This family drives alot. Five days a week, we shuttle between home, school, work and daycare. We spend every second Christmas and Easter in Ryan’s hometown of Stoney Creek – along with several other holidays and just-because weekends (that’s about a thousand kilometres per round trip). Every Thanksgiving, we spend a lovely four days in the picturesque town of Collingwood, on Georgian Bay. It’s further away than Stoney Creek. And we do road trips …. Do we ever do road trips!
Since the arrival of our darling daughters, we have been honing the craft of road trips with children. Fiona was about six weeks old on her first Thanksgiving in Collingwood. Our car looked as if the baby section of Walmart had vomited all of its newborn inventory into the back seat and trunk, and Ryan and I were reeling from the sleep deprivation inflicted on us by our new life with our bundle of joy – but we made it there and back, and we enjoyed our long weekend away. She was eleven months old when we drove to El Paso, Texas, and back. She was almost two, and Bridget was almost out, during our trip to Oregon. The following summer, we spent three weeks on the road with our toddler and baby in tow. There’s been at least one road trip every year since. We’ve changed diapers in pastures and vacant lots, on filthy floors from here to California and back, and on the hood of our car. Ryan has driven under conditions that would challenge the focus and reflexes of a fighter pilot. He prefers it that way, probably because he’s watched passenger-me spend hours dangling over the back of my seat, doling out bottles and snacks, settling disputes and delivering justice. All that experience has to count for something, right? In this post, I’m making it count by sharing what we’ve learned ….
1) Get your kids used to travelling. Many people who know our travel habits say things like “I can’t believe your kids will put up with that much time in the car – I can’t even take mine to the grocery store”. They not only put up with it, they love it. It’s not because they are different from other kids – it’s because it’s what they know. It’s how we roll – and, since birth, they’ve been rolling along with us. You can’t feed your kids hot dogs and potato chips for every meal of their life, and then expect them to like spinach when they turn seven. You can’t stay within a half-hour radius of your house for years, and then expect your kids to deal with a six-hour drive when they hit full-day school. Don’t wait for them to be older / mobile / sleeping through the night / easier to deal with. Travel now – and travel often.
2) Don’t over-pack. This is a lesson Ryan and I have learned after years of cramming the car full of things the girls don’t need or even want, then having to dig through it all to find anything – including, at times, the kids themselves. Also, no matter how many diapers, wipes, pacifiers, jars of baby food and biscuits you pack, you will run out and need to shop for more. Accept this, and pack only what can comfortably fit in the car. Likewise, toys. Pack a few favourites, and accept the fact that they will get tired of everything you’ve packed, and need to find new sources of entertainment. This is good for them; it sharpens the mind and fuels creativity.
3) Speaking of packing …. Don’t pack things that make noise, unless they come with headphones – because you will be forced to listen to the obnoxious drone / whine / chatter / “music” all the way to wherever you’re going and back. This might not seem like a problem in a large room in your house. When it’s only a few feet away, and you are tethered to your seat, you will want to set it (and possibly yourself) on fire. Baby Tad came with us on our trip to Texas in 2006. He haunted our waking hours with his relentless cheering and singing, and when he ran out of batteries he scared the cheese-and-crackers out of everyone with his horror movie demon voice. Also …. Don’t. Bring. Children’s. Music. Just don’t; your spawn will beg for it over and over. Not because they like it, but because it’s theirs. Children’s music is a marketing ploy. Kids don’t need nursery rhyme lyrics, repetitive tunes or whiny falsettos to enjoy music. Give them a taste of whatever you like, and they’ll be singing along in no time. Also, you will not feel the urge to climb out the sunroof and throw yourself from your moving vehicle into the path of the one behind you. You’re welcome.
4) Manage your expectations. The kids will slow you down. Their active little bodies need to run around more than you do. They want to look at everything, because everything is amazing when you’re little. They will want more snacks than you because they burn calories faster than a hummingbird. They will need to pee every seventeen minutes. If you have more than one kid, they will not be on the same pee schedule. On the first day of our first road trip, Ryan and I logged a thousand kilometres – from here to Sandusky, Ohio. One day in 2004, we drove from Marathon to Ottawa, an even longer drive. We’ve had a few very long days on the road with kids, too, but those have not been the norm. We stop when anyone needs to stop, because everyone’s happier that way.
5) Use the facilities every time you stop anywhere. Your kids will probably tell you they don’t need to pee when you point out the washroom and suggest they visit it. Bullshit. Tell them to go anyway. Otherwise, about five minutes after you hit the road again, they will ask for a pee break. I guarantee it.
6) Get out and look around! Stop at the rest area that has a wonderful view, stop at the roadside fruit stand, stop at the flea market selling tat you’d never look at back home, stop at the ridiculous monument (from Easter eggs to nickels to smiling potatoes to monster moose, Canada’s full of those). Don’t chain yourself to routines and destinations. Spontaneity is fun for everyone, particularly kids. It’s exciting to have no idea where you’ll end up next – and it keeps kids interested.
7) While you’re looking around, grab opportunities to have fun. Stop and run around the playground you’re about to pass – it’s great for grown-ups to be kids again, and it’s novel for kids to see their parents swinging, spinning and sliding. You didn’t know there was a petting zoo or mini-museum or aquarium in the town through which you’re driving? Now you do; stop and explore it. Check out a local restaurant – and order the most ridiculous dessert they have, plus several spoons.
8) Be flexible; throw your comfort zone and expectations out the car window, along with the words “always” and “never”. Give the kids food they’ve never tasted; see what they think. Let them try things they’ve never done. Don’t assume that what they do at home is all they can, or want to, do. On our road trips, both girls pick up bugs and animals they’ve only seen in books, eat food with gusto that we were sure they’d detest, explore spaces that look nothing like anything they’ve ever seen before. Fiona spent her sixth birthday on the road. We decorated our motel room with birthday signs after she fell asleep the night before. She had a deep-fried pastry filled with cinnamon and cream from a Mexican restaurant instead of a birthday cake. She opened her presents and went for a swim at a Motel 6 on a Navajo reserve that evening. The next day, we checked out a wolf sanctuary in the middle of nowhere as part of her birthday celebration. Bridget learned to swim because her floaties broke one evening last summer. It was too late to go shopping for replacements in the one-horse town where we had ended up at the end of that day’s driving, and nobody felt like getting out of the pool anyway – so she learned to paddle around without them. She’s also the only kid any of us knows who wears a gator tooth necklace that she bought in a swamp in Mississippi.
Our road trips have given us wonderful memories, and experiences we never knew existed until we encountered them at random. We’ve been forced to improvise, and learn and grow, because of them. When you’re in the car together for hours every day, and the distractions of work, school and socializing are eliminated, you get to know each other better and appreciate each other more. I hope my list of tips and tricks will give road trip rookies a smoother ride …. Now, hit the road (and take lots of pictures)!