Casseroles for Cancer Part IV: What Matters Most

Dispatches from the Road, Volunteering & Giving Back — By on December 18, 2009 at 8:00 am

Lost Girls, OR CoastLast summer, Blair Hickman retraced a 12,000 mile road trip her mom had taken in 1977, serving over 40 casseroles at nine Ronald McDonald Houses and raising money for the charity along the way. She blogged, vlogged, Tweeted and Flick’d the whole trip, raised over $7,000 for the charity and, in the end, found a little more than she’d bargained for. To read more about her adventures, check out her site.
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Last we met, Kelsea, Stephanie and I had spent 10 days camping in the Southwest wilderness, shedding our inhibitions, need to shower, and itinerary-clad travel plans. We swooped through the rest of America with renewed vigor, traveling primarily on back roads and highways. Life was simpler, cleaner and cheaper back there, and after serving nearly 40 casserole dinners to families with ill children, we urbanites had started to get our priorities straight.

I haven’t mentioned the houses much throughout this series, because that is a series unto itself. With 52 chapters around the world, Ronald McDonald Houses and their partner services offer a home away from home for families with sick children at little to no cost. Each house varies in size, feel and funding, and out of the nine houses we visited, there was usually only one room available, if that.

Repeatedly, we had arrived at the houses stressed or unhappy, for one reason or another, and they put things into perspective. In New Orleans, we met a mother and child who had come for a three-month chemo treatment and been there a year. In San Francisco, we met Mustaf, a three-year old boy who’d had his ear blown off in Iraq and was at the UCSF Medical Center for a cochlear transplant. In Chicago, we met Karen, whose two teenage children had chiari malformation, a brain disorder for which surgery is the only cure. In the last two years, her family had been home in Georgia for only 13 weeks. Due to the economy and their absence, the family lost their business. Karen has blacked out in the hospital due to exhaustion, and her kids talked of suicide.

“The beeping, the fear, the worry…this place is an escape,” Karen said. “People come here to eat for an hour and we talk and help each other out. It’s like a little family.” True to her word, everyone ate at one long table that night, celebrating the successful open-heart surgery for a six-day old baby that had come to the house earlier that week.

So the ants in the car? Not important. The air vent exploding on the Interstate? Whatever. Running out of gas with the closest station five miles out? Really doesn’t matter. What matters is people and family and all of the reflective mumbo-jumbo that may seem cliché but, on a trip like this, emerges as the gospel truth.

For this reason, we spent the entire second half of our trip in small town America. We drove through places like Coos Bay or TiddlyWump exclaiming “Oooh oooh, it’s so cute!” and ended up staying for days, talking to locals and getting ourselves invited to drum circles. We tumbled down sand dunes and camped on bluffs overlooking the ocean and went to the Livingston Roundup Rodeo, which nearly doubles the town’s population. We spent the 4th of July in Jackson, WY dancing with little kids. When our car broke down in the middle of Nebraska, we hung out with the mechanic all afternoon, and though he offered his services for free, gave him $20 and a bag of candied pecans, and later that night, we bonded with the clerk at Video Gallery over our undying love for True Blood.

“OK, I have to tell you something,” Steph said. “We’re on a 12,000 mile road trip, and we got addicted to this show in Seattle, and now we rent it every night.”

“Oh, I watch it,” the clerk said, lowering her head and her voice, “I get it.”

I’m not condemning cities, and I won’t be giving up Manhattan’s instant delivery option any time soon. I’m simply noting that in most cities, or at least in New York, the neurotic quest for success often overshadows the little things that should matter the most.

We served our last dinner in Syracuse, NY, and after waking up at 2:30 in the morning to see Harry Potter, I drove straight through to New York without a single cup of coffee. I twitched around my apartment all night long, unable to sleep, thinking, “What will I do next? Unpack my closet? Clean the oven? Write a book? Buy a couch?”

This attitude lasted until Kelsea left, and I found myself alone at my desk for the first time in two months. It was weird. I heard the police sirens, the children playing at the school next door-all of the normal things, the city things, still happening, still moving. But I was just sitting. With focus and disbelief and a sense of contentment that I have not felt in a very, very long time.

Before Casseroles for Cancer, I had always taken trips–two weeks in the Mayan Riviera, a week visiting Banff in Canada, a school trip to England. Even my semester abroad in Prague, I didn’t really consider “travel.” I’d been put up in a hotel with 35 other American undergraduates and spent only weekends at a time in other locations.

Now, with Casseroles for Cancer as a comparison, I realize it was travel. Because travel doesn’t come from the places you crossed off your itinerary or the pins you can now put in your map. Travel happens when the people you meet and the things you see change you in a profound way.

When debating taking a big trip, I’d ask yourself that: are you ready to change? Sometimes, shaking things up isn’t always the best answer. That said, I’d venture to claim that 95% of the time, it is the answer. So do it. Travel and meet people and figure out how to work from the road and have one of the most amazing experiences of your life.

For me, Casseroles for Cancer was the answer. I’ve resolved myself to a life as a starving writer (though fingers crossed only for the short term), and now I do yoga and meditate, and when I walk by Bloomingdales, I don’t hyperventilate because I want the newest Elizabeth & James blazer. It’s quite liberating, and I have my dead mother to thank for that. For pushing me off that oven and breaking my foot, when she knew that I needed to take some time for me.

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