Road-trips with Children

By: Shannon Ralph

Shannon's kids


It was the Spring of 1984 and I was eleven years old. My dad had died the previous December and we were all still in somewhat of a state of shock.  We were still stunned that life was going on around us when we were quite certain time should have stopped in its tracks on December 3, 1983. In an attempt to try to alleviate her grief—or  perhaps just to fill the timeless void that had become our lives—my mom decided to pack all four of us kids into her powder blue Chevy Chevette and drive twelve hours to spend several weeks with her sister in Kansas. After all, we had nothing better to do.

So we packed our bags and piled into the car. My mom put the back seat down in the Chevette, allowing us kids to lie in the hatchback and sleep. Or color. Read. Bicker. Scream. We did it all on that trip. I vividly recall the excitement I felt driving through St. Louis—at that point the biggest city I had ever been  to—with its spaghetti-like series of overpasses and underpasses stretching out before us. I remember the awe I felt driving past the Gateway Arch. The joy of sitting in the front seat with my bare feet on the dashboard. The exhilaration of singing as loud as I could to Dr. Hook’s “Cover of the Rolling Stone” and Lee Greenwood’s “Proud to Be an American.” (My mom’s taste in music was questionable, at best.) I was only eleven years old, but I felt free and alive again out on that open road.

I am no longer eleven years old, but this love of the open road has remained with me. There is nothing I love better than a road trip.  The freedom. The sense of independence. The never ending possibilities. I have learned, however, that my family, sadly, does not share my affection for this mode of transportation. As a matter of fact, a road trip with my family is an invitation to chaos. Case in point: Spring Break 2011.

Every year, Ruanita and I plan an annual trek to Kentucky to visit our families. In past years, we have flown to Kentucky. However, we find that our finances are much tighter these days with three children. Airline tickets are never cheap. Airline tickets for five people are even less cheap. So, in a fit of unadulterated optimism, we decided to drive with our brood to Kentucky this year for our son’s Spring Break. We have a brand-new car, so we decided why not? Why not try to recreate that feeling of being alive and free for our own children? Why not allow them to experience the liberty of the open road? Why not spend fourteen hours each way in a car with our beloved children “bonding” and “enjoying” each others’ company?

Why not? Why not. Let me tell you why not. Because traveling with children is hell. Plain and simple. I have come to the conclusion that my memory of our road trip to Kansas in 1984 is indubitably skewed by the sunniness of childhood. I am certain that if I were to ask my mother now, her recollection of that trip would not be nearly as pleasant as my own. As the sole caretaker of four rambunctious kids crammed into a Chevette, I am sure her trip to Kansas was not the free-wheeling, free-spirited trek I remember. I suspect her impression of the trip was a little more like my own impression of my family’s Spring Break trip.

So what exactly went wrong on our road trip last week? Nothing catastrophic. Nothing life-altering. At the same time, however, it was nothing like the trip I remember from my childhood. Here are my random observations on driving 1500 miles round-trip in a Toyota Camry with five people:

Any child below the age of ten (especially those of a female persuasion) will have to pee exactly every twenty miles on a road trip. If you allow her to ingest any liquids at all, her pee frequency is reduced to every ten miles.

The windmill farms in rural Illinois are hypnotic. Seriously. There is something immensely soothing and strangely mesmerizing about a windmill. When there are dozens of them clumped together, it is impossible to look away—even as you are swerving into another lane.

Upon missing the exit for our hotel and driving a good fifteen miles past it, we paid the great state of Illinois $4 in tolls instead of $2. I expect a thank you note in the mail from Chicago any day now.

The plastic orange lane dividers used to mark construction lanes are actually quite effective. They do stop a pseudo-conscious driver from swerving into the construction lane as she is dozing off behind the wheel. Do not be alarmed; Ruanita apologized profusely and swears to me that she can ”buff it out.”

The citizenry of Wisconsin had it out for me from the moment I first crossed the state line. They made it nearly impossible to use the cruise control on my car. I would be cruising along just fine at a carefully chosen speed of seven miles over the speed limit (fast enough to get me there quicker than the posted speed limit, but slow enough to hopefully negate a state trooper’s desire to chase me), when an upstanding Wisconsinite would swerve in front of me and suddenly—and without any rhyme or reason—slow down to a snail’s pace. I would inevitably have to tap my brakes and cease cruising. I blame the rabid governor of Wisconsin. He crushed the unions, and now he has sicked his citizenry on the out-of-state lesbian Democrats trying to cruise through his state.

