Story posted August 02, 2011
In 2003, a mere 12 hours after completing two terms as Governor of the State of Maine, Bowdoin Distinguished Lecturer Angus King packed his family up and hit the road. The goal was as open-ended as possible: "to discover America, ourselves, and a little something about family."
Traveling in a 40 foot RV, they racked up 15,000 miles and visited 33 states as they snaked their way from Maine to California and back. Children Ben and Molly were home-schooled—their travels became the classroom. For King and his wife Mary, the five and a half month journey was a needed transition from the intensity of political life as well as a chance to reconnect with each other—and America—beyond the Blaine House.
King chronicles his travels in a new book, Governor's Travels: How I Left Politics, Learned to Back Up a Bus, and Found America (DownEast Books, 2011), which King describes as "part travelogue, part executive transition manual, and a long love letter to RVing." With a full-color layout that is chock full of photographs, the book has the look and feel of a personal scrapbook with a fair amount of social and political commentary thrown in.
King spoke with Bowdoin writer Selby Frame about his voyage, the transition from public to private life, and adventures along the way.
SF: Why did you hop into your motor home so quickly after leaving office?
AK: Well, there wasn't any reason to wait around. We had been planning this trip for a long time and there's nothing less useful than a former governor the week after. It's a bad idea, I think, to leave any job—particularly one that is stressful and intense—and just go to sitting in a rocking chair. You're going to get restless, bored and depressed. I didn't have that. I went directly from worrying about the legislature to figuring out the location of the next RV park and whether it will have a dump station? In other words, I was still engaged, it was just a different subject.
SF: Was there any one favorite place you went?
AK: It's really hard to answer that. There were hundreds. Southern Utah was spectacular and of course Yellowstone is fantastic. Another place we really liked was Big Bend National Park in southwest Texas. We didn't expect to go there and it turned out to be a sensational place. We also met another family there doing the same thing we were and so our kids got to play with other kids rather just us. One of the lessons I took from the trip is that you shouldn't worry too much about hitting all the right places because any place is the right place. You could throw a dart at the map of this country and find nice people and cool stuff.
SF: Your travels also seemed to give you a pretty clear insight on what cities and destinations do right, and do wrong, about tourism, economic development and sprawl.
AK: There's no question. One of the real benefits of any travel is gaining some perspective. You see things from different points of view. That came home to me in a variety of ways: politically, economically, seeing what was going on in other states.
The issue of the built environment was particularly striking in Savannah, Georgia, for example. It is one of the most beautiful towns I've ever seen, probably the best piece of urban design in America, going back to the 1780s. And yet, surrounding Old Savannah is the same kind of random development that we see everywhere in the country. It was shocking to seem them juxtaposed in one cohesive community.
SF: Did you meet up with any other governors in your travels?
AK: The only governor I met was in New Mexico—Bill Richardson. The reason was, he had recently been elected and part of his campaign promise was to give every 7th grader a laptop. I called along the way and he invited me to come over and share our experience with the computer project here in Maine. We met for an hour and a half, which was great. But it was the only political visit of the whole trip!
When people asked me in a RV park, 'What do you do?' I just said, 'I'm a retired state employee from Maine.'
SF: What do you think your terms as Governor would have looked like had you taken this trip before you took office?
AK: Well, that's an interesting point. I realized as governor—but not as much until after the trip—that there isn't as much communication among the states as there should be. Jefferson said the states are the laboratories of democracy. But the problem is, nobody reads the lab reports.
We've got every state trying to reinvent everything. I was struck even more so after this trip how little exchange there is among states that are coping with exactly the same issues. I didn't really realize that the problem of 'the two Maines' existed everywhere, for example. We have a tendency to think we're the only people with problems; that everyone else is better off. It's not true.
If I were doing the governorship over again, one thing I would do is spend more time and resources seeing what other people are doing. How is Oregon coping with rural-urban pressures? How is New Hampshire coping with high property taxes?
SF: Was there any one place where you thought, 'We could stay here another six months, or maybe even forever?'
AK: I can honestly answer that question 'no.' It was often overwhelming, just the incredible nature of this country. I had to keep pinching myself. The Southwest was spectacular, but I have no interest in moving there. North Carolina is beautiful in spring and fall. But I can say I didn't find anyplace I'd rather live than Maine.
SF: What was your biggest take-away from your travels?
AK: That you have to take advantage of the opportunities that life gives you, particularly the moments in time when you have time, when you're between jobs or you retire. Get out and go. I think most of us are way too intense. We need to take a deep breath and do things that maybe don't fit the normal picture of what we're supposed to do at that stage of life. In some ways, this book is one big argument for just plain loosening up.