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Sunday, September 14, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Family's Adventures On The Road Thrill Cybertravelers

AP

WICHITA, Kan. - The yearlong odyssey across the nation of one Midwestern family in a funky van fascinated thousands of Internet browsers who became a cyberspace cheering section.

Now, after 365 days on the road to all 50 states, logging 54,944 miles, burning 5,000 gallons of gasoline and spending $109,000, the Graham family is back home in Wichita.

The trip, detailed on the Internet, resulted in invitations for free lodging in scores of homes, from a guest house on the Puget Sound beach in Gig Harbor to the Long Island mansion of a New York City couple.

For years, Marlene and Craig Graham had worked during the day and evening, put their kids to bed, then worked some more.

They decided something had to change.

So last year they quit their jobs, sold their ranch-style house and their weekly community newspaper, bought a van, packed a tent and left Wichita to visit all the state capitals in the United States. They set out on July 4, 1996.

They were welcomed back in Wichita July 4 of this year with a fireworks display at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium.

They have settled into a newly rented apartment. Craig, 42, is resuming work as a real-estate agent. Marlene, 39, a former TV reporter, is writing a book about the journey.

Daughter Courtney, 12, has started the seventh grade after staying out of school for a year, and Collier, 4, is catching up on cartoons he missed while on the road.

It's their fans in cyberspace who feel let down.

Journey on home page

Before beginning their journey, the Grahams set up a home page on the Internet to keep in touch with family and friends.

Thousands of Net surfers wound up following their journey in cyberspace.

The Internet turned strangers into the Grahams' informal travel agents and transformed homes across America into friendly places to stay, do laundry and socialize.

"We never really knew any of these people - what they were like - until we showed up at their door," Marlene said.

In all, they stayed with about 70 families they met on the Internet, as well as with relatives and friends. Before they left, a campground chain gave them a VIP card good for a free stay at any of their facilities. Later, some hotels offered free rooms.

"It's like Wichita was our hometown when we left on this trip," Marlene said. "Now our hometown is America.

"Our lives have been an open book, but it's been nothing but a positive thing for us."

Their white customized van - painted with an American flag, a map of the nation and the Grahams' Internet address - was outfitted with closets for storage and chairs that tilted back for sleeping. Many of their meals were cheap fast-food sandwiches or picnic lunches. They often showered in campgrounds and freshened up in restaurant restrooms.

Courtney missed the sixth grade, but her parents "van-schooled" her with video and audio tapes and textbooks. Television was avoided to encourage the children to focus on the passing scenery.

A baseball and bat, a Frisbee and other toys were handy at parks and roadside stops. Courtney posted her own 50-state journal on the Internet and was a roving reporter for WAM!, the Encore Entertainment Groups channel for children.

The Grahams' Web site includes biographies of each family member, more than 100 pages of messages from fans, travel tips and summaries on each state visited. Daily activity notes that began as a few paragraphs after the departure from Wichita consumed multiple pages by the time they arrived home.

"I wound up doing two or three hours of writing every day for the Web site," Marlene said.

Marlene's notes are like letters to friends. One tells how the Grahams were grand marshals at a Walt Disney World parade. They met the governors of 20 states.

When the Grahams were headed to Maine, one man supplied the address of thriller author Stephen King near Bangor. Other people checked the Web site for vacation tips. Many families wrote to say they were inspired to take similar trips.

"We're just a family taking a trip," Marlene said. "I guess it's neat for us to know there are so many people who had this yearning to go out and explore our country."

They still receive daily e-mail, sometimes from loyal followers hungry for more daily updates. Members of one family wrote to say they had read the updates each evening while the Grahams were on the road.

"Oh, they are so sad because what are they going to do after dinner now?" Marlene said. "People now are intrigued with how our lives are going to pan out."

Families met on road to visit

Two families who met the Grahams on the road plan to visit them in Wichita. And one man, a stranger, wrote to say he was moving to Wichita.

The Grahams had become used to such casual familiarity during their journey.

Estela Hammond of the Chicago suburb of Naperville read about the Grahams in a magazine in June, looked up their Web site and invited them to stay with her family. Two days later, the Grahams were at the Hammonds' house eating grilled pork ribs and corn on the cob. They stayed for two nights and three days.

When the Grahams described problems with a video camera, strangers flooded Radio Shack with e-mail urging the company to fix it, Marlene said. Company employees arranged to meet the family on the road and repair the camera.

The trip wasn't completely idyllic.

"There were definitely times when we wanted to toss the kids out the window and they wanted to toss us out the window," Craig said.

More seriously, while they were in Philadelphia, $4,000 worth of electronic equipment was stolen from the van. The theft was widely publicized, and so many Philadelphians e-mailed their apologies that the Grahams decided to return to the City of Brotherly Love to let the people know there were no hard feelings.

Except for a minor fender-bender in Ohio, there were no traffic accidents on the trip.

By the time the Grahams got back home, it was hard to return to a daily routine.

"I think we'd gotten used to going out and doing something new every day," Craig says.

Whether or not they ever buy another house, Marlene and Craig know they don't want to return to life as they knew it before their adventure.

"That's one thing we learned from this trip," Marlene said. "Don't ever get yourself so deeply entrenched that you can't enjoy life."

People from around the world have written urging the Grahams to explore their countries. Another trip is always a possibility, Marlene said.

She'll keep you posted.

"I want to read what happens to us, too," Marlene said.

The Grahams' Web site is at: http://www.usatrip.org

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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