Thursday, July 17, 2014

The classic family road trip is still fun, and yes, mind-numbingly boring

A version of this column first appeared in The Dallas Morning News and on Please check out the site.
On the first day of the road trip to Arizona, we loaded the minivan with our three kids and topped off the gas tank for a 10-hour drive. My wife and I knew it would be the toughest day.

The first big haul came on a stretch of U.S. Highway 287, highly regarded for its scenic views of cattle, abandoned gas stations and billboards for XXX video shops. We were just past Decatur, about 75 miles into our planned 650 miles for the day, when my 6-year-old asked a question from the middle row.

No, it wasn’t the classic “Are we there yet?” 

Nathan had already asked that. He was on to bigger things.

“Are we still in the same country?” he asked.

Obviously, Nathan isn’t quite ready for a geography bee. And I’m not sure he was ready, along with his 9-year-old and 11-year-old brothers, for our trip to see cousins, uncles, parents and grandparents. Our trip included a stop at the Grand Canyon, which as you probably know is one of the world’s natural wonders, and we also visited a place that had ice cream in large waffle bowls, which as you might expect is more exciting to kids than a gigantic hole in the ground.

The Grand Canyon
The trip began on Father’s Day – ha ha, super prank on Dad! – and ended eight days later after more than 2,500 miles. Five exhausted family members returned home in one shuddering minivan splattered with hundreds of unfortunate insects.

It was the kind of road trip that families across the country will take this summer. And after seeing all the positives, such as the learning opportunities and family bonding time, I’m left with this thought:

Next time, I think we’ll fly.

So, so much easier. Instead of distracting your kids while passing a car with expletive-laden bumper stickers, you could be perusing SkyMall magazine for a six-foot Bigfoot Garden Yeti statue.

And, hey, after three hours of flying, you might be at your destination. Three hours of driving got us to a Subway restaurant with a broken icemaker. It was in Vernon, which is in Texas, and sadly for Nathan, still in this country.

We’ve flown with the kids before, but driving made sense this time. Flights were expensive, we had a lot of stuff to bring and we needed a car to get around in Arizona. And, despite how draining a road trip can be, it’s really something everyone should experience.

A road trip gives you a long – yes, sometimes too long – look at the vastness and diversity of our country. Big city then small town; mountains followed by deserts; waves of grain, fruited plains, maybe some graffiti on a train. In this world of short attention spans, a long road trip is a good mental workout. And when you’re finished, you feel a real sense of accomplishment, even if you traveled with your iPhone, iPad or other iTimeKiller.

I’ve also learned a lot on our road trips, including how to drive on a road of marbles. That’s what it felt like three years ago when a hail storm hit as we were driving on a winding road in the Colorado mountains. I think my fingernail imprints are still on the steering wheel.

The grander ice cream
On the road trips since then, I’ve learned that you can never have too many trash bags, that you will always need more cupholders and that when kids get bored, they can pretty much eat their weight in snacks. Once the snacks run out, the Curious Case of Benjamin Button phenomenon kicks in.

Do you remember that movie with the main character who ages in reverse?

In the final hours of our long first day on the road, Nathan was doing the same. He started talking like a preschooler, then whining like a toddler, as was ready for a baby carrier as we finally made it to the hotel. Shockingly, at least to Nathan, we were still in the same country.

It was a long day for all the kids, but I wasn’t worried about them. A swim in the hotel pool lifted their spirits, and like with our other road trips, I knew permanent scars could be avoided with the soothing medicine of ice cream.

Preferably in a large waffle bowl.

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