My American Dream – World Wide Wandering

*The following was written by Bennett Erickson for his 11th Grade English Class.

The American dream is an ideal defined by James Truslow Adams, a historian, as “Every US citizen should have an equal opportunity to achieve success and prosperity through hard work, determination, and initiative.” However, because Adams only provides a factual definition, the American dream can be interpreted to mean any number of things by any number of people. My grandmother’s American dream was to be married in the LDS temple and to raise a close-knit family in the church. My father’s American dream is to travel and see new places. My American dream is a blend of both. My dream consists of more than just having a close-knit family I can travel with; I dream of using travel to grow as a person, to discover new cultures, and to learn what I can contribute to the world.

As a child, my grandma never had a strong religious backing. Her father was an inactive Mormon while her mother wasn’t a member of any church. Despite no religious foundation, my grandma came from a moral, honest, hard-working family, and yet she craved something more. She grew up in the 1940s in Ogden, UT surrounded by a predominately Mormon community which she noticed to be incredibly happy, even when times were tough. She craved this Mormon lifestyle centered in God. The idea of being married in a temple of God and raising a Godly family became her American dream. At the age of seven, she started going to church with her friend and begged for her parents’ permission to be baptized in her new faith. Eventually, my grandparents met and planned for a temple marriage which caused her inactive fiancé and his family to more fully embrace Mormonism.  No one in her family attended the wedding. In fact, on her wedding day, no one in her family got up to help her get dressed or take her to the temple. Despite this hardship and lack of familial support, my grandma pursued her path toward her American dream. Her eternal companion helping any way he could.

Grandma read books on how to build a successful family, looked for parenting mentors and learned quickly from her mistakes. To enhance her American dream, my grandma has visited The Holy Land twice, attended dozens of worship services in temples around the world, served missions in Russia, the US, and England, setting an example for their posterity of what a Gospel-centered home is like. Her American dream continues to play out today with over 50 years of marriage, five children, and 19 grandchildren, many of whom have set sights on, or achieved, their own temple marriages and serving full-time LDS missions. This diligence in seeking out her American dream has given me a strong example of someone who worked hard at attaining her dream.

After learning the value of hard-work from my grandmother, I had the opportunity to put the lesson into practice. As a high school student, I wanted to travel internationally but had no money to get off the ground. In 2010, First Lady Michelle Obama championed the change of national health guidelines for schools. This resulted in everything delicious, sugary and non-nutritious being removed from all public-school vending machines. This experience provided me a chance to earn money, pursue my dream, and work hard. I filled a massive gold box with multiple genres of candy. I wandered the halls between classes hunting for kids craving chocolate. Charging one dollar for candy that cost me 39 cents, I worked hard to earn travel money. Everyone from freshmen to seniors knew me; I took the alias The Candy Man. Constantly trying to keep people hooked on my product while finding new customers was difficult. I had to continually talk to people, stop them in the hallways, and catch them at their lockers. After weeks of hard work, people knew where to find me and knew I would always cater to their needs. My trip fund grew rapidly when candy sales topped $30 a day. This selling experience not only taught me to work hard, it funded a trip to Fiji.

During a visit to Fiji, I pursued my own dream of growing while traveling as I drew from my grandmother’s example of hard work. I grew as a person because I worked hard at learning their language. I grew because I provided a valuable service to their village by building toilets. And even after returning to the States, I grew as I delved into Fijian history, learning as much as I could while relating back to my time in Fiji. I worked hard to fully appreciate my travel opportunity and know without my grandmother’s example of hard work, I might not have worked as hard as I did or come to love Fiji and her people. Grandma’s American dream shaped my life for the better.

The person who made, and still makes, the biggest impact on my American dream of growth through diversity and traveling is my father. As a child born to a large family living in rural WY, he rarely ever traveled outside the state.  His small hometown of Afton, WY gained some national presence in 1958 when they installed the world’s largest elk antler arch over the town’s four-lane highway which leads to the more well-known Teton Mountain Range 70 miles north.  When dad was born 12 years later, the town’s population was 1,319 and one traffic light.  Today, the community boosts 1,911 residents, but removed the traffic light due to light traffic.  Few people in his community traveled; they stayed close to their ranches, wearing Wrangler jeans and cowboy hats, and riding horses or herding cows. Growing up in this environment, my dad rarely traveled outside of his state’s limits and he had little exposure to life beyond the farm. It wasn’t until the age of 14 that dad tasted the thrill of travel when he saw the Pacific Ocean for the first time.

