10 tips for successful car trips with kidsby Sarah Lemanczyk
If you've ever driven 1,800 miles to Florida in a Chevette with four people, a jumbo red Coleman cooler, a canvas tent and you're me, then you too probably angered your father to the point where he shoved a McDonald's soft-serve cone straight from the drive-thru window into the ashtray to prove a point.
But if you're not me, and you're a bit apprehensive about loading the kids in the car for days at a time -- rest assured it can be done, with a minimum of physical and emotional clean-up.
I have three kids, now aged 8, 6 and 4. I've driven them across country and back, again and again. I've done it pregnant with a toddler in tow, with two in tow, with just a baby, and I've done the classic cross-country move: pregnant in a U-Haul. In tandem with my obvious cheapness, I genuinely love a good drive. The highway, the mileage signs, that first coffee of the morning from some out-of-state gas station chain ... .
I grew up in the car - riding a couple of hundred miles most weekends to see my grandparents and making countless family pilgrimages to historical sites and Disney World. My own children are the current victims of this familial road-lust, and I drive them thousands of miles each summer. If you've never had your tots in the car for more than a jaunt to Ikea, you may have to build up to 800 miles a day. But you're stronger than you think.
It's all mental.
This is going to be fun. Tell yourself. Tell your spouse. Tell the kids. Tell the neighbors, the grocery clerk, random people soliciting for political campaigns at the front door -- tell them all. The driving is going to be fun. You're looking forward to the drive, to spending all that quality front-seat time talking, to seeing the countryside at eye level. To the heaps of money you'll save over the privilege of having your children's shoes X-rayed. Whatever.
But talking, especially about what's going to be fun, will actually help it be fun, even when you've somehow missed the entrance to the New York State Thruway and your husband is gesturing wildly at you, at the wadded up map in your sweaty hands, and demanding, "Did you see it with your own eyes?" Reminding yourself that this is fun will also help the experience to become a precious memory.
This is obviously distasteful, in addition to being grossly unsafe. But you're only human.
My husband always brings earplugs in case all three children are crying and I'm still at it about the stinginess of the hotel towel situation from the previous night's stay. He's never actually used them, but the fact that they're there, sitting on the dashboard, that's all he needs. It's like having a plan to fake your own death -- sure, you don't think you're ever going to use it, but just knowing that your plan is to get on a Greyhound bus, head to Alaska and work the fishing industry is enough to get you through the day. But perhaps now I've said too much.
Bring a secret stash for the kids.
Cheap, potentially disposable and heretofore unseen toys: Have a sack of 'em stashed away. This is actually the best advice you'll ever get in life. I don't know where my own mother came up with it -- but I remember the invisible-ink travel trivia books and the plastic-slide picture puzzle of all 50 states more than whatever stretch of highway we were on.
When things get ugly, you go to the stash. Construction in Chicago: Here, have you seen this Hot Wheels Transformer? Forty-five more miles to dinner: May I interest you in this stuffed monkey with magnetic hands and feet? The toys need not be terribly nice -- I get most of my stash from rummage sales and the like. The key requirements are that it not make too much noise (for reasons too obvious to mention, and yet you will make this mistake, and curse yourself and the entire state of Illinois for bringing the talking Elmo phone); that it not have too many parts that can get lost under the seat, and that if it should perhaps be thrown from the back of the van to the front, it should not be solid enough to kill the driver.
I picked up Hulk Hands for our 1,600-mile trip to Portland, Ore., one summer -- big stuffed forearms that made a smashing noise and repeated Hulk-y phrases like "Hulk smash" whenever they made contact with anything, and when 3- and 5-year-old boys were beating the daylights out of each other in the back. Too loud, yes, but then my husband wore them for the last 75 miles and it helped him arrive feeling fresh and ready for adventure. It's all about the stash.
Bring a secret stash for you, too.
You can't always rely on Hulk Hands. Forty hours of "This American Life" downloads kept us in a relatively "normal" mental state on a cannonball run to my grandfather's funeral in Florida when I was too pregnant to fill up on pre-flight Valium and beer.
Deviance can always perk up a highway. Chocolate-covered raisins the kids didn't know we had -- when they (HAH!) had carrots for a bedtime snack -- kept us going through a ridiculously severe thunderstorm.
"When the lightning flashes, you check for tornadoes."
"I don't think you can see them in the dark."
"That's why I want you to check when there's lightning!"
We didn't pull into Louisville, Ky., until 1:30 in the morning, but when we got there we were laughing about the storm.
Eat breakfast in the car.
If you're driving, say, 800 or 900 miles each day, you can't get around the fact that you're going to be spending a good amount of the day in your car. And the car can be boring. Breakfast in the car won't solve all your problems, but it's a community event that actually will solve some of them. On the plus side, it's messy and slow. On the down, it can require a cooler with fresh ice, not one with cool water and slushy, do-you-feel-lucky string cheese. But by the time you've gotten everyone's granola mixed into their yogurt, distributed spoons, collected the sticky napkins and passed out juice boxes, you've knocked out the first 50 miles. And hey -- was the free continental breakfast under the bored gaze of the hotel staff going to be that much more pleasant? Or less sticky?
Drive while they sleep.
There is NO POINT -- let me repeat, NO POINT -- to stopping between, say, 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. It's 6-ish or it's midnight - end of story. Stopping in prime time will only mean overtired, amped children who cannot do anything but jump from bed to bed and shriek with laughter.
