LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) - The Thomas family’s Great American itinerary did not include two months parked at a Baldwin City motel, but here they are.
Before the family sold their home and most of their possessions to embark on their new nomadic life, they listed- and planned for- a lot that could go wrong.
A deadly pandemic that would shut down the country was not on that list. Nor was it even in their wildest imagination as they began their journey across the U.S. in their new abode, a fifth-wheel that, fortuitously, cost “the exact same amount” that their house in Georgia had netted.
The Thomases’ odyssey started in the dead of winter. Ben and Courtney, after years of dreaming- beginning when they met as students at Emporia State University- hit the road in January with their two young sons.
For Ben, 37, who grew up in Lawrence, the new life was especially freeing. Instead of being on the road each day commuting to work, he was on the road planning adventures with his family- national parks, historic cities, famous festivals, Disney World.
“I had been missing milestones with my kids,” he said of his hectic job as an associate real estate broker, which had him working long hours and commuting three hours daily in traffic-clogged Atlanta.
He had also been missing sleep. In fact, Ben had become so adept at sleep deprivation that in 2018 he went on the Netflix game show “Awake: The Million Dollar Game” and won. The nearly $200,000 jackpot- for a skill he never valued, going without sleep- has helped him to do the thing he values most: exploring the world with his family.
Courtney did not have to be persuaded. She had worked at home for years, also in a job related to real estate, and looked after the kids- Indy, 4, and Ridley, 2.
Indy is named after Indiana Jones, the fictional adventurer, and Ridley is named after Ridley Scott, who directed “Blade Runner” and “Thelma and Louise,” among other adventure films. “We’re big fans,” Ben explained.
Courtney, 35, was so enthralled by the idea of a footloose life that she spent her free time drawing up plans for converting school buses into mobile homes.
In the end they opted for a 2017 Heartland Gateway.
“We sold almost everything that couldn’t fit in the fifth wheel,” Ben said of the 400-square-foot vehicle.
The long-term plan was to explore indefinitely.
“We’re doing this until we find home,” Ben said, noting that both of them had lived “in lots of places,” especially Courtney, who came from a military family. “We don’t know where we want to live because we haven’t seen it all.”
The short-term plan was to venture clockwise around the country until November, when they planned to be in Staten Island for Ben to run the New York City Marathon. The famous race, if it still happens, will celebrate its 50th anniversary this year, and Ben, an avid runner, was eager to be a part of that. In order to qualify he has been raising money for a charity called Happiness is Camping, which is a summer camp in New Jersey for children with cancer.
The short-term plan was going smoothly. The family, after jaunts to historic Charleston, S.C., and Disney World, headed west, hitting Mardi Gras in New Orleans and the Alamo in San Antonio, reconnecting along the way, Ben said, “with people we hadn’t seen in years.”
The Chihuahuan Desert of New Mexico delighted the kids, who got to explore the fairy landscape of Carlsbad Caverns and the towering dunes of White Sands National Park. Ben and Courtney meanwhile were over the moon to see the notorious site of the Roswell “UFO incident” in New Mexico.
By the end of winter, though, as the family pressed westward, the scope of the coronavirus outbreak was becoming apparent, with the World Health Organization declaring it a pandemic on March 11.
“We made it as far as Arizona before the pandemic really set in and we were faced with campsite and state park closures,” Ben said. “We were afraid they would begin stopping travelers and even start closing state borders, and we didn’t want to get stuck in a state with nowhere to go.”
So they turned their house around and headed east, “back to a familiar area near my home town of Lawrence and my mom,” Ben told the Lawrence Journal-World.
The family found a motel in Baldwin City with RV hookups, and they’ve been biding their time there for the last two months.
Quarantine in a 400-square-foot fifth wheel with four people is a real experience, Ben admitted, especially with “potty training, school work for the kids and working three virtual jobs.” (He and Courtney both still work remotely in the real estate and accounting fields).
But they’ve put the delay to good use.
“We’ve used this time to renovate our rig, paint everything from brown to a bright white,” Ben said. “We’ve also replaced all of the big bulky brown furniture with more modern, lighter seating, ripped out bunks and created office space.”
And he’s been physically active, running at least five days a week.
On a recent Sunday, as part of his training, he participated in what’s called a virtual half marathon. The running itself was real in his case, 13 miles through the streets of Lawrence, including his “all-time favorite street, Massachusetts,” but competitors all around the globe ran alone and posted their times online.
He hopes that on Nov. 1 he will have run twice that distance and will be celebrating in New York’s Central Park with thousands of runners who have crossed the finish line in the world’s largest marathon.
But that’s six months away, and right now he’s focused on this week.
As the country begins to reopen, the family plans to unplug from their motel and get back on the road by Friday.
“After being stationary for two months, we will set out again,” Ben said, this time toward Idaho, where Courtney has family. It will be a different journey with masks, social distancing and endless hand-washing, but it will still be their dream.
“Campsites are open, some with restrictions, and a few state parks are beginning to open,” Ben said. “As long as we can get back outside into nature, we’ll have everything we need.”
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