I’m standing in the middle of a wild under-10 après ski party at the Mammoth Mountain resort in the Sierra Nevadas with a son by each hand. Henry, age 5, is shaking his booty to the hip-hop beat bursting from enormous speakers, while his brother, Silas, 3, is screaming with glee and jumping up and down like a kangaroo. Just when I think we’ve hit maximum stimulation, the emcee belts into his microphone, “Here he is now! Look up at the gondola and make some noise for Woolly!”
We — and the hundred or so kids and parents surrounding us at the resort’s outdoor village — gaze up at the lift where Mammoth’s mascot, a woolly mammoth, waves like a practiced rock star and makes his way toward the stage. Kids fling themselves toward the gray, shaggy beast and grasp his treelike legs. Once he’s centerstage, the DJ turns up the music, an ensemble of ski and snowboard instructors bust into a synchronized dance, and Woolly blows kisses at the crowd.
Henry turns to me, his eyes as wide as an owl’s, and asks, “Mommy, is this really happening?”
Indeed it is. It’s mid-March and I’m in the midst of a G-rated rave with two boys punch drunk on hot cocoa and spring skiing. What’s more remarkable — at least to me — is that we’re here without Jeff, my husband and their dad. He couldn’t get this week off, and I didn’t want to twiddle our thumbs at home during spring break. So for eight days I am the sole adult in charge and, judging from the scene in front of us, we’re in for quite a time.
Friends called me crazy when I outlined our agenda, insisting I’d go mad juggling gear, logistics and the unpredictable temperaments of my little cavemen on a spring ski vacation that involved a plane ride to another state and a time change. My mother said I would run us all ragged. Even my husband raised his eyebrows and kindly questioned my sanity when I ran the plan by him.
I understood their reactions. Ask most parents, and one of the biggest stressors of having kids (behind sleep training, potty training and imparting major life lessons such as “don’t lick your dirty toes at the dinner table”) is traveling. Kids like consistency. Travel offers anything but. Add in the undeveloped social and emotional skills, the tantrums, the exhaustion and the hunger, and you see why the vast majority of folks stay home when school’s out.
But that’s no fun, either. Pre-kids, I loved to travel and explore. Pregnant, I assured anyone who would listen that children wouldn’t dampen my wanderlust. Once the boys came along, I realized how naive that was. Of course kids change how you travel. They change everything. But “change” doesn’t have to mean “end.”
Since they were babes, my boys and I (and usually Jeff) have ventured near and far from home. Sometimes it has gone smoothly, like the day we spent playing in the surf on the New Jersey Shore with Grandma and cousins while Henry, then a toddler, became enraptured by seashells. Other times, well, not so much. I’ve bolted from upscale dining rooms with a puking toddler, endured tantrums with a recalcitrant preschooler in a mountain town gift shop and driven for hours with an inconsolable baby strapped into his car seat. When the boys were really little, every trip entailed carting along a covered wagon’s worth of luggage, and we still always forgot something important like baby wipes or the Pack ’n Play.
And yet we persisted. Our logic was that regardless of when you begin traveling with your kids, you will always have a learning curve to overcome. Better to start when the offspring are young and will have no solid memories of particularly rough times.
Which is to say: Jeff and I initially told ourselves we’d endure the potential headaches of traveling with young kids for their sake and consider it an investment in our family’s adventurous future. Now, with five years of kid travel under my belt, I can honestly say we’ve benefited as much as, if not more than, the boys. Kids have a knack for finding joy in life’s simple pleasures, and that delight spreads easily. When you’re 3 feet tall and weigh 30 pounds, adventure is riding the free town bus repeatedly or pushing a bowling ball down an alley. An ice cream cone in the middle of the day for no good reason? Sublime. Lounging in pajamas with cartoons on the condo television, bacon frying on the stove and no agenda is the kid version of nirvana.
Kids also love having the undivided attention of a parent, and that’s infinitely more likely on vacation. Granted, this gets old when you’re the only attentive parent around. Being “on” all day might not sound like a holiday. Such was my fear in the days leading up to our Mammoth adventure. I pictured myself crumpled on the condo floor, the kids jumping on my nearly lifeless body demanding more milk or more stories or more love. Mercifully, the opposite happened. The more attention I gave my kids, the less needy they became. As my 3-year-old explained one morning, midweek, “Our cuddle cups are really full, right?”
It might sound sappy, but I live for moments like that. And we had a lot of them during our vacation. One morning the kids crawled into my bed and we drew pictures with our fingertips on each other’s backs for an hour. Another day we rode Panorama Gondola to Mammoth’s 11,053-foot summit and discovered a Forest Service nature center with skins and skulls of mountain lions, coyotes, black bears and lynx, all local fauna. We skied. We chilled. We ate nachos. Throughout the week, I spoke to the boys like real people, soliciting their opinions about what we should eat for dinner or whether we should ski first and then hot tub, or vice versa (oh the choices!), and they responded with thoughtful answers, grateful, it seemed, for the opportunity to weigh in.
Sure, there were pitfalls, like the night I chucked all the bath toys (i.e., the condo’s kitchen implements) out of the bathroom because the boys wouldn’t stop fighting over the spaghetti spoon. By the time bath was over, we were all in tears. But for the most part, our trip to Mammoth had my kids and me operating as a team in a way I’d never before experienced.
Did I get tired? Absolutely. Each night I dropped into my own bed shortly after tucking the boys in and fell into a hard, deep sleep. I did not crack open the books I brought, and there was very little “me time.” But being the solo parent did not drain me as I had feared it might.
Not since they were newborns have I spent so many consecutive hours alone with my kids, and I was rewarded with a window into their sweet, uncomplicated lives. This was bonding at its best. By the week’s end, though we were all eager to return home to Jeff, I knew I’d want to escape again sometime soon with both boys. To where, I’m not yet sure. But I intend to ask their opinions and solicit their help planning our itinerary. After all, they taught me long ago that vacations are no longer just about what I want. When you’re traveling with kids, everyone gets a say.
Walker is a freelance writer and editor based in Boulder, Colo.
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The Village Lodge
1111 Forest Trail,
Mammoth Lakes, Calif.
Condominiums range from studios to three-bedroom suites, all with kitchens and fireplaces and access to hot tubs, swimming pool and a fitness center. Located in Mammoth Village, the Village Lodge is steps from the ski gondola, terrific restaurants and a handful of shops. Rooms from $150.