Missouri mom and son visits all 50 states

August 3, 2018

CARTHAGE, Mo. (AP) — Pauletta Keller has taken some trips recently —“a whole bunch of them,” she said.

But for her, they now exist largely in photographs and in prompts offered by her son and travel companion, Kevin Keller. That’s not to say the 88-year-old doesn’t enjoy the in-the-moment pleasures of discovering a new city or landscape, but the memories fade fast.

Ever since Kevin moved back to the Carthage area in 2013 to help with the full-time care of his mother, he has made it his mission to take the elderly woman on the trip of a lifetime. In those first few years, he wanted to keep his mother, who has dementia, entertained. But within the past year, he pushed to visit all 50 states — and the pair accomplished that goal this summer.

“I am the most blessed man in the world,” he told The Joplin Globe , his mother’s hand grasped tightly in his.

The first trip was in May 2015 to New York City, where Kevin had previously lived for more than a decade. He booked the trip because he was “starting to get bored” with life back in Southwest Missouri, and he decided to take Pauletta, who previously spent nearly 20 years as a teacher in Carthage, because she had always enjoyed visiting him while he lived there.

On the day that the pair rode the subway into Times Square, Kevin got his first glimpse of what traveling with his mother would be like. A double-decker bus passed by them, displaying a map of the city on its side. Pauletta turned to her son and asked, “When are you taking me to New York?”

“That first trip, it was like, ‘Oh my gosh, what are we getting ourselves into?’” Kevin said.

But when the mother returned home, it was only a few days before she was asking her son where they were going next. So he booked their next trip to Louisiana, Florida and the Carolinas.

And it was on this trip when Kevin got his next glimpse of his mother — that she was fearless, that she would not be swayed by her age or disease. At Great Smoky Mountains National Park, it was she who insisted climbing to the top of the 6,643-foot-high Clingmans Dome, the highest point in the park and the third-highest mountain east of the Mississippi River.

“There were people hugging trees and passed out on benches because it was so hot, and here’s the Little Cherokee with her head down, heading to the top,” he said, referring to his mother with a nickname she uses for herself because of her Native American heritage. “Every year, she has continued to accomplish feats like that that has park rangers snapping photos.”

Trips to states all over the country followed in the summers of 2016 and 2017. Despite venturing out in all directions, they would return time and time again to their favorite place — Utah and the Monument Valley region on the Arizona-Utah border, which they love for its stunning landscapes and its “wow factor,” Kevin said.

The trips began as a way to entertain Pauletta, who because of the dementia functions as a 3-year-old, her son said. And he was able to take her with him only because of the help he receives for her care from his sister, Kris Keller Vinson, who keeps their mother on weekdays during the academic year and manages the medical and financial matters of her estate.

“She’s very cognizant and aware when we’re home and we’ve walked around the block 100 times,” Kevin said of his mother. “It’s the routine of everyday life that gets boring.”

But the mother has continually surprised her son. She would ask for more and more trips, and Kevin said he believes traveling “brings her back to life.” He jokes that over the course of the past three years, he has grown older, while his mother has become younger.

“I’ve always pushed myself, thinking this is going to be the last summer (to travel) so we’ve got to make it the best,” he said. “It actually becomes challenging. Who’s going to give out first — her or me?”

Last winter, Kevin realized that he and his mother only needed to visit seven more states in order to check all 50 off the list. So they hit up Hawaii over spring break. By now, Pauletta was largely unable to even understand that they were in an airport waiting for a flight, or to remember over the course of the day which state they were visiting.

Yet she clearly was content to live in the present, discovering over and over the thrill that she was viewing Hawaii’s gorgeous mountains and volcanoes.

“She’d be riding around and her jaw would just drop,” Kevin said. “For two days, no matter how many times she would ask (where we were), the response was shock and awe.”

The pair ended their all-50-states mission this summer with a visit to Alaska. Even at 88 years old, Pauletta completed two 2-mile trails, including one to get to the top of Exit Glacier, a major attraction of Kenai Fjords National Park.

“The more challenging the trail, the better she does,” Kevin said.

Kevin said he has continued to take his mother on cross-country trips despite her mind’s deterioration because of his love for her and his desire to spend time with her. He acknowledges that the parental roles have “flipped,” as he’s now the caregiver and must watch over his mother as one would a child, but he strives to be an inspiration for others who have elderly parents in need of care.

“This isn’t about being a good son,” he said. “It’s about doing what should be done. I hope it’s an inspiration. As a society, we are not prepared for the people my age who are going back to full-time parenting because of situations like this.”

Kevin, who works with international students at Missouri Southern State University, said the trips have also helped him see the U.S. in a new light. An avid traveler, he boasts about having visited more than 30 countries, but the travels with his mother have renewed his interest in the beauty and uniqueness that can be found right here at home.

“I couldn’t be happier,” he said. “People are always like, ‘When are you going to write your book?’ And I’m like, ‘It’s lost in a story that has no ending.’”

With that, Kevin turned to his mother.

“Do you want to take another trip?” he asked.

Grinning, Pauletta raised her arms in the air.

“Anytime,” she responded.


Information from: The Joplin (Mo.) Globe, http://www.joplinglobe.com

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