There are two acceptable approaches to the road trip night. The first is to stop at a reasonable hour, say 6 p.m., have dinner and let the kids splash around, if the hotel has a pool, or just run them in the lobby. This is the way I grew up, and when I travel with my parents and kids, it's still the way we roll. The pool rules. But it means covering fewer miles in a day, and as much as I love the car, I'd rather spend two extended days than three shorter ones. You can get a good 250 miles in after dinner.
Which brings us back to Drive while they sleep.
"Now it's bedtime, guys. Everybody has a blanket. Everybody's been to the bathroom and had a snack. No more talking. O.K., I said no more talking. If you talk again I won't respond. I'm not responding. I love you very much, Honey, but I'm not talking to you anymore tonight because it's bedtime." This can be a rough 30 to 45 miles -- and I did once have a 5-year-old stay up till midnight just to prove a point -- but if you stick to this (and you're not cheating and attempting this at 4:30 in the afternoon) the children will fall asleep. Now you and your spouse are in the car and there's nothing but a black stretch of road before you, a wasteland of yesterdays behind you, and time. Talk. And talk and talk. Look for a baseball game on the AM dial from someplace halfway across the country. Let go.
Make it part of the vacation.
I'm not insane; getting there is not half the fun. But it's part of the fun. This is where all the "talking it up" you did leading up to the trip comes in, and also where you'll create what really will be treasured family memories. You'll have already spent weeks telling the kids what you'll do in the car (which is, of course, separate from the secret stash): Look, Mama got these finger puppets -- we'll make up stories! We'll read every single one of the "Captain Underpants" books! We'll learn origami! On the road you've got hours with your kids and no -- and I mean NO -- distractions, save the New York State Thruway interchanges (which, may I say, are surprisingly poorly marked). You've got hours with your kids and, finally, time to be the mom with all the time in the world.
I spend a couple of hours each day in the backseat -- a novelty my changelings can't get enough of. My mere presence amongst them is hilarious. And it breaks the day into parts that everybody can look forward to. "In just 100 miles Mama's going to come back there." "Hey, Honey, in just 100 miles I'm going to go the backseat so you can listen to classic rock on the radio and eat that entire bag of beef jerky without me complaining about the smell."
After dinner, in the car, they pick a film, I climb into the backseat again and we watch it together. And while I'm not going to say that I love gathering up banana peels in the dark of the backseat and arguing that "The Muppet Movie" is, too, a good movie if they'd just give it a chance -- it's not bad.
Organic yogurt vs. Little Debbie peanut butter cheese crackers.
Be easy on yourself. Really, you're only on the road for a few days at a time. I wouldn't even think of starting a trip without a cooler loaded with organic, whole grain snacks and the best intentions. Yet, when I clean out the car at 2 a.m. in my own driveway, there is nothing but McDonald's straw wrappers and indecipherable scraps of cellophane from full meals eaten at 7-11s. You do what you can. There are times when you're just too tired to fill up the cooler with a hotel ice bucket, one bucket per trip. And then there's the complaining that this strawberry yogurt tastes different from the strawberry yogurt at home, and the fact that there are only so many days when you can have peanut butter sandwiches for lunch and cheese sandwiches for dinner before you get mutiny. So say you had lunch at McDonald's -- why not try dinner at Del Taco?
Befriend the big, ugly box stores, just this once. A K A the emergency Hot Wheels.
There's one store in particular that I'm thinking about. It's particularly big and ugly and it so caters to this type of travel that it actually prints its own atlas listing every single one of its stores in the nation, along with the nearest freeway exit. Yes, it's depressing. Yes, the lighting can be soul-crushing. And yet I keep the atlas -- because equally crushing are the wails of a child. An emergency Hot Wheels and a price-friendly flagon of chocolate milk can soothe a lot of wrongs. Restock the cooler, purchase a cooked chicken for an impromptu car picnic, replace the lost pacifiers and you're on your way.
Anytime you come across one of those exits that have six hotels and six fast food joints pictorially advertised (a 6 by 6 stop, we call it), there's going to be a big box discount store. It will have a bathroom, it will have crayons that haven't melted in the sun, and most importantly it will have the attachment you need to make the DVD player work.
Pregnant, crabby wife, screaming 2-year-old, gas station just east of Nashville, Tenn. Ask. The gas station attendant in this case: Is there a park around here? "Why sure, 'bout a while down the road there, on the right."
A giant park, with a stream, the best climbing structure I've ever seen and some shade. Even I, crabby and pregnant, wanted to play as soon as I finished my Kentucky Fry C pot pie. This is another reason to eat breakfast in the car -- more time for actual fun on the road. The kids trade germs with children from all over the country. Mom can lie in the shade and wish she were dead, just for a little while. And then everybody is good for another 300 miles.
In Atlanta we asked for BBQ -- we got a Southern family-style chain restaurant. Maybe not exactly the "authentic" we Yanks were looking for, but then again, we found our little bucolic family eating next to a sheriff and a chain gang. Really, the guy sharing his French fries with our 2-year-old son was attached to the guy next to him. With a chain. Now, that's authentic.
Which is the point of the drive. Yes, it's long. It can be hot, and crowded and slightly nauseating, but it's tradition. As American as the largest ball of twine -- which I haven't seen. Yet. But I have seen the pancake restaurant in the shape of a two-story Aunt Jemima, and so have my kids.
Sarah Lemanczyk, St. Paul, is a writer and independent radio producer. She teaches radio production at the University of Minnesota's Radio K.