I really don’t know how my parents did it.
Every summer, we would load up in the car and head out on a couple of different road trips. One was our annual pilgrimage to Yosemite National Park.
And the other was heading by plane, bus, or automobile back to my parents’ home turf of Mississippi. Which, if you haven’t done the math, is a very, very long way from California. There was a particularly epic trip of note in which my mom took my two brothers and me back to the South via a Greyhound bus, which involved 48 hours of travel time, consistent motion sickness symptoms for one of my brothers and me, and a whole cast of colorful characters we met along the way. (That was the one and only bus trip back to Mississippi. Lesson learned.)
It’s important to note that these trips were in the days before personal devices like cell phones, tablets, and laptops. Come to think of it, I don’t think we even had a tape deck as part of the radio system in our car; my parents were frugal like that.
So how on earth my parents traversed across the states without some kind of entertainment system to keep my brothers and me occupied boggles the mind. I do know that my brothers and I could make some miles go faster by fighting over elbows crossing the invisible boundary lines of the seat of the car. There were some half-hearted attempts at ‘collecting’ state license plates and the requisite singing of ‘99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall,’ which, if memory serves, we adjusted the lyrics to be ‘water’ instead of ‘beer,’ given the mores of my family of origin. And because of the uncooperative vestibular systems of one of my brothers and I, there was the never-ending work of trying not to get motion sick in the backseat, which required lazer focus on the horizon line out the front windshield and never, ever, ever looking anywhere else. (My other brother, the little traitor, is one of those super humans who can look at comic books while standing on his head whilst on the road. Jerk.)
Somehow, we made it through those long hauls to all those places. But when I started my own long road trip experiences with all my kiddos, I knew I was going to need a strategy to keep the peace (and my sanity) intact.
As best you can, make some room. I drove a 15 passenger van for years to accommodate my supersize family. Little known fact: a 15 passenger van, when it has all of its rows of seats installed, has very little room for luggage, games, snacks, and other gear. I shoved and stashed all kinds of travel paraphernalia everywhere I could. For the first couple hundred miles of a long trip, all that Jenga-playing with our bags didn’t seem to make much of a difference. But the longer we were on the road, the more fatigued and cranky all the passengers became as they dealt with duffles underneath their feet and paper bags of lunch makings crunched into their sides. In later years as we transitioned away from that huge van, I was worried that we wouldn’t be able to bring all the stuff that we needed. But we invested in a cargo carrier that attaches to the back hitch of our vehicle and we also have a luggage shell for the top of the car. So, yes, our vehicle is now smaller than its 15 passenger predecessor, but we’re not riding perched on top of luggage anymore. And it is remarkable that the more organized and simple the interior of the vehicle, the better you feel. Keep some room for stretching out your legs. Don’t try to ride too many miles with your knees bent at odd angles to make accommodation for a cooler.
Screen time for the win.
Travel days with our crew mean all the screen time. I know, I know, I should be telling you to have those important conversations and to go through a list of fun travel games and to stop at all the historical sites and discuss. But I’m not a lollygagger traveler. I just want to get to my destination as quickly as possible (and I daresay you would, too, if you were transporting a crew the size of mine). And part of getting there quickly is distracting people from their own boredom. Let’s face it, bored kids are going to want to stop more. They’re going to notice the state of their bladders more. They’re going to dream up reasons to ask you to pull over. And more time spent at a gas station bathroom or roadside park is going to delay your ETA even further. So if you’re a time/goal-driven driver, unleash the screens and let ‘em run.
Keep some surprises up your sleeve. I’d love to tell you that I had carefully planned, wrapped surprises at the ready every hundred miles.
Nope. Listen, just getting us all out the door and into a vehicle took most of my energy. But I would have some typically forbidden snacks ready to roll out when things started to get monotonous or contentious. I’d bring some new action figures or small toy sets to pull out at needed moments. And I’d usually have a new movie or two under my driver’s seat. Because I have a mix of some kiddos who inherited my motion sickness gene and some who got their father’s ability to read, write, spin and twirl with no nauseous side effects, trying to get new books or games for everyone didn’t always work well. But I did find that the unexpected little treats, given at random times along the way, did help to lighten the day.
Audiobooks for the win.
My husband and I went through an extended season where he was living in a city about 800 miles away. He had gone ahead of us for a job opportunity and I was back in our town, keeping the house ready for real estate showings and holding down the fort. Initially, we thought this arrangement would only last a few weeks, and he flew home every other weekend to be with us. But as the housing market continued to lag, we realized that we were going to have to try a new approach. That new approach entailed my driving 800 miles with our six kids at the time down to be with him, then turning around and driving back a few days later to take care of the house we had on the market. It was daunting, to travel by myself with six kids ages 13 and under. One of the discoveries we made during that season of longhauling was the audiobook set of Junie B. Jones. The narration was fantastic, the stories hilarious, and even though the books are intended for a younger audience, they had my older kids and me laughing along. We quickly began choosing other audiobooks to listen to on our travels together and it was remarkable how it kept us connected, without requiring games or any extra gear. In the years since, we’ve added podcasts to our group listening and music playlists generated by a designated family ‘DJ’. We’ve also learned that listening to the soundtracks of beloved musicals can make two or three hours fly by as we all sing along.
Track your progress.
To answer the ever present question of “Are we there yet?” or “How much loooonnnnnnnggggeerrrrrr?” I usually keep a trip countdown going on my maps app or on my dashboard trip calculator. Particularly when my kids were younger, this was a helpful tool to show that we were, in fact, making progress. And I learned it was important for me, too, to see the miles we had traversed. As I’m driving, I try to give updates every one hundred miles or so, including when the next scheduled pit stop will take place.
It’s not a race.
Anyone who knows me will be calling me a hypocrite for listing this as an important road trip strategy. With good reason. I’m one of those who believes in getting to the final destination as quickly and legally as possible. No lollygagging. No wandering. No multi-rest stop stops. Get in the car and go go go. Limit hydration. Keep your eyes on the prize.
But I’m learning.
My road warrior approach meant that I was in something of a stress mode right at the top of the trip. If traffic slowed us down for an hour, I was fuming and twisting in the driver’s seat. If someone had to make multiple pit stops for a complaining bladder, I’d find myself seething. It meant that I was on my high alert and anxious settings the whole way. Which is no way to kick off a family vacation time.
So I’m trying to adjust. It’s going to take as long as it’s going to take to get somewhere. That doesn’t mean I’m frivolous about bathroom breaks and meandering ~ I still want to make good time to our destination. What it does mean is that I’m trying to embrace the road trip to our location as part of the experience, instead of the thing that must be endured before the vacation can begin. It makes the time on the road feel more relaxing, a time I remind myself that is free of household chores and my usual buzzing around. Those slight adjustments in my perspective have proven so helpful in helping me arrive at our destination feeling a bit more rested and a lot less frazzled.
To my fellow summer road warriors, I’m with you. Let’s take on the nation’s highways and byways with courage and patience, an adventuresome spirit and a whole lot of grace. Being on the road is part of the memory making magic and I wish you godspeed!