My Mother Is My Travel Inspiration

Wanderlust. It’s a word that gets tossed around a lot these days due in part to the endless array of photos on Instagram, travel vlogs on YouTube, and quick idyllic scenes on TikTok. And it probably means something different to everyone. For me, it’s always been this curiosity to see what’s on the other side of the hill. What the next town over looks like. How people live in a different place. It’s a very strong feeling and something very emotive for me. Travel to me is personal and sacred. But I wasn’t born that way. So where did my travel inspiration come from? My mom. So what better time to talk about her than on Mother’s Day?

My mom and me
My mom, Peggy, and me circa 2016.

While my father might have been the gearhead, my mom was the one who was my wanderlust catalyst. When she was a child in the 1950s and 1960s, she and her family traveled all around the U.S., even getting to Hawaii and as far away as the Dominican Republic. And when my sister and I were growing up, our family would take road trips. As a young kid, I always thought it’d be faster to fly, but she’d tell me, “You get to see how other people live when you drive somewhere.” She’d remark how you didn’t get to see that when flying. She was right.

Wyoming, the Ranch, and the Mountains

Eatons' Ranch Sign
The Eatons’ Ranch sign, circa 2023.

Before my parents separated, we took a few big family road trips, all originating from my home state of Minnesota. This included driving across South Dakota to a dude ranch for two weeks in tiny Wolf, Wyoming, home of Eatons’ Ranch

We piled in the 1987 Dodge Caravan, complete with fake shelf-paper woodgrain sides and wire-wheel hubcaps, and headed west. I was 10 years old, and it was my first time seeing mountains. I vividly remember being in Wyoming and my father pointing out mountains on the horizon. It’s something I’ll never forget.

It was 1988, a hot, dry, and drought-stricken year for much of the country. We rode horses in the Bighorn Mountains. I got over being scared of bees, but I obtained a new fear of rattlesnakes. My sister and I explored the ranch and met other kids from other places. 

Subaru Crosstrek at Eatons' Ranch in Wolf, WY.
Our Subaru Crosstrek at Eatons’ Ranch in Wolf, WY.

But I’ll never forget the beauty and wild feeling of being in the West for the first time. Even then I knew we were lucky. Not every kid got to do this. On December 31, 2023, we drove to Eatons’ Ranch on the way home from Wisconsin to see if I remembered what it looked like. Much of it came back to me nearly 35 years later. The gate was locked, but just seeing the Bighorn Mountains and Eatons’ gate was enough.

Travels to South Carolina and the Broadening of Horizons

There was also the family trip to South Carolina. On the way, we spent a few days in Lexington, Kentucky where I learned about the Shaker communities, horses, and more. We continued on to a very touristy (and smoggy) Gatlinburg, Tennessee for a night. There my mom hunted for some mysterious group of artisan basket makers, but only found tourist shops in Gatlinburg. If I remember correctly, my sister and I were able to get wooden pop guns. Basically carved wood pistols with a cork in the end. When you pulled back on the barrel, the cork would “pop” out. My mom eventually did find her basket makers. 

We ended up in Charleston, South Carolina and we stayed at a nice hotel downtown. We visited the USS Yorktown aircraft carrier and got to go aboard a submarine. There, we also explored historic Charleston and visited Magnolia Plantation and Gardens. There was even a stained glass studio in Charleston with our same last name, Lilienthal. I also remember having to leave our hotel on a specific date because of an impending Klu Klux Klan rally downtown. 

These are all indelible moments etched in my mind because of travel. Even as a youngster, these were building up my character, exposing me to different cultures, and broadening my horizons. And this was just the beginning. 

Rapid City Road Trip

In the early 1990s, my parents divorced. Dad ended up with the Dodge Caravan (which he promptly got rid of in favor of a Jeep Cherokee XJ). My mom kept the brand-new 1990 Mitsubishi Eclipse—a horrible car for a single mother of two kids. So, newly single and newly independent, my mom made her first solo car purchase: a 1992 Mitsubishi Expo LRV.

The 1992 Mitsubishi Expo LRV we had in the early-to-mid 1990s.
Our 1992 Mitsubishi Expo LRV and me in 1996.

Very soon after buying the Expo LRV, my mom decided that the three of us—me, my sister, and her—should take a road trip of our own. We’d go south into Iowa to visit the Amana Colonies, cut across Nebraska (and visit every single antique shop in the entire state), and head to Cheyenne, Wyoming. Each night we stayed at a hotel with a pool, where we’d all splash around and have a great time. 

After a very stormy night in Cheyanne with severe weather all around us, we departed for South Dakota’s Black Hills. There, we’d do all the touristy things we didn’t get to do a few years prior with my dad, who wasn’t a big fan of stopping at tourist spots. 

Mom took us to Mount Rushmore, Bear Country USA, the Reptile Gardens, Wind Cave, and Custer State Park. We saw all the tourist things, got ice cream, bought souvenirs, and made memories. 

