"I was 46 years old, and to have your husband drop dead with your two kids looking at you, it was like someone ripped our life apart," Laura Fahrenthold tells PEOPLE

By Liz McNeil
June 19, 2020 05:46 PM
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courtesy Laura Fahrenthold

It all started in 2010 at a campground in Portland, Oregon.

"I had to pee in the middle of the night and I was terrified," says Laura Fahrenthold. "So I brought the box of ashes to the outhouse with me. I tripped and it spilled and dusted me all over. Now looking back, I like to say, that's when he broke out of the box."

"He" was her husband Mark Pittman, a strapping 6-foot-4 investigative journalist for Bloomberg News. One year earlier, on Nov. 25, 2009, he had died of a massive heart attack at their home in Yonkers, New York at age 52.

"My daughters, Nell and Susannah, were 8 and 10 and they saw it happen," says Fahrenthold. "I was 46 years old, and to have your husband drop dead with your two kids looking at you, it was like someone ripped our life apart. Like a bomb went off."

"We were all traumatized," she says. "There came a point, I just thought, let's get the hell out of here."

And so she took a hiatus from her city government job and took her daughters camping across the country.

"We brought Mark's ashes with us because I was afraid to leave them at home, in case something happened to them," says Fahrenthold. "I didn't intend to buy an RV but I did and we ended up traveling 31,152 miles and spreading his ashes all across America."

She wrote about their adventures in The Pink Steering Wheel Chronicles in 2018. As another Father's Day approaches without her husband, she looks back on the decision that changed their life.

Laura Fahrenthold with daughters Nell and Susannah in Sedona, Arizona
courtesy Laura Fahrenthold

"It was a combination that I was terrified and I also had a sixth sense," she says. "I was afraid their father's death would define my daughters' lives and they would have problems because they were so young to witness something like that. I wanted to build other muscles so they became stronger and would learn how to be self-reliant. They learned to go fishing, to read a map, change a tire, and lay in a field and blow through blades of grass to whistle."

"I wanted to build them up so they would have experiences that were bigger than their dad's death," she adds. "If they climbed the mountain, or went white water rafting or built a campfire, they could look back and feel that."

At first, she wasn't sure how her daughters would react to the idea of sprinkling their father's ashes.

"We were hiking in Oregon, and I asked the girls if they wanted to sprinkle a little bit of Dad from the treetop. It became a sort of game for them. Nell said, 'It's like having mini funerals.' I'd ask, 'Where do you think Dad wants to be sprinkled?' We went to Niagara Falls, Graceland, and the Grand Canyon. We went the Badlands because Dad was a badass and we went to the the largest picnic basket in America in Newark, Ohio, because we had a picnic wedding."

"It was a beautiful, but also a wacky, family vacation," she continues.

After a few weeks of pitching tents — and a mudslide later — they saw a beat up RV for sale on the side of the road in Washington State.

"I just did a U-turn," says Fahrenthold. "My mom wired me some money, and that set us off on a whole new course. We named it 'HaRVey, the RV.'"

Laura Fahrenthold with late husband Mark Pittman

For the next five years, the trio traveled all over America and Canada during summers and school holidays.

"You name it, we've probably sprinkled Mark there," she says. "And another part was, wherever my girls went as they grew up, their Dad would always be there."

"I wanted to honor him," she says. "He was an investigative journalist in the process of suing the Federal Reserve for not revealing to taxpayers the extent of bank bailout during the 2008 housing crisis. He was a bootstraps guy from a blue-collar family. He really believed that Americans needed to know the truth."

In 2015, she and her daughters made the final stop.

"We took him back to his boyhood home in Kansas and then to the sunflower field where he asked me to marry him, and we released him there for the last time," she recalls.

The story took another twist after she got home and found a folder called "Mark's Writing" in a filing cabinet they'd shared for 15 years.

"I'd never seen it before and I opened it and he had written a journal while on a motorcycle trip across the country in his twenties," Fahrenthold says. "Many entries were reminiscent of things we had experienced and places we'd traveled. He also foreshadowed his own death. There was a Hopi Mesa Indian reservation he'd been to — the same one we'd driven seven hours to. For some reason, I had felt compelled to go there. It was almost as if he was guiding us but we didn't know it."

Laura Fahrenthold book cover
courtesy Laura Fahrenthold

"You know, I was terrified a lot of the time," she says, "like when you're running out of gas in Carlsbad and the next gas station is 150 miles away, but people always helped us. I look at my girls now and they definitely did not have the same childhood as most kids growing up in the suburbs. I raised them to be independent because I had to think, what if I drop dead?"

Today, Nell, 20, is a photographer studying at FIT, and Susannah, 19, an EMT, teaches sailing and navigation for Tall Ships America.

Looking back she says, "I think there's nothing better than road therapy."

"In supermarkets and Walmarts, I'd buy a box of cookies and I'd offer them to ladies in line and sometimes we'd end up talking about my husband, and by the end, I'd be crying in their arms." she says. "It was as if I was grieving in the arms of America."

Fahrenthold, who lives just outside of New York City, is now working on her next book, The Airbnb Chronicles, about her adventures renting out her home.

"I wanted to welcome people to my house," she says, "the way people had opened up their arms to me."