A married couple stuck in a car for fourteen hours straight together will, without a doubt, rumble. Ruanita and I rarely fight. As a matter of fact, we live a fairly peaceful existence. We may occasionally grouse or grumble at one another but, for the most part, we get along smashingly. That is, with the exception of road trips. When we are forced into a cramped car together for hours on end, we can get mighty ugly. Suffice it to say that the claws came out… and it was not pretty.

It was inevitable throughout the trip that we would run out of gas at the exact moment our children would fall asleep. And the blindingly bright lights of the truck stop gas station would wake the children every time. And they would cry. And they would complain that their car seat straps were uncomfortable. And they would want to watch a movie. And they would want to color, despite it being midnight and completely dark in the car. And they would remain awake. That is, until we were in need of more gas. At that point, they would drift off to sleep as we were pulling off of the highway toward the next blindingly bright gas station. Sleep. Cry. Repeat.

The SEX SUPERSTORE that was advertised on roadside billboards for a good fifty miles was a major let-down. The “superstore” ended up being nothing but a nondescript warehouse that was no larger than my living room. Bummer.

The Culver’s in the Wisconsin Dells is a rogue restaurant. Unlike every other Culver’s in the upper Midwest, the Wisconsin Dells location does not slice their hot dogs prior to grilling them. This maverick hot dog preparation method was apparently offensive to my daughter’s        sensibilities, and she refused to eat her lunch –resulting in a three-hour narrative of her unfortunate state of starvation from the Wisconsin Dells all the way to Minneapolis.

The 198-foot tall (seriously, I looked it up) white cross erected on the side of the road in Effingham, Illinois is creepy. I have no problem with crosses… or displays of religious fervor, in general, but coming over a dark hill at two o’clock in the morning and catching sight of a ginormous glowing cross directly in front of you is a bit disturbing, to say the least. Especially for a a survivor of twelve years’ of Catholic school. I wonder how many lapsed Catholic motorists scream out in fear when that cross suddenly appears in front of them.

Video games are a bad idea on a road trip when a child possesses my infamous obsessive-compulsive gene. In the interest of continuing his Mario game, Nicholas neglected to tell his unsuspecting mommies that he needed to pee. That is, until we stopped at a gas station and walked him to the bathroom before realizing that the entirety of his sweatpants were soaking wet. He had just let loose and filled his underwear, his sweatpants, and his car seat with urine. But he managed to finish his game. Never mind that he spent the remainder of the trip sitting in a urine-soaked car seat. The boy finished his game… and that’s all that really matters. Right?

Neither Ruanita nor the kids was impressed with the mix CD’s I made for our road trip. Apparently —as evidenced by the scratch Ruanita plans on “buffing out” —Brandi Carlisle, the Avett Brothers, and Mumford and Sons were not good choices for travel music at two o’clock in the morning. Ruanita accused me of trying to put her into a rootsy/folk/country/pop coma and the kids whined that they could not hear their movie over my “weird” music.

Though I do not want to admit it, I am no longer twenty years old and my days of pulling all-nighters are far behind me. The minute the sun went down on this trip, my eyelids began to droop and my thirty-eight-year-old brain began telling my thirty-eight-year-old body that it was time to curl up and snooze. Not very conducive to safe driving. By the end of the trip, Ruanita and I were trading the wheel every fifteen minutes as we both fought the overwhelming desire to fall asleep.

So how did my mom do it? How did she manage to make a monotonous twelve-hour drive into something magical? How was she able to create a captivating childhood memory for me?  Maybe she didn’t. Perhaps I did that on my own. I think that is the magic of childhood. Children have the ability to find something enchanting in even the most mundane of activities. Maybe one day my own children will look back on our hellish road trip to Kentucky and remember a sense of freedom and exhilaration. Maybe one day they will fondly recall a feeling of peace out on the open road. A time of innocence driving cross-country with the mommies who loved them dearly. Perhaps they will look at me one day and wistfully ask, “Momma, do you remember that trip to Kentucky when you sang I and Love and You in your sleep while you were driving?” And I will nod and smile. “Yes, baby, I remember that trip well.”

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