When Melanie Gow gave her boys a fistful of $2 bills to spend on trip across America, she didn’t realise how it would completely transform their journey.
Have you ever been given something so thoughtful, so pure in intention, so offered in love, that it changes your life? Once, I was given a handful of $2 bills before a road trip I was taking with my two sons, and each one opened up a world filled with random acts of kindness and most extraordinary encounters.
Because we were given the $2 bills, my sons, aged 8 and 11 at the time, decided we should give them away too. However, they chose to give them away with a direct intention of saying thank you to people for their help. Every day that we were on the road the two of them picked someone who helped us, introduced themselves, handed them one of our $2 bills and said thank you explaining how they had made our day.
It all started when I stopped for a coffee with a girlfriend from Chicago who wasn’t going to be in America at the time we were. Given a $2 bill for every birthday by her parents, she chose to give 53 of hers to me, to remind me every day that we were in her country that she would be thinking of us.
Each one was given away by us in turn to say thank you to a stranger who made our day; one every day for the 53 days that we travelled across America from Los Angeles to New York one long, eccentric summer.
Through them, by looking for people who made our day, every day, we focused on the good that people did, every day we saw the beautiful, the kind, the generous, through random acts of kindness in 53 extraordinary encounters.
Sometimes it was something simple, that perhaps the person did routinely but didn’t know made a real difference. Like the platform guard on the Blue Line from O'Hare to downtown, in her hometown of Chicago, who helped us navigate the daunting ticket machine in time to catch the next train. To him he was just doing his job, to us it made all the difference between feeling tired and disorientated, and a second wind. When my sons gave him a $2 bill he told them is was the first time anyone had told his job mattered.
At other times the acts were grand gestures of tenderness that reached deep inside and germinated compassion, connection and a love that showed us that’s the way we are meant to be.
We arrived on the shores of Houghton Lake, Michigan at the end of one long day driving and, in an attempt to end the day with a little fun, I was fruitlessly trying to light a campfire from scraps of paper and a lighter we found in the glove compartment of our rental car. The next thing I knew is a pair of strong legs strode into my view and as I followed them up to a huge grin, his deep voice was saying “That’s not a real Michigan man fire.”
The next thing we knew, Aaron Raha, and his team of construction workers joined us and they soon had the boys running off to find drift wood, they taught them to rebuild the fire so it would burn, how to light it and, most of all, how to sit around it and 'chew the fat' telling local ghost stories late into the night.
Working away from home for the week, they invited us to come back with them for the weekend and took the boys into their lives and hearts. We were treated to the Grand Haven Coastguard Festival Fireworks Extravaganza; we drank beers from a truck, in a car park, watching a dazzling display shot off from Dewey Hill across the channel, accompanied by choreographed music from Grand Haven's Musical Fountain in a noisy, dark, loud awe.
They took us to listen to the song of the singing sand on the perfect beaches of the fresh water Lake Michigan, they taught us how to make baloney faces, acorn cap whistles, and grass seed guns. They taught us how to light fireworks, make birdcalls and dune jump, gull spook, snake wrangle and to kill mosquitoes, they even taught us to spit ‘like a Michigan man’.
We camped in a family garden, we ate at their kitchen table, we drank deep of the friendship of strangers, and most of all they taught my boys their way to be fathers, husbands and family men.
There were also seven wonderful women who ran the Best Western on Houghton Lake, each one a fully paid-up member of the non-judgmental club, with big hearts and different stories who were a readily available chorus of pithy comments and cheerleading. And then there was Tina, we bonded over a joke at a comedy night in the Limberlost restaurant on the lake. She took me to the limits of Michigan in her Corvette, to shop for silly things, taste thirty flavours of fudge, and eat a huge steak dinner.
She then persuaded her husband, Jim, to take us up in his two-seater, twin prop plane and I found myself flying out over the seven lakes of Michigan at sunset. In moments like those, you feel like the luckiest person alive.
We drove an RV through Arizona and sat down to dinner one night at sunset in the famous Grand Canyon Lodge Dining Room at the North Rim. There we were making one of our dreams come true, and the views from the restaurant picture windows are absolutely incredible. There we were, three hours from anywhere, deep in the national park, finishing our hickory-sauce coated ribs, creamed sweetcorn and double-fried chips, when I realized my debit card wasn’t accepted in the restaurant.
I called the waiter over to explain and he said; “Ma’am your check has been picked up by that family, pointing to a table across the restaurant.
My eldest, Ben, was so impressed he pushed his chair back from our table, got up and strode over to them and, reaching out his hand, he said, “One day I will do this for someone.”
