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The $100 road trip of a lifetimeThe $100 road trip of a lifetime

My Generation: Here’s what happens when three teenage boys have a dream, an RV and a lot of hope.

Holly Spangler

July 21, 2023

21 Slides

“Mom,” he giggled, “you’re really gonna appreciate this!”

It was 10 o’clock at night on a Sunday in June, and I could hear my son and his buddies laughing in the background, the way 18-year-old boys do when they’re together, speaking their own language and maybe accidentally in the wrong country.

“You woulda done the same thing!” one of them yelled in the background, laughing so hard I could hear him doubling over.

Turns out, they did leave the country. On accident. In a rickety RV, on an epic road trip across the country.

The back story

Last fall, my son, Nathan, and his two best pals since birth convinced three sets of parents to let them buy a 1991 RV for $2,250. The very aspirational plan: Fix it up, head out on the trip of a lifetime after graduation, sell it for a profit. A simple strategy, in every way you might imagine.

We agreed, and three boys swooned like they’d met the girl of their dreams. They named her Bessy, put three new tires on her, repainted her inside and out, and ripped out the carpet. (“There’s a blood stain on it.”)

One day last fall, they took Bessy to school at lunch and created a panic. Turns out the principals thought she might harbor a threat. Two principals, the football coach and the janitor cautiously made their way toward the RV.

“Hey, Mr. Butcher!” Nathan called out, popping his head out the door. Mr. Butcher was, at that moment, the most relieved high school principal you’ve ever seen. Just Bessy and the boys, casually eating pizza.

At Christmas, they lit her up with lights and took her for a spin in the local parade. Cousin Eddie rode on the back, obviously. Nobody loves that like a small town: “The boys win Christmas!”

For graduation, Bessy made it to the senior bonfire and was the main attraction at the boys’ graduation party. Their friends walked through and dropped in dollars for Epic Road Trip gas money, please and thank you, she only gets 10 miles per gallon.

So much hope

By mid-June, they had the semblance of a route planned out. Up to Niagara Falls, down to Virginia Beach, over to Nashville, back home. Hopefully. I had mental notes of who we knew in which states who could help them when they needed it.

To be honest, the parents weren’t sure they’d make it out of Illinois. Poor Bessy hadn’t driven more than 50 miles at a time since they brought her home. One dad told them to pack the title and prepare to abandon if necessary. He’s a commercial pilot; realistic contingency plans are his jam.

So with a lot of prayer and even more hope, they rolled out on a Saturday. By Sunday, at a max speed of 60 miles per hour, they’d crossed four state lines and made it to New York. Believe me when I say no one was more surprised than us.

Which brings us back to that phone call with three boys who couldn’t stop laughing.

Apparently, there’s a place in Buffalo where you can easily make a wrong turn onto a one-way bridge to Canada. No turning back. And you know the last thing I told them before they left? “Don’t leave the country, boys, you don’t have passports.”

Right there on the one-way bridge, they realized the error of their ways and Nathan hopped out to try to explain their way out. Then he heard it: “HEY! STOP!”

He turned and looked, and there was a U.S. Border Patrol agent. With a gun. He was not laughing.

They had to go to Canada.

But the nice Canadian lady did laugh and said they had to search the RV. And the boys nervously laughed and said, “OK, but we have guns, knives and no passports!”

The Canadians sent them back to America. Bessy got another search by U.S. Border Patrol, and they all took a selfie, and obviously, they’ll tell this story for the rest of their lives.

Highs and lows

They’ll also tell you Niagara is underwhelming.

“Turns out you have to pay to see the good spots. We’re too cheap for that. So it was just lots of water,” Nathan says. They learned Pennsylvania has mountains and Bessy overheats.

At one point, Nathan called to tell me about the hills, the constant rain, the leaking roof, two cans of Flex Seal, the wet mattress propped up across a trash can and a broom, how the bathroom cabinet fell off the wall onto JD, and how it rained on them in Atlantic City.

“So. Morale is low,” he summarized.

But then they found Virginia Beach! And sunshine! They drove through a tunnel and blew their airhorn from Walmart. The speedometer got stuck for a few hundred miles. They camped cheap and stayed in Walmart parking lots. They survived on hot dogs and pizza rolls, and they played airsoft with a hundred ex-Marines. They went to a couple of museums.

In Tennessee, one mom sprang for a hotel one night (with a real shower!) and I Venmo’d them money for a decent meal. They ate like kings at Texas Roadhouse and they’re big fans of Nashville.

Most unbelievably of all, they didn’t have a single breakdown. Somewhere around Nashville, they discovered a sheared-off bolt on the alternator, and they didn’t have the right tool to get the bolt out. Their fix? Vice grips. Perfectly redneck yet effective. And baling wire in case they came loose, because who wants to lose a good pair of vice grips?

By golly, it got them home.

The big sale

Back home, they were basic celebrities, famous in a small town. Turns out, everyone loves a road trip and why not? Those three boys are already legends to a younger group of boys, hatching their own road trip plans. Everywhere we went, folks asked about them. They’ve got a million stories, and plenty they’ll never tell their parents. Just the way it should be.

And then they found a buyer for Bessy, as two ladies from Missouri gave them $5,250 for her. I’ve never seen my son smile bigger or look more relieved.

Friends, they may not have made a profit, but they came close. With $1,100 in repairs, $1,100 in gas, plus food and tolls, this whole experience cost them $100 each.

One hundred cash dollars. God bless America. When will they ever have another adventure like this one for $100?

It’s as priceless as the stories they’ll tell forever.

Comments? Share your own road trip stories? Email [email protected].

About the Author(s)

Holly Spangler

Senior Editor, Prairie Farmer, Farm Progress

Holly Spangler has covered Illinois agriculture for more than two decades, bringing meaningful production agriculture experience to the magazine’s coverage. She currently serves as editor of Prairie Farmer magazine and Executive Editor for Farm Progress, managing editorial staff at six magazines throughout the eastern Corn Belt. She began her career with Prairie Farmer just before graduating from the University of Illinois in agricultural communications.

An award-winning writer and photographer, Holly is past president of the American Agricultural Editors Association. In 2015, she became only the 10th U.S. agricultural journalist to earn the Writer of Merit designation and is a five-time winner of the top writing award for editorial opinion in U.S. agriculture. She was named an AAEA Master Writer in 2005. In 2011, Holly was one of 10 recipients worldwide to receive the IFAJ-Alltech Young Leaders in Ag Journalism award. She currently serves on the Illinois Fairgrounds Foundation, the U of I Agricultural Communications Advisory committee, and is an advisory board member for the U of I College of ACES Research Station at Monmouth. Her work in agricultural media has been recognized by the Illinois Soybean Association, Illinois Corn, Illinois Council on Agricultural Education and MidAmerica Croplife Association.

Holly and her husband, John, farm in western Illinois where they raise corn, soybeans and beef cattle on 2,500 acres. Their operation includes 125 head of commercial cows in a cow/calf operation. The family farm includes John’s parents and their three children.

Holly frequently speaks to a variety of groups and organizations, sharing the heart, soul and science of agriculture. She and her husband are active in state and local farm organizations. They serve with their local 4-H and FFA programs, their school district, and are active in their church's youth and music ministries.

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