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Times of the Islands Magazine

Rediscovering Americana: Pandemic Keeps Global Travelers Closer To Home

Nov 23, 2020 05:00PM ● By FRANCESCA BLOCK

Edgar behind the wheel in Axel while visiting the Monument Rocks “Chalk Pyramids” in Gove County, Kansas.

Rediscovering Americana: Pandemic keeps global travelers closer to home [15 Images] Click Any Image To Expand

Edgar Burton and Roy Gibson have definitely caught the travel bug. The Sanibel residents have spent the past 29 years together wandering the world. From bungee jumping in New Zealand and riding a hot-air balloon in Kenya to climbing Machu Picchu in Peru and exploring the UNESCO world heritage site Angkor Wat in Cambodia, travel has always been their favorite way to explore new passions and spend time together. That is why it is their tradition to celebrate each year together with a new trip abroad. 

When COVID-19 first hit the United States, Burton and Gibson felt the opportunity and ability to travel abroad wane with each new coronavirus case reported. They worried that their annual travel tradition would be forced to end.  

It was not until Gibson opened up an old road atlas lying around the house that they envisioned a solution: a hidden gem sitting on the border of North Dakota and Manitoba, Canada, called the International Peace Garden. It is a place where Canadians and Americans come together to celebrate the beauty of nature and peaceful friendship. Most importantly for Burton and Gibson at the time, no passport is required to explore either side of this particular border. The only hurdle left to tackle was how to get there. 

It had always been their retirement dream to buy an RV and travel across the country. In their free time, they used to research ideal models and prices, using it as an opportunity to daydream about their amazing adventures yet to come. 

The pandemic prompted the pair to make the spontaneous decision to start this dream early. After purchasing an RV—which they affectionately named Axel—on Memorial Day weekend, Burton and Gibson embarked on their “pre-tirement trip,” heading toward North Dakota. The upcoming adventure felt like “a dress rehearsal,” they jokingly say, for their next stage in life together. 

The couple fully embraced the impromptu nature of life on the road. Guided by maps, atlases, road signs and one of their favorite hobbies, geocaching—an outdoor activity in which hidden containers are placed in locations all around the world—they spent each day in Axel seeking adventures unlike any they had experienced before. Recalling the excitement of waking up each morning not knowing what the next day would hold, Gibson says he realized that “sometimes the best things are unplanned.”

By day, Gibson sat behind the wheel while Burton navigated. By night, they found themselves “boondocking” in local parks, forests or parking lots, completely disconnected from energy sources and the outside world. In Axel, they were self-contained. “We had our own motel, restaurant and Uber with us,” Burton says. And each morning, he adds, “We looked at a map and just said, ‘Why not?’” 

This attitude and yearning for new adventure took Burton and Gibson to undiscovered treasure spots sprinkled throughout “America’s Heartland.” From Carhenge, a Stonehenge replica made out of old cars in Nebraska, to the Mildred B. Cooper Memorial Chapel, an architectural masterpiece located in the woods in Arkansas, to the Crazy Horse Memorial in South Dakota, to the self-proclaimed world’s largest easel holding a giant reproduction of Van Gogh’s Three Sunflowers in a Vase in Kansas, Burton and Gibson barely scratched the surface of the wonders that their own country has to offer. 

Through 19 states, countless national parks, local museums and even more unique attractions off the beaten path, they felt as if they were ticking off new bucket-list items they never knew existed. For Gibson, possibly one of the most valuable lessons learned along the way is the “recognition that every place has history and a story to tell.” 

After 14 days on the road, Burton and Gibson finally pulled up to the International Peace Garden. They wandered through the historic botanical garden and into Canada, marking another special adventure-filled year together. But the destination was far less important than the journey itself: “It felt like we were kids again,” Gibson says. “It was the newness, the freshness and the rejuvenation of being together and exploring together in a way we had not done before.” 

Twenty-four days, 23 nights and countless memories later, Burton and Gibson returned to their home on Sanibel feeling nostalgic and admittedly reluctant to disembark Axel. “We have traveled literally around the world,” Burton says, but “here at home, there is so much still to discover.” 

Francesca Block is a resident of Sanibel and a student at Princeton University, studying journalism, public affairs, international relations and Chinese.