“Are you (insert appropriate curse word here) crazy?” That’s what I hear when I tell my friends I’m going to take my kids on a road trip without my husband. A few say, “Good for you,” in the congratulatory yet pitying tone you might reserve for someone who has just announced they’re giving up technology or plan to do a 30-day lemon cleanse. One friend suggests that, since the FAA 3-ounce packing limits won’t apply, I bring lots of wine for the evenings. More than once I’m told, “You are my hero.” Jonas Salk for preventing polio; Neil Armstrong for his moonwalk; and me for traveling with my own kids.
The clear misgivings of those closest to me worm their way into my psyche. Am I the only one too crazy to see that this plan is crazy? I’ve carefully planned our trip with enough quirky stops to break up the monotony of hours on the road. Yet I do worry about specific things like sending my nine-year-old son into a rest stop bathroom alone, getting mugged in the parking lot of the West Virginia State Fair at night, and--my biggest fear of all--getting lost.
When I used to drive home from work, I’d get engaged in some train of thought or into belting out a song and the next thing you know I’d have missed my exit or gotten off at the wrong one altogether. I made that drive five days a week, twice a day, and still I got lost. Once, when my husband was working at the Sears Tower, I was headed into the city to meet him for dinner. On my way I got turned around and had to call him for directions. He responded with clear exasperation, “Look into the sky. Find the tallest building in the United States. Point your car towards it.” Click.
When my husband announces that he’s going to join me and the kids for the first two days of our trip (so that he can be part of our Cedar Point Amusement Park day), I’m filled with relief. It’s like a stay of execution. It doesn’t change the inevitable that at some point I’m going to be the lone adult with two under-tens driving around unfamiliar states and towns wandering out of GPS range, but it delays it.
We don’t have family in the Midwest so for holidays and vacations, we often fly. I find packing for our car trip to be easier--you can pretty much cram as many liquids, sharp objects, and aerosol cans as you want into any size bag. The whole feel of this trip is different. When you drag children onto a plane, you imply that the destination is the goal and you’ve chosen the quickest way to get there. When you drag them into a car for two weeks, you make a different declaration: there’s value in the journey. You have set your sights on discovering the hidden gems, stumbling into the happy unknown, and embracing the zen-like qualities of the open road. Good for you. You poor, poor fool.
My own childhood was chock full of road trips. Mom lived in North Carolina and Dad in Florida; our tires burned a rut between the two states. Those were the days of Fuzzbusters and CB Radios (my handle was “Sweet Cotton”) and before my dad trusted seatbelts. It was a free-floating, soda-drinking, fast-food-eating good time. Time dragged, yes, but that boredom bred real conversation, silly games and earnest harmonizing with Debby Boone and Dolly Parton. I know everything seems better in my misty-eyed memories, but worst case, even if this trip is a disaster, my kids will likely remember it fondly in 30 years. Best case, I get some of that unstructured bonding with my children. After all, the chants of bored children rising up from the back seat, the choruses of “Are we there yet” and “I need to go to the bathroom” are an essential song on the soundtrack of parenthood.
Our road trip begins on a sunny Monday. The kids are thanking us over and over. Birds are singing. Flowers blooming. The glint from Chicago’s skyscrapers is blinding as we speed past. Look at all of those suckers stuck in those cubes working while we hit the open road. Whoo hoo!
Within an hour, we devolve. Everyone is interrupting everyone. Turn that song up. Can you stop singing, you’re ruining the song. It’s no fair that he’s on the sunny side. Be quiet, I’m reading. She ate the last Pirate Booty. Where do I turn next? Where do I turn next? Where do I turn next? Then it happens: my husband loses it. EVERYONE QUIET NOW! We all freeze. He takes a deep breath and explains, “I need directions from mommy and I can’t hear her with all of the bickering.” My daughter starts crying.
We’re not even out of Illinois yet. How likely is it that I’ll hold it together for 12 days? I’m no oddsmaker but I can tell you where to put your money on that one. But then I also think, hmmm, he’s yelling before we leave the city limits--I think I can do this better. I’m sure that at some point, I’ll lose my temper, but I can hold out longer than this guy.
The two days with my husband pass quickly. We laugh and ride coasters and have fun. Then the moment comes when I pull into the “Departures” gate at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport and drop him off. As we get back onto the highway and it’s just me and the kids I feel something unexpected: Freedom. Now if I could only ditch these kids.
We pass a sign that reads, “After you die, you will meet God” and we’re in West Virginia, three states from where we started, and it’s my show now. The kids ask to stop at McDonalds. Yes. They want soda. Yes. They want to watch Teen Beach Movie for the fourth time. Yes. Everyday at home, I tell my children what they can’t do--snack before dinner, watch TV before doing homework, wrestle each other--but suddenly we’re in a world of yes. It feels good. At one point, we’re driving along, all three singing in unison to Maroon 5’s Love Somebody and I feel so very lucky. It’s my magic moment.
As we age, we jade. This trip gives me a chance to see the world through my kids eyes. At this point, a hotel room has to be pretty fancy or different to impress me. For my kids, any room with a bed they haven’t slept in is exciting. Two beds close enough to jump back and forth on! We all get to sleep in the same room! A safe that can be locked and unlocked 72 times! The fun is endless. They also love towels that have been twisted into swans, crabs, and frogs. My daughter sheds actual tears when I untwist a fan-shaped washcloth to use it. The windmill fields we pass that generate power also fuel awe in our car. Every cow, horse, sheep or goat merits a point out the window.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not all roses and daisies; there are plenty of tough spells. We pit-stop so many times in Ohio that I begin to understand that woman who drove from Texas to Florida in Depends--slapping some diapers on those backseat jokers in order to make up some time suddenly seems reasonable. Midway through Virginia, my kids announce that every third time I curse, they’re going to put me in time out. I discover that I don’t mind time out. By Tennessee, I start to answer “Are we there yet?” with “Yes,” no matter where we actually are. And after one rough morning involving a credit card left at a restaurant, a 3DS game system left at a hotel, and scalding tea spilled on my arm, I sit in a North Carolina parking lot and cry.
Along the way, my kids learn: how to steer a horse and buggy, that the West Virginia State Fair is just like the Wisconsin State Fair (but with accents), how to line dance, that bats will fly at you when you enter their cave, how furniture is gold-leafed, what it’s like inside a coal mine, and how Louisville Slugger bats are made. I learn: that my fears were unfounded, that I should trust my own instincts more, and the lyrics to every song in Teen Beach Movie.
For me, the trip was worth all the bumps in the road (bad pun intended). But I had to short my kids two weeks of summer camp to make it happen. I wonder if my kids enjoyed it more than twice-a-day swims and popsicles. I don’t have to wonder for long. The day after we return home my son asks, “Can we go on a road trip again next year?” He’s already planning our 2014 drive to Florida.
Our time on the road gave me the opportunity to appreciate who my children are becoming. When you first have kids so much time is devoted to business. Sleep schedules. Nutrition. Manners. Values. Then something happens. These babies we’ve labored over, poured our lives into, suddenly become people. And, if we’re lucky, they become people we like being around. People who surprise us and make us laugh and think. We don’t always make the unscheduled, untethered time to notice and appreciate each other. It’s the journey that makes us grow.