While celebrating July Fourth during the next few days, many Americans will call to mind patriotic songs like “America the Beautiful” and “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
But Nat and Sonya Hancock have a different perspective on those tunes after seeing the locales that inspired their writing — and so much more.
The Gainesville residents recently completed their quest to visit every U.S. state capital, a decadeslong mission that has spanned sea to shining sea and taken them from the northern tip of Maine to mile marker 1 in Key West, Fla.
“Our travels have not been for the weary at heart,” Sonya said. “On our travels, we often reminisced about great American songs and history, and the efforts other people have made in this country.”
Though the achievement of seeing all 50 capitals is impressive in its own right, that catalog only scratches the surface of the Hancocks’ extensive travels.
They’ve visited every U.S. military academy, all but one presidential library, about half of the national parks, several presidents’ homes and numerous battlefields, monuments and museums.
Besides their relentless pursuit of American history, the couple’s travels include trips to the football, basketball and baseball halls of fame, dozens of college campuses and their respective sports venues across the country.
“Nat has T-shirts from every college bookstore to prove it,” Sonya quipped.
Despite the diversity and scope of their destinations, the Hancocks are most proud of finally checking the last state capital off their list.
Oddly enough, Nat and Sonya didn’t set out with that goal in mind.
Their grand journey started about 35 years ago as simple family vacations with children Kevin and Kim, who recalled those trips to be geared toward college campuses and museums, with state capitals serving as secondary attractions.
Not until their children grew up and started families of their own did Nat and Sonya begin seeking out state capitals to cross off their bucket list.
“It seems that every year, we were always going somewhere,” said Kevin, who now lives in Birmingham, Alabama. “We never went anywhere to say we’re going to go see this or that capital. It was always something else.”
One thing was always constant, though — the Hancocks’ holidays were always packed with a different activity to do or sight to see each day.
“I have many memories from those trips,” said Kim, a Cumming resident. “My parents’ vacations were go, go, go. We didn’t go to relax; we saw museums and did everything we could in our allotted time. They were well-organized and planned for what we were doing each day and when and how we would do it.”
Even in the Hancocks’ later years, when their vacations usually included friends and in-laws instead of their adult children, they still stuck to that structured method.
Nat does all the research and planning before their trips, which generally last between a week and 10 days. The retired engineer has a natural affinity for U.S. history and handles the logistics simply because he enjoys doing the search and discovering the details.
“I have no academic background in American history,” Nat said. “I read a lot of nonfiction, mostly history. I went to Georgia Tech for engineering, so I’m not an expert by any stretch of the imagination. At this point, I’ve probably forgotten more than I’ve ever learned.”
In fact, Kevin said that when he and his mother finished tours of museums or capitals, his father was usually still lingering near the second or third exhibit. Sonya acknowledged the trips sometimes bored her but that she grew to appreciate the chance to see historical landmarks.
That quest for knowledge, coupled with an abundance of free time following retirement, was what prompted the Gainesville couple to explicitly visit the state capitals they hadn’t seen in hopes to hit all 50.
About 10 to 12 years ago, upon realizing they had already been to more than 30 capitals, the Hancocks figured they might as well try to finish the job.
The final stop was in Cheyenne, Wyoming, where they spent the fourth day of a trip that included tours of the U.S. Air Force Academy, Rocky Mountain National Park and the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, to name a few.
Nat and Sonya nearly missed out on Cheyenne due to about 14 inches of snow blocking roads, but it had melted by the time they headed there. Sonya, a retired nurse, said she and her husband didn’t make any fuss about completing their cross-country journey in late May.
“The end had been in sight for a while,” Nat said. “We knew we were going to make it. This whole thing started accidentally, and it also ended in a low-key way.”
Yet their efforts to see as much of the U.S. as they can has inspired their daughter, who along with her husband and two children aims to visit every state.
“I like to take my kids because I appreciated being included when I was younger,” Kim said.
Nat and Sonya said their “specific, single-purpose” trips became a bit tiresome as they neared the few remaining state capitals on their list. But they still encourage others to make an effort to see as much of the country as they can, starting locally with places like the Carter Center in Atlanta.
However, the Hancocks aren’t done traveling. They plan to celebrate their 50th anniversary, which coincidentally coincided with the trip to their 50th state capital, with a cruise to the Mediterranean in late August.
“I think it has kept them young,” Kevin said. “They’re pretty confident travelers. They’ve hit the big-ticket items in the states and have seen most the things worth seeing in America.”