We still joke around about the time when traffic stopped on a road in Custer State Park, and a herd of what seemed like hundreds of bison came down from the hills, walked between the cars, and over to the other side of the road. I was so worried the bison were going to try to ram into our brand-new car, and pleaded with my mom to get out of there! But, just like Mom said, they just walked between the cars and kept going. Lesson learned.

This was also the first time when, at 14, I figured I knew way more about cars than my 50-year-old mother. The Mitsubishi dealer told my mom to check the oil in our new Expo LRV at a certain mileage, and that we might need to add just a bit. That mileage happened in the Dakotas. My mom checked the oil at the gas station, and sure enough, it needed a top-off. She went into the service station, bought a quart of oil and a paper funnel, and opened the hood. 

Ignorantly, I told my mom, “That funnel will not work. You need something narrower.” I’m sure she was wondering what the hell I was talking about and said the paper funnel would be perfectly fine. Again, I voiced my concern. After all, at 14 years of age, I was an expert. I explained, as only a 14-year-old adolescent boy could, that the paper funnel was far too big to fit the oil down the dipstick tube. 

My mother started laughing. She said, “You don’t add oil there, you open the oil cap and put it in there.” 

I remember feeling two things: embarrassed that, I, a 14-year-old automotive know-it-all didn’t know that, and also impressed that my mom did. Again, this is one of those tales that we still joke around about from time to time. Andy “the car kid,” thought the oil was added into the dipstick tube!

Minnesota to Mexico in a Minivan

Later that year, we’d take a very epic road trip: Minnesota to San Miguel de Allende Mexico. This time, we’d pile into my uncle’s early 1990s Chrysler Town & Country (again, more fake woodgrain) and make a three-day drive to central Mexico. We went from Minnesota to Missouri, Missouri to Laredo, Texas, and Texas to San Miguel. 

I remember being exceedingly nervous about crossing the border into Mexico. I worried for some reason or another that I’d end up incarcerated in a Mexican prison for something like not signing my passport with good enough penmanship or something. My uncle had traveled a lot and had done this drive before, so this border crossing wasn’t completely new to him. 

My mother in La Comer in Manzanillo, Colima Mexico.
My mother in La Comer in Manzanillo, Colima Mexico in 2022. Hey, tires!

We got across the border without incident (no prison time for my cursive), and sped down the highway en route to the colonial city of San Miguel de Allende, where we spent several days experiencing the rich culture of central Mexico. There we saw the iconic Parroquia church and flat-topped trees of the central square. We visited a hot spring outside of town and stopped at small villages with rough dirt roads for streets. While these villages didn’t have much money, they always had an amazing church. I think we visited every church within a 50-mile radius of San Miguel. 

We also took a bus from San Miguel to Mexico City for several days. It was very nice with big chairs and all the Coca-Cola and cookies you could put into your belly. I still remember walking through downtown Mexico City, going to the Museo Nacional de Antropología (national anthropological museum), and taking a tour bus (which ended up being a VW minibus!) out to the Teotihuacán pyramids, where I climbed the pyramid of the sun. There were markets, shops, and all sorts of things to see.  I also remember my mother, sister, and myself all getting very ill with Montezuma’s Revenge. 

These early experiences gave me two things: wanderlust and an appreciation for minivans, as they were always what we traveled in. But regardless of our vehicle type, my wanderlust only grew and grew. 

Continuing to Travel, Continuing to Wander

1999 Nissan Sentra SE-Limited
My 1999 Nissan Sentra SE-Limited

Back in 2000, a friend asked if I’d bring a friend of a friend down with me from Minnesota to Milwaukee, Wisconsin for a car show. I picked up a pretty girl named Mercedes in my 1999 Nissan Sentra SE-Limited (which my mother helped me get), and we ended up talking our heads off and singing music together for five hours en route to the Hot Import Nights car show in Chicago. Turns out we had a lot in common, including a love for travel and cars. Long story short, this was my now-wife, Mercedes. I’m blessed to have a partner who still loves travel, cars, and thankfully, me. 

Mercedes and me at the Arctic Cricle on the Dempter Highway

Together, we’ve been to countries including Germany, Austria, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and Iceland, and we plan to visit many more very soon.

My wife, Mercedes, my mom, Peggy, and me in Cuyutlán, Colima Mexico.
My wife, Mercedes, my mom, Peggy, and me in Cuyutlán, Colima Mexico.

But really, I owe a lot of this to my mother who taught me that travel, especially by car, can be such a great thing. It’s enriching. It broadens your scope. It makes you more well-rounded. Without those road trips of my youth, who knows if I would ever have developed my love of travel? Maybe I wouldn’t care what’s on the other side of that hill. But thanks to my mom, I appreciate seeing the world and all it has to offer.

Wanderlust—the travel bug—is a powerful thing. When you get to that other side of the hill, you wonder what’s on the other side of the next hill, and the next, and the next? 

I appreciate all the places I have been and look forward to being able to hit the road again—if even for a day—to satisfy my travel bug. We have a lot of hills to still explore. I owe it all to my mom, Peggy, my travel inspiration.

My mom in Mexico in 2023.
Mom in Manzanillo, Colima Mexico in 2022 making margaritas!

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