How do you spend nearly 24 hours a day with another person for an entire year and not end up divorced, insane, or homicidal? Ask historian/Miami native Cesar Becerra and journalist/Connecticut Yankee Maud Dillingham. The married couple recently hit the road in their restored 1979 Chevrolet Malibu Classic station wagon. The point was not to test the strength of their young union but to check out the state of the union, as in the United States. Part sociological experiment, part research mission, and part pleasure trip, their journey was called Motoring into the Millennium. Their intention: to take the emotional temperature of the country on the eve of the year 2000.
They left Miami on January 1, 1999, put more than 43,000 miles on the car ("We haven't broken down at all!" reports Becerra), and will roll back into town around noon on Friday, December 31. Their lawyer's office or the loony bin is not on the itinerary. Instead their homecoming will take place from whence they departed, FIU's University Park Campus, during a celebration cleverly dubbed Miami's Only Midday Millennium Moment. The festivities include free pizza and crooning by gospel singer Gregory Rahming. Later that night the couple and their trusty wheels (decorated with an American flag, a map of the 50 states, and various sponsor logos) will appear in the Orange Bowl Parade. Afterward they'll take a short break and then get back to business, delivering slide lectures, writing a book, and tending to a millennium archive housed at FIU.
How does one year spent traversing the entire country in a car with your spouse change your perspective? "There was always this void like 'What the hell is out there?'" says the perpetually cheerful and chatty Becerra, speaking on the phone from a Drury Inn in Atlanta. "[The trek] quenched our thirst to find out. It has opened our world. We look at things totally differently now." What's surprising is that the couple was able to look at anything. A tight schedule devised by Dillingham had them spending less than a week in each state, sometimes one day in a city. They stayed in 300 places, relying on the kindness of friends, host families, campgrounds, or sponsors. Each week they produced a newsletter for subscribers, worked on their Web site (intothemillennium.com), and mailed objects back home. Dillingham also kept busy by tinkering with her hair, which went from medium-length chestnut brown to cropped platinum blonde to short brown with blond streaks.
It was a long strange trip indeed. Becerra, notorious for being a pack rat and lacking a sense of direction, did 70 percent of the driving. When his wife wasn't doing her 30 percent, she acted as navigator. "Some cars have the OnStar system, I have the MaudStar system," he jokes. "If Maud even once looks away, like something drops on the ground, she'll look up and I'm lost. If she falls asleep, that's it." During their jaunt in South Dakota, where they got special permission to stand on George Washington's head at Mt. Rushmore, the duo had a bit of company keeping them on course: A camera crew from the Travel Channel filmed them for its American Journeys series, premiering this month.
Among the memorable moments: The longest haul, a lonely 1000 miles from Alaska to Canada, which they completed in 26 hours. A good thing because the route was devoid of shelter and a gas station. Luckily they never once experienced an instance of crime on the odyssey. Favorite places included the entire state of California for Dillingham. Becerra was attracted to the small-town feel of Juneau, Alaska. Sites they'd resist revisiting: North Dakota for Becerra and Las Vegas for Dillingham. "It's hideous!" she says succinctly.
Although the car never made it to Hawaii as planned (shipping would have taken a week), the travelers did; and oddly enough, without asking they were given a 1999 Chevy Malibu as a rental. Their own Malibu, nicknamed Manifest Destiny, is still raring to go as are Becerra and Dillingham, both consumed by wanderlust. "We're addicted to travel," Becerra says. "The big dream now is to take the car to six continents. Yes, there are seven, but the seventh is Antarctica. We'll ship it there and declare victory. There's a plan; I'm not going to sleep until the thing is in the Smithsonian!"