Mariela Dacal, 50, was one of the many Cubans who came to the United States in search of the “American Dream” during the 1980s. She is a courageous, hard-working, single mother who’s dedicated her life to her children. She is also my mom.
Until COVID-19 struck, my mother had never driven through the backwoods of her adopted country. From this past May to August, she, my 16-year-old brother Daniel and I crammed into a worn, white 2008 Dodge Sprinter van and drove 6,294 miles across 15 states, ten national parks and seven state parks.
Some people thought we were crazy. But, my mom says, opportunities like this happen only once in a lifetime. We learned a lot about one another on the trip and became part of a family legacy of travelers who trace back to a crowded neighborhood in the biggest city on an island 228 miles away.
“I believe everyone should fill their lives with adventures, not material things,” mom said. “I want to have stories to tell my future grandchildren, not stuff to show off. On this trip, I learned that you don’t need a big house with a white picket fence to be happy. Instead, immerse yourself in something larger than yourself, and sometimes the best way to do that is when you have nothing but a little bit of courage and imagination.”
Before embarking on this journey with my mother, as her eldest daughter, I believed I knew her better than anyone else. However, I was sadly mistaken. Now I see her in a whole new light. Though we were sometimes worn out and often tired of driving, my mother and I emerged from the bubble on a voyage of self-discovery.
A WOMAN WITH A DREAM
My mom was born on December 27, 1970, in Havana to Spanish chemistry professor Rafael Dacal and accountant Zulema Rodriguez. Back then, Cuba was ruled by Fidel Castro and a band of revolutionaries. That left many Cubans no choice but to leave their homeland to escape persecution and poverty. There were waves of emigration during the decade that followed, and Miami was often the destination.
When my mother was only ten years old, her mother and three-year-old brother Rafaelito fled on an airplane Cubans called “el lechero” — the milk truck — because it made multiple stops. They left my grandfather behind as the Cuban government did not allow him to leave.
After 18 hours and four stops in Costa Rica, Honduras, Panama and Colombia, my mother, grandmother and uncle made it to Caracas. They had no money and no one to call, but a kind airport staff member saw my grandmother was lost and offered her $20 to buy food. From the moment abuela walked out of the Simon Bolivar International Airport, my grandmother was determined to show her children every corner of this new country. This fueled her passion for travel.
“I always regretted never traveling around [Cuba], and it still haunts me till this day,” abuela said. “Once my children and I landed in Venezuela, I knew that I had an obligation not only to myself but to my children to see this new country we’d call home.”
Over the next six years, abuela, along with my uncle and mother, visited a new place every weekend. There was Merida, Lake Maracaibo, the Amazon rainforest, and almost every beach on the map.
Seeing her mother’s determination made a huge impact on my mom’s life. “It was as if my mother was bitten by a travel bug and it has somehow implanted itself into me from a very early age,” said my mother.
ADVENTURE IS OUT THERE
In 1986 my mother, grandmother and uncle moved to the United States. It was scary at first, she says, yet her biggest concern was the lack of weekend getaways.
After graduating from Coral Park Senior High at age 17, my mom and her best friend, Marislady, saved enough money to take a solo trip to Argentina and Brazil. They visited Buenos Aires, Mendoza, the Amazon, and the Cataratas del Iguazú. Because of her keen sense of curiosity to visit new destinations, she worked hard to have the ability to seize these opportunities.
My mom has worked diligently for the past ten years to ensure our family spends every holiday vacation in a new destination. Even as a single mother of three children, she has been driven to see the world, following my grandmother’s footsteps. Although we’ve visited different states within the U.S., most of our previous vacations have taken place in countries across Europe.
BEGIN THE CLIMB
Due to the unexpected coronavirus outbreak in 2019 and 2020, we were confined at home. In the early months of 2021, my mother decided to buy a van to spend the summer months exploring our home country as a family. At first, I believed this was just for fun, but then I saw the van parked outside in our driveway.
When my grandmother heard the news from my mother, she was also in disbelief. She thought my mother had made a rash decision.
Yet, after much convincing from my mother, she was shockingly happy for her and jealous for not being extended an invitation. “Oye, no se olviden de mí y mandame muchas fotos. Te quiero muchisimo, mis tesoros,” shouted my grandmother on the speakerphone as we packed our van for the journey ahead on May 26.