Before we left Arizona we drove into a freak force of nature, a macroburst storm, an upside-down tornado, 16 blocks wide with winds up to 150 mph. Pylons were falling in the road, branches flew past the windscreen and, as the sudden flood water is sucked into the air filters, people floated past us stranded in their cars.
We made it to the car park of a Golden Coral, a family-style restaurant chain with a large all-you-can-eat buffet, just as a power-out took hold. Yet the manager came out in the howling wind and rain, insisting we took refuge inside.
Waving a Zippo in one hand to show us the food, Brian, the chef, dismissed our anxiety with the other hand, and made us sit down to a banquet. We sat in the dark, in damp swim-suits and cowboy hats, as plates were piled up next to us, followed by more with slices of cake, ice cream and bowls of sweets, until the storm passed. When we gave him a $2 bill he insisted it was for all the staff in the restaurant, and his whole city of Mesa, Maricopa County, that night.
Sometimes it was nothing dramatic; Daniel, a vendor renting Segways and because my boys were underage and couldn’t hire one he let them “road test” one, for over an hour, just because he wanted to make that small dream come true.
Sometimes it was something so ordinary as to be easily overlooked. We drove along the length of Lake Erie to Cleveland, a city that is proud to be conveniently located within 500 miles of 43% of the US population. Right there at the unlikely off-centre of it all, there was a waitress in the House of Blues Restaurant, Nikki, who turned the 'children meal' drinks into bottomless ones when my boys finished them before the food was served, saying; “I understand, kids get thirsty and need a little more on a hot day.”
When we told her how much she had made our day she burst into tears. She was a single mum living in a one room apartment working two jobs and she said it is the nicest thing someone has done for her in a long time, yet there she was doing nice things for people as a routine.
Sometimes it was just being human; Joe, the security guard at the hotel in New York that was recommending we took the $60 car service into the city, talked us through the Q6 bus route into New York, the subway switch and how to get the kids on for free. It was a great bus trip, all the passengers included us in their conversations, the driver was obliging, complete strangers helped us, even the lunatics were harmlessly chatty.
Walking in Times Square, navigating the Naked Cowboy, street dancers, store mascots, NYPD leaning against their cars, the TV news crew vox-popping and the distinctive yellow cabs, all lit up by neon lights, digital ticker-tape and animated adverts, felt like a party thrown just for us. A celebration of life.
We were there on our last day, we had done it, coast to coast across America, 15 states, 53 days, two boys and their mother, and no more $2 bills.
Each exchange was human at its core, each one exposed the truth that there are no good people or bad people, just what we do that is good or does harm. Love in the heart of a mother is the same as the one in a heart of a cattle rustler or a stock market trader, it is love whoever it comes from. There are good deeds or bad deeds, it’s what we do or refuse to do that shapes us.
Everything about kids who travel, the dreams they have, they way they think about the world, is different to those who don’t. It is a reality that borders have less meaning today, the atmosphere is a global resource, the seas swim between us all, the issues of environment, trade, and health, along with global technological advances of the last century, have left us with a state of connectedness like no other time in history. Except, as my 15 year-old, Harry, corrected me; “When it was the supercontinent Pangaea of the late Paleozoic and early Mesozoic eras, mum.”
We owe it to our children to take them out in to the world to see it; see who they are sharing this planet with, who they are going to live with, work with, and play with, who they are connected to, who they are going to affect with their decisions, who they can fall in love with.
This is their world, they are the future, and for them it is one world. America taught us that if you want your children to find the beautiful, the kind, the generous, the good in people, meet it face to face, otherwise how are they every going to experience the joy of random acts of kindness in extraordinary encounters with strangers?
We don’t need half the stuff we have, we don’t need another pair of trainers that we are going to donate, unused, to the next charity bag that drop s through our letterbox. We need to take our children out into the world as far as we can afford to go, fly somewhere wondrously alien, drive further than we’ve ever been, take a bus to the next neighbourhood, walk if we have nothing else available to us.
We owe it to our children to travel with them, no expense spared.
This remains the best money I’ve every “spent”, it’s not too much of an exaggeration to say every single $2 bill made the world a better place.
What America taught my children
Melanie Gow is a writer, speaker and photographic artist who believes life is a brief shot at something incredible. Her book, Walking With Angels, is the inspirational story of walking the Camino de Santiago with her sons, aged 12 and 16, and is available on Amazon. For more details about Melanie and her book, visit her website, myofficetoday.co.uk.
Main image: Friendly baristas in the USA (Shutterstock.com)