When Adam Hofstetter was a kid, some of the happiest times were those he spent on long car trips with his family.
So when the former sportswriter and dotcom editor became a yeshiva English teacher and found himself with a free summer, he was itching to hit the road with his family.
But his wife, Sarah, had to work and daughter Abby, 12, was in sleepaway camp. That left youngest son Sam, 10, who after a two-week camp stint had the rest of the summer free.
Off the two went on a 29-state, 36-day, 8,000-mile odyssey in Adam’s 2005 Toyota Solara convertible, beginning July 14, with stops at just about every notable attraction between their home in Cedarhust, L.I., and the Pacific Ocean checked off on the map. He chronicled the journey in a blog, The Hamster and The Highway (Hamster is a nickname for Sam that evolved from Samster.)
“For the most part, I tried to break it up so we don’t have any really long stretches at one time,” Hofstetter, 36, said in a phone interview (via Bluetooth headset) from a highway somewhere in Missouri en route to St. Louis last week. “We’re breaking it up with some very interesting destinations.”
At the time, the odometer counted some 7,600 miles since Point A, Sam’s camp in upstate New York. They reached the West Coast, arriving in Seattle, on July 29.
How did Sam, who will be a 5th grader at Hebrew Academy of Long Beach this year, keep busy during long rides? “We made sure to pack him a lot of activities,” said Adam. “We do Mad Libs and listen to the radio and notice the scenery. For the first couple of weeks of the trip we paid a lot of attention to license plates until we found one from every state – including one from Hawaii, which was a big surprise.” A portable DVD player proved almost as indispensable as the GPS.
And no, he didn’t barrage his Dad with “Are we there yet?”
The Hofstetters, who are Orthodox, don’t drive on Shabbat, so they settled down each Friday afternoon for some much-needed downtime, usually in a place close to a synagogue. They spent the fast day of Tisha B’Av in Denver on a light sightseeing schedule.
“Tisha B’Av was really tough,” said Hofstetter. “I knew I wasn’t going to have the energy for much adventure so we drove to the top of Pike’s Peak. It wasn’t a day to do a lot of walking around.”
Finding kosher food was easier than he expected, and fears of endless peanut butter sanwiches were unrealized. “I have traveled around the country and been in a lot of major cities, and usually you find something in one or two places. But that’s not true anymore. Most supermarkets have kosher sections. We would stock up on groceries and stay in hotels or motels with refrigerators in the rooms."
During the Nine Days before Tisha B’Av, when observant Jews don’t eat meat in a sign of mourning, “it was especially difficult because I brought along a portable grill and we’d often cook hot dogs. So we ate a whole lot of cheese during that time. When you don’t have an oven or a stove top you can’t make lasagna or things like that.”
Milestones included Niagara Falls, Mount Rushmore, Yellowstone National Park, Seattle’s Space Needle, The Mall of America (the nation’s biggest mall), the Rock and Roll and Baseball halls of fame and the Kentucky Derby racetrack Churchill Downs.
Baseball was a big part of the agenda, with stops at eight ballparks (including five games). Games at Target Field in Minneapolis, Safeco Field in Seattle, and the new Busch Stadium in St. Louis completed the former Sports Illustrated columnist’s dream of seeing a game at every Major League Baseball stadium.
As one of four children in a middle class family, Adam Hofstetter often took family car trips. “It was too expensive to fly with such a big family,” he recalled.
But his parents never planned anything this ambitious. “We never went more than three hours from home,” he said. “I never did anything with just my father and never anything of this magnitude. I’ve wanted to something like this since I was in college. I’m really interested in the country we live in and how vastly different it is from place to place.”
When it came to planning vacations with his wife, there were often disagreements. “She always wants to relax,” said Hofstetter, who teaches at Mesivta Ateres Yakov in Lawrence. “I like doing vacations, she likes sitting vacations.” (Sarah flew to two rendezvous points, Seattle and Chicago, and joined them on some legs of the trip.)
And so the all-male road trip was born. With his daughter, who doesn’t like long car trips, choosing to stay in camp, Hoftsetter said “I started thinking Sam is a really good age for something like this. He’s old enough to remember it and appreciate what we’re doing. We share a lot of the same interests, the same love of baseball and adventure.”
Asked about the highlights of the trip, Sam, speaking from the passenger seat, said “Yellowstone park was one of my favorite parts and everything else about it was equally great. Sometimes when it’s a really long drive it gets boring but I spend the time listening to music and talking with Dad.”
The extensive bonding time was more than just a side benefit of the trip, which ended last week after a total of 176 hours and 47 minutes of driving. And it seems to have paid off, big time.
During a visit to the St. Louis Zoo, the travelers came upon an orangutan cuddling and grooming another, as spectators guessed the two were mates. Sam wondered why no one considered that maybe it was a father and son.
“I didn’t know it until the moment he said those words, but that comment was exactly what I was looking for when I decided to take him on an all-summer, cross-country road trip,” wrote Hofstetter on his blog.
“Yes, I was looking for adventure and I was looking for new experiences and I was looking for an excuse to finish my ballpark quest and I was looking for a way to see Mount Rushmore and the world’s biggest ball of twine, but mostly I was looking to have an experience with my son that was so intense and so positive and so memorable and so … moving … that when he sees one ape taking loving care of another he thinks of us.”