We are in the season of road trips here. The boys are the perfect age for this kind of travel – well beyond diaper wipes and sippy cups, but still young enough that they’re not mortified by their parents. Last year we hit the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone. This year we headed southwest, to Arches and Zion national parks. With 20-plus hours of car travel on my hands, I came up with a few tips along the way:
1. Don’t plan every moment
You know I’m Triple Type A, right? So it might shock you to learn that we didn’t plan a single element of this trip beyond booking the motels in Arches and Zion.
That’s right. At 9 a.m. last Saturday morning, I slid into the car, buckled my seat belt and opened the atlas on my lap (What? You don’t use the behemoth Rand McNally for your GPS?) “So, it looks like I-80 then?” I asked Brad, as I flipped the pages between Nebraska, Colorado and Utah. “Yup, I-80 to 76 into Denver,” he said as he backed out of the driveway. That’s all we knew: we were aiming for Denver. Utah was somewhere on the other side.
Not planning or scheduling every last moment of your trip allows for the unexpected. Now, if you’re like me, this might make you want to light aromatherapy candles and commence Lamazing, but believe me, you won’t regret leaving room for a little serendipity on your trip. Sometimes the unexpected is pure gift.
We aimed for Denver, but after driving dazed across the ranchlands of western Nebraska for eight hours, the boys were eager to head into the mountains, so we kept going. Later, as we cruised main street Glenwood Springs for a motel, Rowan yelped from the back seat and pressed his nose against the window. Turned out, he’d spotted the spring – a gargantuan pool naturally heated by Glenwood’s mineral hot springs. From the begging and pleading gushing from the backseat, you’d have thought he’d glimpsed Atlantis itself.
Early the next morning before the crowds hit the spring, we floated in the pool as the sun tipped over the canyon walls and steam curled wispy into the cool air. Across the water, I watched through the mist as an older lady in a floral bathing cap and goggles backstroked from one end of the pool to the other, her arms circling rhythmically like the blades of a windmill. I hooked my knees over the edge of the pool and lay on my back, buoyed by the warm, salty water. Both arms stretched out weightless by my side, I stared at the broad, blue, cloudless sky.
It was unplanned. It was unexpected. And it was pure bliss.
2. Cut yourself some slack.
I’m just going to say this straight up. We’re not a “play road bingo sip probiotic smoothies and snack on organic peach slices” kind of traveling family. Before we’re even out of the neighborhood my kids have queued up MineCraft and SuperMario Bros. on their portable game players. After their brains have been properly melted, they load the DVD player, drape a blanket over their heads to block the sunlight and watch movies. I pack enough movies to travel to Bhutan. Round trip.
I also pack snacks. Bad-for-you snacks. For this trip I bought a bag of snacks so large it could have carried a litter of Wiemaraners.
I used to feel like a mom failure for letting my kids chow down on Cheetos and sizzle their brains like Fourth of July fireworks while I paged through Better Homes & Gardens in the front seat. But I’m over it. Long car trips are the sixth circle of Hell for me, so I do everything in my power to ensure that I will arrive with at least a quarter of my sanity intact.
My advice? Do what it takes to get to your destination without clawing at the windshield and pleading for spirits (of the alcoholic, rather than the holy variety). Even if that means packing a bag of Tootsie rolls so large it could double as a travel pillow.
3. Take a vacation from your vacation.
It was 4 in the afternoon and we were in bed, Noah and I in one queen, Brad and Rowan in the other. We were watching TV, in the middle of the day, under the covers, a mere two miles from the stunning grandeur of Arches National Park. The air conditioner whirred cool air, and the room was dim.
“Why are we just laying around?” Noah asked, burrowing deeper under the duvet. “Shouldn’t we be doing something, like outside?”
“This is what I call a vacation from the vacation moment,” I said to Noah. “Sometimes you have to take a break, even on vacation.”
We have young boys. They crave action, preferably constant action. On vacation we hike, we explore, we raft, we tube, we play games, we swim and we hike some more.
I’m typically on board with this kind of trip – I call it the Mildly Adventurous Vacation. In fact, it’s taken me nearly 43 years to learn that I am not a Fancy and Restful Vacation type of girl.
Case in point: For this trip I packed my flatiron, a pair of platform sandals and a leopard print jewelry case containing 12 pairs of earrings, six necklaces, four bracelets and multiple hair accessories. Apparently I thought I’d be vacationing on Rodeo Drive.
Instead I was white water rafting and traversing canyons in 107-degree heat. I wore a tank top, shorts and hiking boots with my hair in a ponytail every single day (And lipstick. What can I say? I apply lipstick to drive to the ATM, so yeah, I wore lipstick on the Mildly Adventurous Vacation).
Anyway, my point is, even a Mildly Adventurous Vacation Family who likes a lot of action needs to take a break, a vacation from the vacation, so to speak. Allow yourself pockets of time to do nothing, whether it’s cozed into the hotel bed watching Animal Planet or stretched next to a gushing stream, your arms propping your head as your kids play a make-believe game called “Snake Pit.”
In between hiking, rafting, tubing, swimming and more hiking, it’s usually in these do-nothing moments that I take a breath, open my eyes and see God.
What are your fool-proof tips for a successful family road trip? Share, please!