona had our vote for the state with the most diverse environments. After traveling up the coast, to Yosemite, through central California's gold country and to Lake Tahoe, California rules."
Hawaii, however, is their favorite.
Some problems they have encountered revolve around maintenance issues either with the motor home or the van.
"We should not complain, but minor things like a flat tire on the Beast, a dolly hub, furnace motor, a temperamental refrigerator, brake problems (still not right), belts, and motor mounts on the van add up to frustration, time, money and memories.
"Being geographically lost a majority of the time becomes something you live with and endure. It is typical for us to spend three or four days in an area taking in the sights, locating the basics, and then leaving. Lost again"
To save money, the Blondins often avoid organized campgrounds, opting instead to spend the night in museum or shopping center parking lots. Some of the unusual "campsites" include the JFK library parking lot with a beautiful view of Boston, LBJ library parking lot, Cleveland Museum of Natural History, the universities of Maine and Massachusetts and in the Battleship North Carolina museum parking lot.
"This country is bigger and more diverse than I realized," Mark said. "The ethnic groups, races, cultures, regions and interests that make up this country are our strengths and our weaknesses.
"We need to focus on what we have in common and work on that, because the many differences can drag us down into chaos."
And the voyage has not been without its sobering examples of America's downfalls.
"So many images stay with me as we travel, some of beauty or dramatic scenery and some of the ugliness or sadness in our country," Betsy said.
"Street people have a haunting effect, and we have seen them in all the major cities we have visited," she said. "Though I am eager to, I don't take pictures of them, because I don't want to invade their privacy. After all, the grocery carts they fill with bedrolls and other possessions and push down the sidewalk are their homes."
The best things about the trip are seeing new places and learning their history and, of course, meeting people, said Betsy.
"I am appreciating how much wilderness and open space we have in our country, even in or near heavily populated areas," Betsy said.
"And learning, learning, learning," she said.
Many photographs of beautiful sites have been taken, but one scene they weren't able to photograph was an evening in Yosemite National Park in March. On the same night, they saw three unforgettable sights.
"After watching Comet Hale-Bopp in the northwestern sky, we turned and witnessed the partial eclipse of the moon in the eastern sky. The shadowed moon, resembling a taupe balloon, hung suspended in a natural mystery.
"Later, we were served another delicacy. Moonlight illuminated Yosemite Falls and the 2,500-foot granite wall over which they flow enough to make them visible under the stars.
"Rushing white water and partially white granite cliffs became surreal. The entire scene could have been a movie set made of plastic and tissue paper, or a landscape on an undiscovered planet."
It is shared memories like this that make the Blondins' courageous adventure well worth it, they said.
Each family member is keeping journals, but finding time to record all the memories is not always easy.
As they envisioned the traveling adventure, the Blondins had several goals in mind.
"The educational and 'once in a lifetime' family aspects were paramount," he said.
Building an educational Web site became part of that vision. They relied on the advice and support of Eric Grandstaff at North Central Michigan College before leaving Northern Michigan.
Grandstaff directed them to several technical people in the area including, Shawn Powers of PowerNet, Dennis Hoshshield, Howard Bates and Chuck Scott of Freeway.
"After traveling much of the United States, I can say without hesitation that because of the early efforts of those people, Northern Michigan is one of the most advanced areas for Internet connection," Mark said.
The main library in New Orleans, for example, is without access.
"Granted, we found exceptions, like Scarborough, Maine, (pop. 2,600) where the librarian has a master's degree in communications, and the library had impressive access," he said. "But Northwest Michigan is a shining light. We are far beyond most of the country."
Powers helped them develop a site and provided the technical support to get them to the point of being able to build the site themselves. NCMC provided space for the Web site that made it possible.
"The technical skills came slowly for us, but by Thanksgiving, with two weeks' access to the Internet at Betsy's parents house in Florida we finally discovered the secrets," Mark said.
Using the Internet for e-mail and building the Web site has led to interesting and unique encounters while trying to find a phone line to use.
They use a national provider that has local access in a majority of large cities. They've accessed the Internet at 7-Eleven and Radio Shack stores, motels, universities, libraries, computer stores, laundromats, the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, Great Lakes Science Center, campgrounds, mailbox-type stores and many others.
"It has become a challenge, and we sometimes place bets if I can get them to do it," Mark said. "We have met some extremely helpful people along the way."
The facts that the children are attending school in Charlevoix via the Internet and that they are building the Web site have gained attention for their adventure.
"Early in our trip, we discovered that some businesses and organizations would support us with free tickets and in exchange we would provide a link from our Web site to theirs," Mark said. "We developed a 'thank you' page to show our appreciation."
The page includes Microsoft, the production company for the Broadway play "The King and I" (center aisle, fifth row seats), the JFK library, museums, a whale watching boat line, campgrounds and many more.
Another way the Web site and Internet have added to the adventure is through the e-mail messages received, Betsy said.
"There are times when we find ourselves doubting decisions or getting lonesome or a little down, and it always seems about then we receive an encouraging message from a complete stranger," Betsy said.
Someone from Canada wrote to say how much she admired the Blondins for their courage.
They received an offer from an e-mail friend to tour the capital in Salem, Ore., when they reached it. And an offer from a fellow golden retriever lover for lunch somewhere in Montana ... the list is endless.
"E-mail keeps us in touch, focused and helps to reinforce our original reasons for the trip," Betsy said.
One of the things that Mark and Donald are looking forward to when their return home is unlimited access to the Internet. Mark also misses knowing where everything is and Lake Charlevoix.
The girls miss their cats and friends, and Betsy will appreciate the comforts of their own home with a daily routine.
All five Blondins look forward to a little more elbowroom.
"Fear and insecurity for the future, money, responsibilities and other considerations provide enough of a weight for most people not to consider this kind of trip," Mark said.
"For our family, this trip has been a watershed, something we will always remember. After the bills are paid, the fears quieted, and the future told, this adventure is forever. Don't hesitate if it is possible do something like this with your family.
"After the first six months on the road, we would tell other families who consider this kind of trip that if they want to do it, they should. It is incredible. Sometimes it feels as though we're living a dream Ð and we are!
"We are extremely glad we are making the trip and will never regret it. About the time we reached Texas, I felt that if for some reason the trip had to end, I would be happy and proud we made it that far."
More about the Blondins' adventures can be learned at www.blondins.com
Betsy Blondin Mark Blondin Assignment America
Betsy Blondin Mark Blondin Assignment America