Vicarious vacations 01: Mount Rushmore, 1994

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THEN: In July 1994, the Tran-Nguyen family, on its first cross-country trip, paused at Mount Rushmore for a photo. Father Khanh encircles 12-year-old David, 8-year-old Loc and 11-year-old Huong below four granite presidents. Hai Thi, wife and mom of the crew, snapped the shot. (Courtesy Hai Thi Nguyen)
NOW: The Mount Rushmore National Memorial, despite its popularity, has a profoundly checkered history. Created on land sacred to — and stolen from — the Lakota people, the carved granite mountain draws more than two million visitors a year. (Kristel Schneider)
Mount Rushmore, 1994
‘First ‘real’ vacation since coming to the U.S.A.’
Hai Thi Nguyen
By Jean Sherrard

When legendary climber George Mallory was asked why he wanted to scale Everest, he uttered what are known as the three most famous words in mountaineering: “Because it’s there.”

Hai Thi Nguyen has an even pithier reason for her travel passion. “Curiosity,” she declares. “When I was young, I would hear about a place — Old Faithful, the Eiffel Tower, Vatican City — and wanted to see it.”

But her envisioned trips were delayed by decades of conflict, exodus and building a new life.

After the Vietnam War, Hai Thi and her husband, Khanh Tran, joined hundreds of thousands of other refugees, finally arriving in the United States with an infant son in 1982.

In Vietnam, Hai Thi had taught biology at a high school. In Seattle, she trained to be a nurse, while Khanh, formerly a civil engineer, found contracting work. Two more children arrived.

Hai Thi began to realize her travel dreams in 1992.

In a thick family album, along photos of a sunny Oregon coast, her all-caps annotation reads: “First ‘real’ vacation since coming to the U.S.A.” For two weeks in June, the family circled the West, exploring California, Arizona, Wyoming, Utah and Montana. In 1994, they visited Mount Rushmore in South Dakota.

Each subsequent year, the travel gyre widened exponentially, at first encompassing the Americas, then Europe, Asia, North Africa, Russia and Australia.

This past summer, Hai Thi, widowed and in her mid-60s, spent two months on a solo road trip to Maine. Why? With a shrug, she states the obvious: “Because I’d never seen it before.”

WEB EXTRAS

Here is a video interview of Hai Thi Nguyen.

VIDEO (12:01):Click the photo to see Hai Thi Nguyen talk of her many trips in the United States and the world. (Jean Sherrard)

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