It was in 1984, a snowy Christmas morning, that my dad awoke to find a sign hung near the fireplace proclaiming the family was going to California! They set off that very day and drove farther than my dad had before gone, 879 miles. At the cold and grey beach, native Californians wandered across the sand like seagulls wrapped in puffy coats. My dad’s cowboy-state family splashed and swam in the ocean, reveling in the new experience and relative warmth. The average December temperature of Anaheim is 56°F, a far cry from Star Valley, Wyoming’s winter average of 28°F. My dad talks fondly about this adventure because it changed his perspective about the world. He now knew life was offered more than farming, changing pipe, and herding cows – not better, but more, it was a very big world out there. This short Christmas trip planted the idea for what would become my father’s American dream of traveling the world.

My father nurtured this dream as a young missionary serving on the Mexican-American border, as an out-of-state college student, and as a young father whose first job took him across the nation. He expanded his American dream and accepted jobs which required travel. Ultimately, travel became tradition to his growing family. Around the block, across town, out of state, or across the world, this dreamer wanted his kids to move about. Whenever one of his five children reached the age of 8, 12, and 16, the kid got to choose a special, overnight activity to do alone with him.  These trips always involved travel and exposure to new experiences – at first nearby, and culminating internationally at age 16. My trips included a trip to downtown Atlanta at age 8, zip lining in the mountains of central Georgia at age 12, and a 2-week adventure to Athens, Greece and Istanbul, Turkey at age 16. These trips changed me.

Atlanta taught me fishing in a polluted city river stinks.  Zip lining helped me conquer fear.  But my favorite trip was to Greece. The ruins of Athens were spectacular, and history came alive as I wandered ancient sites with my dad. The unfamiliar food we tried was even better than the ruins. My favorite was the national dish, moussaka, a casserole made of eggplant, potatoes and spiced minced meat. My dad’s American dream changed my life by giving me experiences and exposures I could never discover while sitting at a desk. His passion sparked my own American dream.

I didn’t know how valuable that 16th birthday trip would be just one year later. Near my 17th birthday, my parents announced I was going to be homeschooled. I thought my life was over. Instead, homeschooling became a blessing, incorporating travel in my course of studies. I suddenly had time each day for different opportunities and experiences. Almost immediately I traveled internationally with my father and recently returned missionary brother who had just completed his 2-year assignment in Samoa. For 14 days we explored Europe from Berlin to Budapest. Dad worked while big brother and I ventured out into the world eager to learn, explore, and experience cultures we knew little about. Dad taught me to use this trip as more than an opportunity sight see. He encouraged us to watch, listen, ask questions, get lost, try new foods and get off the beaten tourist track. I had just finished a BYU Independent Study course highlighting World War II and the Cold War and was excited to see first-hand how Berlin was affected by the World War and how the Holocaust is remembered today. During this trip my budding American dream to travel expanded to include thoughts of how I could contribute to the world.

People say money can’t buy happiness. Justin Wolfers and Betsy Stevenson, US economists, have released studies saying, “Richer people are more satisfied with their lives.” But in my travels, I have found my own answer to this dilemma – Money doesn’t matter when it comes to happiness. In Cambodia, the standard of living well below what I have experienced in the States. The monthly salary of a Cambodian factory worker is $120, while the average US factory worker earns $1,864. Despite the income gap, the Cambodians I have met are just as happy, if not happier, than people I know back home. Even in their communist state, the people of Cambodia seem driven to follow their own American dream of being content with their life, worship and families. These humble people taught me that no matter your situation, beliefs and your family are the key to happiness. I experienced a similar feeling while in Fiji.

The village where I helped build toilets was remote and poor when compared to US standards. What I learned was that their lack of stuff did not result in a lack of happiness. The Fijians I met seemed to love each other, work hard, had unshakeable religious faith, and possessed an air of joy. Like the Cambodian people I met, the humble Fijians loved family and their faith, not stuff. I returned from these travels with a new outlook on life. I decided to be happy regardless of my bank account and to help others find happiness.

My American dream is now a more global dream. There are 195 countries in the world. Each and every one has a different culture. A different set of people. A different set of experiences. I have been to twenty countries and each of them has helped me grow as a human being. My American dream is something I try to live every day. Some days my travel is limited to a trip around the neighborhood.  Other days I go on a virtual trip while reading a novel. Currently, I am a long-term tourist living in northern Thailand learning and exploring this culture. This 8-month trip is helping me grow as I make new friends with children of service missionaries. I am learning to love the Thai people living in my building. I am mourning with the nation as it experiences the death of their 70-year reigning king, Bhumibol Adulyadej. Travel close to home or abroad changes me.

The lessons and experiences I’ve learned and gained from my grandma and dad continue to shape my American dream – to learn, grow, and contribute while traveling. My dream is a part of me. It is who I have been, and who I am becoming. That’s why, no matter where I travel, I will follow my dream.

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