My children roll their eyes, my wife arches an eyebrow at me and a gust of wind rolls down State Route 115, scattering my resolve across the road.
In fairness to me, a weaker man might have cracked long before this, our fourth road trip in as many months. In April, we drove 440 miles round trip to First Landing State Park, in Virginia Beach, for spring break; next, we built a mini-vacation around Independence Day and punched it — 1,000 miles there and back — to the Adirondack Mountains in Upstate New York; later that month, our annual trip to Cape Hatteras, N.C. (710 miles round trip); and now this, a 1,520-mile boomerang across four states.
Although none of these was a #vanlife-type epic, together they marked a departure from our fly-first approach to vacationing, a conscious decision to both reduce our carbon imprint and save money we would have otherwise spent on airfares. All were undertaken in our 2009 Subaru Forester, a capable vehicle to be sure, but definitely not a blinged-out minivan, with seat-back entertainment systems, personalized climate controls and en suite bathrooms.
So what did this quartet of road trips teach me, other than that I really need a blinged-out minivan? Glad you asked!
Ignore the clock. Among the many wonders of the technology age is the discovery of new natural laws, such as: Once in a car with children, you will never, ever, transit a distance as swiftly as that clearly childless voice on your GPS says you should. This maxim neatly accompanies the age-old wisdom about haste, waste and the pointlessness of stressing over being late.
Knowing these things did nothing to prevent my cortisol levels from spiking when my daughter announced she needed a bathroom — at 11 p.m. on a dark highway in Upstate New York 10 miles after we’d stopped for (you guessed it) a bathroom break. Or when my wife went rogue and allowed a pre-announced “five-minute gas stop” to devolve into a 30-minute junk-food shopping spree, even as the kids’ fingers — and most of the back seat — were still sticky from the doughnuts they’d vaporized an hour prior.
The antidote: Assume every drive will take 20 percent longer than the GPS ordains and make contingency plans around that, like learning your lodging provider’s late check-in procedures, identifying towns where you could have a layover in a pinch and packing a mobile cocktail bar in case you need to sleep in your car. Also . . .
Plan for longer rest stops. At heart, I'm a manic road tripper, fueled by a get-there-fast-then-have-fun ethos that has compelled me to hold my bladder for hours and, with the low-fuel light on, pass cheerily illuminated gas stations in the middle of nowhere at midnight hoping to milk every mile out of my tank before refilling. Bad moves both, and especially foolish with dependents on board. These days, we keep baseball mitts and a ball, a Frisbee, and other diversions in easy reach and frequently take an extra 10 or 20 minutes at a grassy rest area to play catch with the kids. This isn't feasible at the more industrialized service centers of, say, the Jersey Turnpike, but when space allows, it does wonders for our collective calm. Of course, there are times when we really need to get there, and that's when we . . .
Drive in the dead of night. Kai and Christina love night driving, especially when that entails being lifted from their beds at 3 a.m. and placed in a prearranged nest in the back of the car. My wife does not love this, so to make it go as smoothly as possible, I pack the car to the 99th percentile before going to sleep, then get up before everyone else and make coffee, arrange blankets, fluff pillows, position stuffed animals, ensure the iron/thermostat/circular saw is turned off and pull the car to within three feet of our back door. Then I take a deep breath and accept that it'll be another 30 minutes before we're on the road.
The benefits of this extend beyond the smug satisfaction of having 100 miles behind you at sunrise and include at least a couple of hours of light traffic and the nostalgic bliss of listening, uninterrupted, to the tunes of your choice.
(Almost) forget about healthy eating. Over the past 20 years, I've become a bit of a health nut. For a stretch, I also became a whole lot more ambitious in the sense of thinking I could coerce my family into eating healthy on road trips, despite the fact that I can't accomplish this even at home. This often resulted in arriving at a destination and crankily gathering up trash from my reluctant fast-food stops while staring forlornly into a cooler full of neglected, meltwater-soaked produce.
But road-mode dining is a serious issue, with many fast-food brands contributing mightily to the problem of single-use plastics and other wasteful packaging. To counter that, we try to hit grocery store food bars and march into these and other carryout environments wielding our reusable cups, cutlery and straws. And occasionally we get lucky, as when we stumbled upon B. Good, a gem just off Route 17 in Ridgewood, N.J., with a menu — huge salads, smoothies, hot dogs, grilled cheese — tailored to our crew.
Empathize! Imagine the longest, most insufferable meeting of your life. Now imagine enduring it without pay or your phone or the neural pathways to grasp that it might eventually end. That's how many kids feel on long car rides.
That doesn’t mean parents have to tolerate mutiny, but it does mean we need gentler ways of regaining control than, say, threatening an extended stay in a condemned motel or, as my friend Zoe admitted to doing, dropping her daughter’s peanut M&Ms out the car window one by one while speeding down the highway in hopes of getting her to calm down. (Field report: Epic fail.)
My Michigan tantrum — and, um, a few others — aside, I’ve found that less is more when it comes to road-trip parenting. Less emotion, fewer threats, lower voices, less prosecutorial blaming. Cathleen and I try to diffuse fights by asking each kid to tell their side of the story, ignoring most of what we hear and then reminding them they love each other and we love them. We’ll also occasionally check in to see if whoever lost the fight can wait until the next gas stop to receive medical attention.
Improvise, and stay flexible. Our Adirondacks trip came together last-minute, and while we wanted to bring bicycles, we didn't own a bike rack. So 90 minutes before we planned to leave, I called our local bike shop and asked if they had any old, used or otherwise cheap-but-functional racks. Sure enough, the owner dug one out of the back and sold it to me for $50. Installing it on a sweltering July afternoon delayed our departure by 45 minutes but saved us hundreds of dollars in bike rental fees.
On our drive to First Landing, we opted for the slightly longer Eastern Shore route because we knew the kids would get a kick out of crossing the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel. We then made a last-minute call to divert into Chincoteague, Va., for a night and, by sheer luck, got to watch from the roadside as NASA launched its Antares rocket from the nearby Wallops Flight Facility. Knowing about that in advance might have been nice — we paid a premium for the last available condo in town — but then again, that knowledge only would have caused me to stress about getting there in time to see the launch.
If most of this advice sounds like common sense, well, that’s because it is. As with most family activities, the success or failure of a road trip rests with the adults in the (very small) room and their ability to expect the unimaginable, roll with it, and, when things get really hot, envision themselves stuck in a middle seat on a tarmac during a five-hour weather delay, vowing to never fly again.