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  • Last August, my husband, three daughters and I took our first ‘real’ road trip together, by which I mean that we spent enough time sequestered in a car to develop something akin to Stockholm Syndrome by the end for both our minivan and each other.

    Both journey and destination was my husband’s home state of Wisconsin. From liberal Madison to idyllic Door County, Minnesota-adjacent Hudson, and rustic Lake St. Germaine, we saw all the Dairy state had to offer. Gluttons for punishment, we took a detour through my home state of Michigan on our way back, before finally returning to our daughters’ home state of Northern Virginia.

    (Yes, I know that Northern Virginia is not officially a state, but it might as well be.)

    The reason behind our Midwest adventure was simple: to expose our East-coast bred daughters to the simpler things in life. Like fried cheese curds, summer sunsets over Lake Michigan, and the license plate game.

    Of the three, it was the last that proved the most difficult.

    Maybe I came on too strong. No sooner had we hit the Capital Beltway than I began scanning license plates. Compulsively, and out loud.

    “North Carolina!” I called into the backseat. A few minutes later: “Florida!” And seconds later: “New Jersey!”

    The girls ignored me.

    “Delaware!”

    Nothing.

    “Aren’t you guys going to play?” I whined.

    My youngest daughter asked when she could watch a movie.
    My middle daughter whined of perpetual hunger.
    My oldest daughter replied that she’d do it later, then reached for her Nintendo DS.

    I tried not to be disappointed, despite the fact that I had spent an entire summer morning searching online for the perfect printable on which to keep individual tallies. Instead, I played through, confident that as the highway gave way to the monotonous mountainsides of Pennsylvania and the flat fields of Ohio, they’d be begging for a distraction.

    Once safely outside the metro DC area, I tried again. “Look, you guys! Colorado!”

    My youngest continued to watch her Barbie movie, for the millionth time.
    My middle daughter sawed wood.
    My oldest started at me blankly. “I already saw that one.”

    “You did?” I shrieked. “When?”

    She shrugged. “An hour ago.”

    “Why didn’t you tell me?”

    She shrugged again.

    Still, I kept playing. Like in Chicago, when I spied an unfamiliar license plate during a downpour on the Skyway.

    “Wait! There! Did you see that?” I exclaimed to my husband, the only one still pretending to play along. “Quick! Follow that car!” I ordered.

    Despite congested lanes and a slick road, my husband jerked our top-heavy minivan in and out of traffic to catch up to the hulking SUV with, yep, I guessed it, Texas plates. But guess what? His maneuver got the girls’ attention. Perhaps our city slickers just needed a good high-speed chase.

    Either way, something changed in that moment. I’d like to think it was the Midwest air, or our distance from the cosmopolitan cynicism of Washington DC. All I know is that the girls began playing along. And enjoying it!

    By the time we returned home, we checked off 43 states and agreed to keep playing until we found all 50. Wyoming was the hold out, but six months later, we found it outside a Starbucks. In other words, my husband and I succeeded in baptizing our East-coast bred daughters in the ways of old fashioned, innocent fun.

    Ironically, they baptized us as well. They baptized us in the truth of their childhoods, childhoods that are nothing like me and my husband’s shared Midwestern roots, but childhoods that are good enough just the way they are.

    How silly it must have seemed to them to play a game about people from other states when they are growing up in the Nation’s capital. Not only are there people from every single state of the union stationed and living here, but the barista at our local coffee shop is a Sudanese refugee, our cleaning lady a child bride from Peru, and our neighborhood a virtual Seoul outpost.

    My daughters have the opportunity to grow up in one of the most diverse cities in the world. I can only imagine what car games they will play with their own children someday.
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