After months of van renovations and ordering supplies, we hit the road. While my mother took the wheel like a natural, my younger brother Daniel and I sat in the back seat, holding on for dear life.
During the first four days, we made the long trek north and west through the panhandle along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. There were countless stops along the way. After driving well into the night, we finally made it to our first stop: New Orleans. Taking in the alluring smells of spicy cajun cuisine and delectable beignets were on my mother’s to-do list. We roamed Bourbon Street and the French Quarter, feasting on pounds of crawfish and shrimp po’boys.
It was an incredible experience, but it was time to move on to our next stop.
As we drove 14 days through Texas and New Mexico, I could feel my mother questioning herself: Was all this travel worth it? “It felt like hours of driving past nothing but scorching deserts,” she said. “Yet, all of a sudden the most beautiful sites just appeared out of nowhere once we arrived in Sedona, Arizona.”
On June 19 at 6 a.m., after more than two weeks on the road, we hiked up a strenuous trail to the Devil’s Bridge. As the sun hit its peak, the heat beat down on our necks and our feet grew heavier with each step. The trail became endless stairs carved into red stone along the hilltops. It took all our energy and strength to climb up these massive rocks without falling.
I can still remember my brother screaming, “It’s about goddamn time. We’re burning daylight over here,” as I stopped every minute to catch my breath.
“I am so out of shape,” I yelled. “I think I’m having heart palpitations…kidney failure.”
Little did we know there would be a two-hour wait to take a picture. The line went on for what felt like miles as people patiently stood in line to take a photo on the infamous Devil’s Bridge. After waiting for almost three hours in line, it was our turn. My mother and I raced onto the bridge like children in a candy store. As we smiled at the camera, I could see the tears of joy in her eyes.
My mother’s patience was constantly put to the test by my brother’s and my constant whining. Take, for instance, my brother shouting on our six-hour hike on Bright Angel Trail in the Grand Canyon, “This is child abuse. I cannot believe you forced me to come on this trip. All these red rocks look exactly the same.”
My mom kept her composure and replied, “Be one with nature, darling, and smile for the camera. You’ll thank me when you’re older.”
On June 25, we made our way through the endless forests that surrounded Sequoia & King Canyon National Park in California, where we came across a female black bear and her two cubs on our hike to Tokopah Falls. “It was a thrilling yet life-altering experience to see these creatures in their natural element,” my mom said. “I wish I could’ve caught it on camera.”
The changes in terrain looked absolutely nothing like the fast-paced metropolis where I live in South Florida.
During the three-month-long trip, we traveled the bayous in New Orleans, canyons throughout Arizona, the flashing lights of the strip in Las Vegas, the forests of California, and the grasslands in Wyoming were quite mesmerizing.
Then we came home to the flatlands of South Florida, where the only hills are landfills. My grandmother was relieved we all arrived in one piece and excited to hear all about the places we had visited. Thanks to our flexible working schedules, my mother and I were able to continue our work remotely while on the trip, sometimes making stops at local coffee shops or hotels for free wifi.
Today, my mother reflects on these memories as if they were a distant friend, someone she will forever hold dear to her heart. She took every opportunity she could to get off the interstate and actually see America and its people. To have the ability to make connections with individuals from all walks of life who can provide a different perspective to the America my family and I know and love. Further fueling her plans to embark on an East Coast road trip across the U.S. next summer.
“I will look back on this trip filled with excitement and laughter as another experience I was able to share with my children,” she said. “It was these shared moments and uncharted roads that made me understand a poem I once read by Robert Frost, ‘I took the road less traveled by and that made all the difference.'”
Looking back on this trip, I saw a different side to my mother that I hadn’t seen before. Her willingness and drive have always been her strengths, but her ability to take on such a challenge on her own in a spontaneous way was truly inspiring. Her continuous motivation and positive outlook allowed me to enjoy the marvels we saw more than I would have believed possible. I will cherish the beautiful memories of this trip forever.
The journey allowed me to see the world through my mother’s eyes, as she had done with my grandmother years before. Moving forward, I hope to one day show my children a similar adventure.