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Thanks to the prohibitive cost of airfare and my stubborn fear of flying, my family and I are road trip people. We've opted out of the whole air travel scene altogether. Now when there's a break in the school schedule, we pack up the mini-van and head out for parts unknown.
I first fell in love with long road trips when I was in college. Stuck in the landlocked center of the Lone Star State, we had to drive forever just to reach the Texas border and cross into the wilds of Louisiana or Oklahoma. A trip to the beach took no less than eight hours. Those carefree, last-minute road trips inspired a life-long love of the wide open road.
But the first time I tried to recreate the Great American Road trip with my children, I was in for a rude awakening. Like so many things, doing it with kids changes the experience so completely that I gave it a completely different name. When my kids are in tow, I don't call it a road trip. I called it "Parenting on Wheels for Hours on End."
What's so different about taking to the highways with your offspring? The short answer is EVERYTHING. But let me be more specific: Here are 7 ways your children will ruin a road trip.
The preparation starts days before we pull out of the garage.
Back in college, the only preparation needed for a road trip was wadding up my bathing suit and stuffing it into the glove compartment. When you're young and carefree, you can wing non-essential things, like food and water. So long as I had a gas card or $20 and something to swim in, I was golden.
Now? Please. The preparation starts days before we pull out of the garage. Checking the car alone takes half a day—oil, tires, breaks, engine, AC. Then there's packing for my kids, which entails not just clothes, but stuffies, lovies, treasured toys, art supplies, books and can't-live-without-them items that they could care less about until they hear we're hitting the road.
Because my kids refuse to snack on Camel Lights and Diet Coke like my road trip companions back in the day, I have to give serious thoughts to their trip nutrition. It takes multiple runs to Trader Joe's to be sure I have the right combination of sweet and savory, perishable and non-perishable, and sticky and salty snack foods to get from our house to our destination.
Nowadays, I also have to pack a cooler full of organic, filtered water and individual boxed milks. Gone are the days I could swing by 7/11 and get a 100-ounce Big Gulp that would last me eight hours.
There is nothing that will get me to push the pedal to the metal faster than the awful things my children want to listen to.
My favorite part of the road trips of yesteryear was the music. I never left my house without a specially crafted mix tape. Spring Break of 1993, we headed to Padre Island listening to the perfect blend of Red Hot Chili Peppers, Indigo Girls, Michael Jackson, and Erasure—a little something for everyone.
These days a road trip finds me trapped in a car listening to a SpongeBob Squarepants book-on-tape or a Yo Gabba Gabba CD. On the upside, it makes the trip go faster, because there is nothing that will get me to push the pedal to the metal faster than the awful things my children want to listen to. Today, instead of savoring music that adds to the experience, my ears bleed as I listen to Disney princesses singing about frozen fractals.
4. Pit stops
I've tried to convince my kindergartener to pee in a Fresca can, but he won't do it.
When you road trip with adults, pit stops are rare and special moments. In an eight-hour trip, they may happen twice: once at a sketchy rest stop in Tupelo and once when you stop for dinner at a Waffle House in Lafayette. That Big Gulp you downed on the way to Galveston? You better hold in your pee or just go in the empty cup. (What? I had to go!)
With kids, you have to be prepared to stop at least every two hours. I've tried to convince my kindergartener to pee in a Fresca can, but he won't do it. So, travel plazas and "clean-looking" Burger Kings become your second homes. In fairness to my children, their bladders are 50 percent smaller than mine, but I miss the wild days of streaming and driving at the same time.
For spring break 1994, I stayed in a single hotel room with seven of my friends. On the second day our boyfriends crashed there, too. We'd set off for the beach with no hotel reservation. One Labor Day, I crashed on the floor of a lake house in east Texas. I'm still not sure who owned that house. A guy I knew from my Psych 101 class was friends with one of the girls who was also crashing on the floor.
Can you even imagine heading out with your young children without a firm plan for lodging? I've never done it, because we have to be sure that the place we end up meets our specifications, which include a pool, a breakfast buffet, two queen beds, close proximity to the highway, and good coffee. We also must have a workout room for Mom, who desperately needs a workout after being stuck in the car with her kids for hours.
I've come seriously close to saying, "Don't make me turn this car around."
In olden days road trips, we filled the car with songs and deep thoughts about the state of the world and our hopes for the future. Between belting out James Taylor songs and good-natured debates about Diet Coke versus Diet Pepsi, we passed the time in harmony. I never once had to tell my co-travelers to stop fighting over the snacks or to keep their hands to themselves.
When I'm driving across the country with my kids, I spend half my time refereeing disputes. I've come seriously close to saying, "Don't make me turn this car around." The constant bickering distracts me from the beauty of the spacious skies and amber waves of grain.
What was there to do when I got home from a trip in my youth? Sleep. The unpacking, which consisted of rinsing my bathing suit in the sink, could wait. These days, when I return home, there are 80 things to do and none of them are sleep. I have to start the wash, get groceries, sort the mail, figure out dinner, schedule the make-up swim lessons we missed while we were gone, and get the kids to bed at a decent hour so they'll be back on schedule the next day. It requires as much work to return home as it did to leave in the first place.