Washougal family makes most of pandemic, hits the road

Dryden family's homeschooling road trip covers 45 states in four months

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Washougal residents Andy and Heidi Dryden take a photo with their children Eli and Johnny at Big Bend National Park in southern Texas. (Contributed photo courtesy Heidi Dryden)

Washougal resident Andy Dryden started talking with his wife, Heidi, about embarking on a cross-country road trip last summer after he learned that he would be working remotely and their two young sons would be learning remotely in the fall because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We sold our house right at the end of summer, so we thought, ‘Let’s get an RV and go on a big trip. We won’t have an opportunity like this for a while,'” said Andy, an engineering professor at Mount Hood Community College in Gresham, Oregon. “I’ve always wanted to drive around the country.”

They purchased a 1984 Winnebebago, set out from their Washougal home on Sept. 25, 2020. The family returned to Washougal nearly four months later, on Jan. 15, after visiting 45 states and part of Mexico.

“We had a great time,” Andy said. “This was a unique opportunity to be able to have a job and stay in school and travel, so we jumped at it. I kind of relate it to backpacking. I used to love backpacking because you carry everything on your back that you need to survive. We drove a 1984 RV. It wasn’t fancy, it wasn’t super-cool, but it had everything we needed, and there was something pretty simple about that that we just really enjoyed.”

And, as Heidi put it, “quarantining in a camper while seeing the United States beats quarantining in your mother-in-law’s basement.”

The trip developed out of the Drydens’ original plan to travel from Deadhorse, Alaska, one of the northernmost points in North America to Patagonia, one of the southernmost points in South America.

“Two years ago, we did a portion of that trip. We drove from here all the way to the Arctic, and it was a blast,” Andy said. “We were going to do the Central and South America part of that trip (this year), but because of COVID, we couldn’t do that, so we decided to do the U.S. states.”

The Drydens slept in the Winnebago — which they affectionately nicknamed “Iggy” — every night for the first three months of their trip, taking advantage of their memberships with Boondockers Welcome, an online community that facilitates free overnight RV parking on private property; and Harvest Host, a travel club that offers self-contained RVers opportunities to stay overnight at wineries, farms and other attractions across North America.

“That was a delight,” Andy said. “People were kind to us in so many ways. The last three months have been pretty divisive in our country, so it was wonderful to be able to travel and meet — from a distance — people from all walks of life, political persuasions, religions and all sorts of things. To be able to connect with them and realize the commonality we have and the diversity in the United States was really encouraging.”

The Drydens didn’t have any set plans other than to be in Maine as soon as they could to see New England’s famous fall foliage up close and Texas by late November to visit friends for Thanksgiving.

“I’ve lived in different places, so to visit different friends and (former) roommates and people that I know who are spread around the United States was fun,” Heidi said. “(But) my favorite thing was just having the family together.”

Andy drove three to five hours per day while Heidi helped their sons, Eli, 10, and Johnny, 8, with their schoolwork.

“One of my main roles was to home-school the kids, so I enjoyed that we had the motorhome because I could move around the table with them while they were doing schoolwork while we were driving,” Heidi said. “I was more focused on helping them because I didn’t have other things that I had to be doing. We were studying slavery, so we had a lot of fun learning about the Southern culture. We had studied Plymouth Rock, and we drove through there. It was fun to put stuff that we (saw) along (the way) with what the kids were learning.”

They witnessed a rocket launch in Cape Canaveral, Florida. They trekked through the Luray Caverns, one of the United States’ largest cave systems, near Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. They learned how to make maple syrup in Maine and harvest pecans in Arkansas. They listened to a retired driller talk about the history of off-shore oil rigging while visiting “Mr. Charlie,” the world’s first transportable submersible drilling rig, in Morgan City, Louisiana. And they visited several museums, including two of Eli’s favorites — the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., and the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in Dearborn, Michigan.

The Drydens said they were profoundly affected by their stop in Montgomery, Alabama, where they visited The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, which displays the history of slavery and racism in America, and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which commemorates the Black victims of lynchings in the United States.

“(The monument is) a documentation of the racist past of the South and hope for the future,” Andy said. “It was incredibly moving. We really enjoyed seeing that.”

Heidi was struck on a personal level by what she saw in Montgomery.

“There were different plaques about where people had been lynched,” she said. “I went to college in Illinois and had done some volunteering in East St. Louis, Illinois, so to see there had been a massacre in East St. Louis (was unsettling). We are so far removed from slavery here in the north, so to see, ‘Wow, it was right there where I used to go,’ was moving.”

They drove through or stopped in every continental state except Nevada, Iowa and Nevada.

“We didn’t actually set out to hit as many states as we (did),” Andy said, “so when we were by Nebraska and Iowa, we were only an hour away, but we kept going, and at the end when we realized how close we were (to seeing all of the states), we kicked ourselves.”

After one of the boys expressed an interest in learning how to sail once they got to Mexico, Andy and Heidi purchased a boat in Denver, Colorado, hitched it to a trailer and towed it behind them.

“On the first or second day that we had the trailer, we were driving through a big mountain pass, and we heard a squeaking noise,” Johnny said. “My dad thought it was from the truck in front of us, but it was our trailer. The axle (had) broke. So we have a new axle on it.”

Other than that, they didn’t experience a lot of mechanical troubles over the course of their 18,000-mile trip, which required 2,103 gallons of fuel.

“It was pretty smooth,” Andy said. “The RV ran great. And it was super quarantine-friendly because we could make our own food, we had a bathroom and we slept there.”

Even though they’re glad to be home, the family is already planning their next big adventure, which will probably take them to Argentina so they can finally complete their Alaska-to-Patagonia trip.

“When we drove to Alaska a few years ago, we found that we love camping and the people that you meet camping, especially going a long ways away from home because you meet other people that are a long ways away from home,” Andy said. “(This trip) was a fantastic educational experience to see our world. I think it’s important to try to expose our kids to people from all sorts of walks of life. This was a great opportunity to be able to do that.”