The Hitt Family Has Spent Two Years Discovering America and Now They Won't Go Home Again

updated 06/18/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/18/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Dick Hitt's family trip nearly ended prematurely one night in the Montana wilderness. He left his wife, Polly, and the kids, Gillian and Gavin, in the family's banana yellow 1981 Ford van parked in the campground and trudged over to a pay phone to make a call. Suddenly in line behind him he saw an impatient 7½-foot, 900-pound grizzly. His first reaction was to "crawl into the coin-return slot and hide." Instead the balding journalist "turned into a statue and stopped breathing until it went away. Lewis and Clark would have handled it differently," he admits. "They'd have shot the bear."

Imminent extermination is just one of the prospects that Dick Hitt, 49, and his family have encountered in their two-year, 52,000-mile odyssey through America. Since June 1,1982 they have visited 200 cities and 44 states and this summer are meandering through Arizona, Oklahoma, Nebraska and Kansas, the ones remaining in the contiguous United States. From magicians on Columbus Circle in Manhattan, Gavin learned how to pass a lighted cigarette through a cloth. The family sailed with a crew member from the America's Cup races off Newport, R.I., accidentally decapitated an antelope with its van in Wyoming, and feasted variously on roast elk, hogback and hominy. "We've gained so much knowledge, not only about each other but about other people," says Polly Hitt, 41. "We've lived other people's fantasies and become better for it."

Two years ago the Hitt family seemed the least likely prospects to pack up and just take off. Dick was a successful columnist for the Dallas Times Herald who also put in daily stints as a radio and TV commentator. Polly, a former model, free-lanced in merchandising and promotion. They lived in a nice, four-bedroom house, and their two all-American children were active in soccer and gymnastics. "But I was getting up at 4:30 a.m. and going to bed before my kids did," recalls Dick. "I'd written 6,000 columns about Dallas, and I didn't feel I had any more in me. I was ready for a change."

The catalyst was the death of Polly's mother at the age of 69. "We began to think about all the places she'd wanted to go, the trips she didn't take," says Polly. In short order the couple sold their house for $75,000 (which helped finance the trip), arranged for relatives to receive their mail, assembled schoolbooks for the children, edited their 600 record albums into 30 tapes and hit the gas. "This is either going to be a great socioliterary experience," Polly said to Dick, "or you're the first guy who ever dragged his wife along on his midlife crisis."

For the book he plans to write, Dick kept a journal that reflected the varied textures of the places they found. Carson City, Nev. was "boisterous in the right ways. A place where it's possible to raise kids and croupiers." They walked the craggy shoreline of the Northwest ("Yachats, Oreg., pop. 510. Monolithic rocks the color of elephants jumping into the iridescent, spuming Pacific"). One day in Hannibal, Mo., when Dick was waxing eloquent about Mark Twain, they decided to trace the Mississippi to its source. "All the kids were seeing was a dirty river with a lot of soybean barges on it," he says. They tracked the river to Lake Itasca, Minn. "The kids were enthralled."

Gillian and Gavin's schoolwork often followed the road map. They learned about American history at battlefields. "In the West we concentrated on Indian history. Often the children made us stop and go to a library to get answers to their questions," says Polly, who supervised assignments in the back seat and at motels at night.

But the journey became an interior one as well, as each person began to see new dimensions of the others. Dick and Polly watched their children emerge from urban cocoons. "At first they were mortified and embarrassed when I would stop and ask some geezer why he was living where he was and what it was like," says Dick. "But as the trip went on, they began to ask questions too and make perceptions about people." Adds Polly: "It's made us a true family unit. We've put a lot into perspective about what's important and what isn't."

As the getaway nears its end, the Hitts are still not sure where they will settle down this fall. "We had hoped to find a place along the way that would speak to us, beckon to us to put down roots," says Dick. They did—each of them. "Gavin liked Tennessee, Gilly favored Montana, and Polly was partial to Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine." Hitt himself likes Southern California, where the family stayed for a three-month respite this spring in Palm Desert. In nearby Palm Springs, Hitt found a bizarre crossroad of the old and new. "Computerized sprinkler heads rise from the desert soil twice daily to water the lush grass, then dutifully retract so as not to stub the toes of the stars and the potentates," he recorded. "Limos carry them to restaurants and boutiques built on land still owned by American Indians, who collect big rent. This is a symmetrical happiness whose pursuit was never dreamed of by Thomas Jefferson." For Polly, the hardest part of the trip is yet to come: "Settling down, cooking, keeping house and schedules again."

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