As newlyweds in the mid-1990s, Angela and Brian Gustafson served in the Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic, where they had no running water and rats were regular houseguests. Even that didn’t prepared them for the challenges and joys of their current mission: to visit — and nab a family photo in — all 50 states with their children, sons Zach (age 14), Wyatt (12) and Trey (11) and daughter Keegan (8). We talked to the well-traveled Minneapolitans just before they headed out on their latest jaunt, to California, Oregon and Washington.
Q: How did this idea come about?
A: Brian had a roommate in college who had visited all 50 states with his family growing up. We thought about copying that idea before having kids. The unique twist of getting an actual family photo in each state became a fun way to visually track our progress. We purchased a license plate map of the United States to hang in our basement family room, and then display the state photos as we accumulate them.
Q: How do the photos influence your travel decisions?
A: We always try to visit someplace iconic or unique in each state for the photo. But sometimes it comes down to where we can get cooperation for a family shot and whether or not the volunteer photographer we flag down can get the job done! It’s fun trying to figure out what those iconic places might be. For instance, it was easy getting something iconic in Massachusetts (Fenway Park) and Arizona (Grand Canyon), whereas in Kansas we went with something unique and took the family photo at Moon Marble Company (the only store in the country where you can buy toy marbles, and watch the handmade marbles being made).
Q: Is every state truly worth a visit? Do you sometimes hop over the border for a quick snapshot?
A: Most trips have a similar pattern. We fly to one state, rent a van, visit iconic and unique destinations of a few states, and then fly back to MSP from another state. For example, last year we flew to Washington, D.C., and spent four nights (photos taken at the U.S. Capitol and at the National Cathedral). From D.C., we took partial day trips in our rented van to visit Maryland (photos in Annapolis at the Naval Academy and the Clara Barton house), Harpers Ferry, W. Va. (photo taken on the Appalachian Trail), and Virginia (photo at Arlington National Cemetery). We then traveled south through North Carolina (photo taken at Duke University’s Cameron Indoor Stadium), and spent our last three nights on Seabrook Island, S.C. (photo taken in the Atlantic Ocean).
Every state has a lot to offer. So far we’ve visited 31 states and only once or twice did we feel like we were just whizzing through for the photo opportunity. Usually we are able to either spend enough time in the state or build some connection with the photo site that it makes it memorable. An example is Oklahoma, where we just drove through between staying in Houston and Fayetteville, Ark. We came across an elderly gentleman selling melons on the side of the road. We spent time visiting with him about the area, and ultimately we sat on his truck next to the melons for our photo. Also, college campuses make for great stopping points. Each one has something special to offer and every state has them. Outside of the Midwest, we’ve walked around several, including Yale, Dartmouth and Harvard. Major league ballparks are also winners, and unique business or factory tours can be memorable.
Q: Tell me about some highlights.
A: We’re a family of six, and each person would probably give you a different personal highlight of all the trips so far. Some of those would include: Visiting extended family and friends along the way. Swimming in the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean (in Galveston, Texas; Cape Cod, Mass., and Seabrook Island, S.C.). Unique hole-in-the-wall restaurants, beloved by the locals, like Ben’s Chili Bowl in D.C. Mount Washington Resort in New Hampshire (and the drive through that state and Vermont). Fenway Park in Boston, the Houston Space Center and the Grand Canyon, and staying at the El Tovar Lodge there.
Q: What was the most states visited in one trip?
A: The granddaddy trip so far was six new states when we visited New England 2010. We went to Rhode Island and took a picture on the steps of the State Capitol building in Providence; to Connecticut, where we took a photo at Yale University with the Yale mascot, Handsome Dan; to Vermont, where we took a photo outside the Grafton Village Cheese Company; to New Hampshire, where we got a photo in front of the Mount Washington Resort; to Maine, where the photo was snapped at Red’s Eats in Wiscasset (home of Maine’s No. 1 lobster roll) and at the L.L. Bean store in Freeport; and to Massachusetts, where we took a photo at Fenway Park during a Red Sox game.
Q: What has been your favorite trip?
A: Every trip has had some great highlights. Maybe the best one so far was the New England trip or last year’s, visiting the sites of Washington, D.C., seeing the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery, hiking the Appalachian Trail, getting on the floor of the Duke basketball court, seeing dolphins swimming in the Charleston Bay and swimming in the ocean at Seabrook Island, S.C.
Q: What’s been difficult?
A: Spending seven to 10 days together in close quarters, driving hundreds of miles in single days, in multiple cities, and lodgings certainly challenges family civility at times. Don’t kid yourself that it’s all going to be perfect — it won’t be. I’ll never forget the drive home from the Badlands of South Dakota. We decided to do it all in one day. This was our first trip and the kids were young. It was the worst ride we’ve ever had — too long, too tired after a week of visiting multiple states, too hot, and so on. Our neighbors came over as soon as they saw us pull into the driveway. They took one look into our eyes and heard the kids in the car and said, “Oh my!”
On the New England trip, Angie read about a lobster shack in Wiscasset, Maine [Red’s Eats]. Well, you can’t leave Maine without that, can you? We drove hours out of our way to get there and waited nearly two hours in line to get served. Once our lobster rolls finally came, all but Angie gave the thumbs down. Who ever heard of cold lobster? Angie ended up eating about three lunches so that not as much went to waste, and the rest of us ended up walking across the street and getting a bunch of candy from a gift shop. It’s become a legendary story in the family, with the exaggeration for how long we drove and how long we waited in line getting a bit bigger with each passing year.