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The Billerica MinutemanTHURSDAY, OCTOBER 9, 1997

Ken and Priscilla Rhodes leave Billerica on Columbus Day for a one-year trek across America. The husband-and-wife team will produce virtual postcards each day on the Internet, giving Web surfers the opportunity to join in the fun and learning.

Explorers seek to 'discover' America
Husband and wife embark on a 50-state journey and you're invited.

By Brian Genest
Staff Writer

A Billerica husband and wife are setting sail on the adventure of a lifetime and anyone who wants to join the journey is invited to tag along.

Ken Rhodes and Priscilla Faith Rhodes begin a 50-week trek across America on Columbus Day -- an adventure that will take them to every state and capital city in the nation.

"We said someday when we retired, we'd get an RV and we'll do America," Priscilla said. "I don't know what made us just decide 'Why wait? Let's do it when we're healthy. Let's go now.'"

But this is no ordinary trip across the United States. The couple is inviting anyone who'd like to climb aboard to take part in the experience. There's just one catch -- you'll need a computer. Knowing that family and friends would demand postcards, the husband and wife team decided they'd share their experiences with anyone interested in the trip via free daily virtual postcards on the internet.

Each day, the couple will produce a postcard based on the day's travels and post it on a World Wide Web site set up specifically for the trip. For Ken, a photographer and designer, and Priscilla, a writer and former history teacher, the daily postcards accomplish two purposes -- keeping loved ones informed about their explorations and sharing the knowledge they gain along the way with others yearning to learn more about the United States.

The duo enjoys learning about different countries and cultures and have traveled to China, Russia and Europe, but the one-year excursion across America in a 30-foot trailer is a chance to get to know more about home.

"Each time I came back from another country, I had a fuller understanding and an interest in these other cultures, so that now when I pick up a paper and read something about things going on in Europe, I have images in my mind. I have an understanding of the people and what their culture is like, so a news story has so much more meaning. Travel has really enriched my life," Ken explained. "I'm looking forward to a better understanding and appreciation of the United States."

To share that appreciation and knowledge, the couple decided they'd take advantage of Ken's love of photography and Priscilla's knack for writing and research to produce daily postcards on the Web. Each day, armed with a digital camera -- one of four Ken will bring on the trip -- the couple will capture a scene that best sums up their wanderings. Then, they'll return to the trailer, where the real fun begins.

While Ken edits the image that will serve as the front of the virtual postcard, Priscilla will set to work producing the written portion of the daily note. On the back of each card, Priscilla will provide readers with a short historical note about the place they visited that day. In addition, each card will include a personal note explaining the sights and sounds encountered on the road that day.

To prepare for the trip, Priscilla, who describes herself as a "history nut and research addict," has dug up as much information as possible about each state, using everything from encyclopedias to travel brochures.

"There's a wall of research material around my desk," Priscilla said, adding that she wanted to compile as much historical information as possible about each state -- the facts that she'll include on the postcards -- before hitting the road.

To help chart a course, Priscilla decided to check out some travel journals, but the results were less than promising.

"The thing I found frustrating while doing the research is most people dot the country," she said. "no one ever goes to see all 50 states. And I found that frustrating because America is more than Florida and California. There is so much more in America."

To help gain more insight, Priscilla wrote to all 50 governors, asking what the couple absolutely had to see during a one-week visit to the state. She specifically asked not to be referred to a tourism bureau, rather she wanted each governor's personal suggestions.

"Very few actually gave me what I wanted," she said. "What's really interesting is they have no idea how much they are revealing about themselves through how they responded to me."

While most governors did exactly what Priscilla asked them not to -- refer her to the state's tourist bureau or Web site -- some did take the time to share special information about their state, including Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge.

"He sent me a personal e-mail that he wrote himself. I was astounded by how much thought he put into it," Priscilla said.

One governor even signed up to receive the daily postcards, in order to be a part of the learning experience.

For Priscilla, who has filtered through the mounds of research preparing the historical tidbits that will be included on each postcard, the learning has already begun. For example, she's discovered Arkansas is the only state in the nation with diamond mines and that Kansas has had a lot of "female firsts," including the fact that the first woman mayor in the state was elected in 1887 -- 33 years before women got the right to vote.

It's those kind of noteworthy historical facts that will be included on the postcards, especially for the states that are less frequently visited by tourists.

"For the states that have gotten a lot of glory already, that's where I find the unusual things, the things no one else knows, to give the state its own identity and uniqueness," Priscilla said.

To make the cards even more informative and personal, each one will have it's own special stamp that relates to the state and reinforces the theme of the day.

For example, the card posted on the Web site previewing the trip is one the couple put together at Yankee Doodle Homecoming Weekend. The front of the card includes a collage of pictures of the Billerica Colonial Minute Men. On the back, a brief historical note explains events leading up to the Revolutionary War and a hand-written note talking about the reenactment of Thomas Ditson being tarred and feathered. The stamp is actually a picture of the statue of the minuteman that stands in Minuteman National Park in Concord. To learn more about the state, Web surfers can click on the stamp and receive a variety of information -- including the state flag, flower, governor and other facts.

According to Ken, after posting the Web page, school teachers from a variety of states, including New Hampshire, Florida and Maryland, signed up to receive the free daily postcards, as a way to teach their students in an interesting and fun way..

"They say things like "Thanks so much for doing this' and "My fifth-grade class is going to love this,'" he said.

While those eager to explore through, Ken's pictures and Priscilla's research, can't wait for the trip to begin, that wasn't the most common sentiment from loved ones the couple will leave behind. Reactions have ranged from envy to dismay.

"A lot of friends don't respond (when they find out about the trip) because they don't understand why we're doing it," Ken said. "My family has been supportive. We sprung it on them just a month ago because we, figured, if we talked about it, they'd try to talk us out of it."

Priscilla said her sister burst into tears when she learned the news.

"My family is in denial," she joked. "A lot of people focused on what we're going to lose, instead of what we're going to gain."

But the couple is determined to make the journey a success and have planned many of the details.

The trip begins atop Cadillac Mountain in Maine, the most northeastern point in the United States.

"It's the first place the sun rises on America, so we want to be there at dawn to watch it," Priscilla said.

After crisscrossing the 48 contiguous states, the couple will conquer Alaska and then wrap up the journey at sunset at Lands End in Hawaii, the most southwestern location in America. And although they can't wait to explore the rest of the country, Priscilla and Ken dismiss the notion that they'll find "a better place to live."

"There's no way I'm moving," Priscilla said. "I love it here."

The couple's Internet site can be found on the World Wide Web at Web surfers can check the site each day for a new postcard or simply sign up to get the postcards e-mailed to them without having to search the Internet daily.

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