Roam schooling

Paul Levy, Star Tribune

January 4, 2005 


The RV leaned perilously against a tree, its left rear wheels suspended in the air after slipping off a gravel retaining wall near Colorado Springs last September. "That tree," sixth-grader Nate Kirkwood recalled, "was all that was keeping the RV from flipping over."

His friends back in Minnetonka had just started the school year, but Nate and his family were three weeks into the educational journey of a lifetime -- a full year traveling around the country in a 39-foot motor home.

The Kirkwoods -- Scott and Brenda, both 43, and their children, Jenna, 10, Nate, 11, and Leah, 13 -- already had survived a close encounter with a skunk in Ashland, Wis. In Nebraska, they learned firsthand what sharp sandburs can do to bicycle tires.

But when they reached Colorado, Brenda quickly realized, "I really don't like heights." And her most common phrase became: "Take this part really slow, Scott."

The infamous turn came in the Garden of the Gods RV park when, as Scott drove in the dark, an unseen tree branch smashed one of the RV's headlights. The rear left wheels of the RV then slipped off a retaining wall and the Kirkwoods were treated to an instant lesson in gravity.

The Kirkwood children, who forfeited a year at the Chapel Hill School in Chanhassen, watched in amazement as the RV's hydraulic levelers were used to allow blocks to be put under the tires. A woodsman cut down the tree without damaging any campsites or the RV. "Harvey" the RV pulled inch by inch to safety as the ground was built up under the tires, while onlookers cheered. And the Kirkwoods not only filed away an experience "that's one of those stories that's a blast telling afterwards," but also benefited from a lesson in generosity and faith, Scott Kirkwood said.

"You can't teach these experiences by opening a book," said Brenda Kirkwood. "It's been neat to see this country, the real thing, not just a picture. There's no way you can capture in that little space in a camera the experience of being on a mountaintop."

But, as Scott Kirkwood wrote in Week 2 of his Dad's Journal in early September: "For those thinking this is a long vacation for Brenda and I, think again. With all of the prep put into the trip and now the travel, schooling and surviving, we've probably never worked harder."

He's not complaining. Scott Kirkwood says he's dreamed about this yearlong sojourn for as long as he and Brenda have had kids. Maybe longer.

Raised in Battle Creek, Mich., Scott has spent all 21 years of his engineering career at General Mills. Brenda, who grew up in Wells, Minn., south of Mankato, trained in Paris to become a chef. She managed the kitchen startup of Cafe Latte in St. Paul before becoming a full-time mom.

"Scott, being part of corporate America, he would be at work, come home, decide, 'This is our agenda for the night,' " Brenda said. " 'We have to be here tonight.' "

Living a dream

After 15 years of marriage, Scott and Brenda wanted something different. Through years of research, saving, planning and prayer, they broke the monotony in dramatic fashion.

They bought an RV, got out the atlas, set up a Web site ( and hit the road. Devout Christians, the Kirkwoods have faithfully visited places of worship throughout their trip. And Brenda and Scott both have home-schooled the kids, with a prepared curriculum, along the way.

"You can't give them the same education they would get in school," Brenda said. "But that's why we're doing this.

"What they come out with at the end of the year is going to be very different than their classmates."

It hasn't been perfect. Jenna says she didn't want to look out the window while the RV was climbing Pikes Peak and that the motor home "really shakes and rattles" when it goes over bumps. Nate misses his friends and not having his own room. And he hasn't met a lot of other boys on the trip.

Leah sometimes misses "not being able to get away." But that's also been a plus, she said.

"Even when we're all doing our own little things, we're together," she said.

Added Brenda: "Now we're not as disjointed as a family. In some ways, you could call it a pressure cooker because you can't get very far away in an RV. If there are issues to be resolved between any two people, you can go for a walk, but it still forces conversation. We work things out. There's more of a team attitude. You give a little now and maybe next time will be your time."

After brief forays into Wisconsin and the Dakotas, the Kirkwoods made their way through Nebraska and Colorado, and headed northwest, eventually reaching Washington. They traveled down the Pacific coast to San Diego, through Las Vegas and then hit Arizona and the Southwest. Recently, they visited the Hoover Dam, Death Valley and the Grand Canyon.

"If I had to choose between being in the middle of nowhere or in a big city," said Leah, "I'd rather be in the middle of nowhere."