Dear Travel Mates,
Come on a ride with us for a minute – we’ve been driving for three hours. All is quiet and calm but we’re due for an explosion merely because we’ve been in the car for so long. It only takes a match to light the fire.
I exhibit inhuman strength and reach for a peach instead of Bamba. As I bite into it, my son, who is very sensitive to smells, starts yelling- “What’s that smell? Ewwww!” and opens the window. My daughter in the back-back immediately yells- “close the window!! I’m cold!” The tension in the car spikes. I try to bring down the heat by putting on music. My other son yells “turn that music off! I HATE that song!”
Now that the fire is raging, the rest of our family pattern plays out. My husband reaches his limit and yells at the eldest. I go into overdrive trying to soothe the kids while seething at my husband for singling out one kid.
Long drives can be harrowing. An episode like yesterday’s happens once a ride. Nonetheless, our drives have been my favorite part of this trip. There’s something calming for me about having my family contained and buckled into one small box with everything we own in tow. I don’t spend extra energy scattering my worry.
Also, I love the hours suspended in the ‘in between.’ In motion, not attached to any location, far from the monotony of repetition.
I remember on one of the first drives on this trip my son asked me – “Are we there yet?” And with a sigh like books being unboxed after sitting deep in the closet for years, I said – “Yes.”
We were THERE. We were on the road, the future ahead, the past behind. That was the destination in and of itself.
So today, dear mates, I want to impart whatever knowledge we’ve gained on how to reduce the torture that is ‘Car Rides With Kids’. I hope it will help your long summer drives go from hellish to – a little less hellish.
But before that, an update. Since we last spoke we’ve explored the Seattle area thoroughly. First we stayed in Ballard, a cute town outside of the city. We had a picnic with cousins, a BBQ with friends, and found that Seatellites are so excited about the sun they’ll play volleyball on the beach in bathing suits even in 50 degree weather.
Next we headed to Herron, an island about two hours away from the city where a friend lent us his spectacular cabin. This place was so beautiful it was immediately promoted to “Top Places We’ve Been To”. My favorite thing to do there was bike ride around the island (3 miles) on the dirt road and then sit on a dock and sing.
Then we headed to Tacoma and spent a week in an old house in a non descript town. That one goes on our list of throwaway locations. But during the week two out of three kids actually finished ALL their school work. I’m almost FREE!! HALLELUYAH!!
Ok so let’s get to it.
Your Long Drive Survival Kit:
It should be noted that we don’t let our kids use screens on the road. This is my last crusade in parenting and I’m not giving in (like I did with everything else). I don’t like the idea of the kids having no concept of what they’re passing and how long we’ve been driving. No judgment for families who allow screens in the car. We all choose our battles. But it means that these tips have been our only lifeline during endless hours on the road.
- FOOD. Most of the time, if the kids are behaving like jerks, they’re either tired or hungry. Therefore snacks are imperative on a long drive. And even though our kids barely eat anything at home, their appetites grow to that of a large rhinoceros when they’re in the car. We try to bring at least two bags filled with snacks. In an ideal situation we even have a third stash to pull out in the fourth hour.
On a normal driving day we bring ALL of these with us:
- Sandwiches. Made before we leave.
- Fruit – Apples, clementines, grapes.
- Snacks – seaweed, pretzels, Bamba, popcorn, peanut butter crackers, goldfish, pistachios, Clif Bars
- Vegetables – peeled carrots, cucumbers.
We also have a tradition of finding a smoothie place in whatever town we’re leaving and taking them on the road. It’s a good way to start the drive with a full stomach and also get some nutrients in the kids before we sit still for much of the day.
- WATER. Bring a ton. All that snacking makes everyone very thirsty and running out of water means wrath of kids. We have at least 5 bottles circulating the car at all times.
- MUSIC. For me, music makes the trip. It’s what makes a simple drive on a sunny highway feel like a poignant moment to be remembered for the rest of our lives. And most importantly, it’s what can shift the mood from seething to soothing, from contentious to calm.
There were times in the car that were so turbulent I thought we’d never make it to the other side. Everyone was annoyed, yelling, hitting, and sulking including Tsuri and I. Music brought us to calm like a bridge over troubled water.
Sometimes I sneak it in, starting out soft and slowly raising the volume. If done stealthily it can shift the mood within seconds. Or exacerbate it if I’ve been caught.
In our toughest moments, when the kids are exhausted and need to sleep, I put on Classical. Other times I’ll put on a song we can all agree on at that moment. These days it’s the Beatles, Billy Joel, or Stevie Wonder.
Music has also marked our journey like flags in a map. In each place I’ve tried to play the music of that location – Frank Sinantra, the Eagles, Hip Hop in LA, Grunge in Seattle, Miles Davis in St. Louis, etc.
We have a tradition of starting our drives with Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again.” Sure, the kids whine about it now, but maybe one day years from now they’ll have a chuckle about it?
- BOOKS ON TAPE. This has gotten us through MANY hours. To be precise, 31.5 hours of Laura Ingalls describing her dwellings meticulously. We’re currently on book 6 and the Wilder family is STILL heading west. We often feel like we’re passing the exact spot where their potato crops were demolished by a plague of grasshoppers, or where they lived in a dugout while Pa worked on the railroad.
It’s a good reminder that what takes us 4 hours, with snacks galore, heat and AC in the car, and cushy seats, took them 4 months sitting on a wagon freezing and wrapped in blankets.
Actress Cherry Jones is the incredible reader of these books. We’ve become so intimate with her reading that we often say things in her style. These days all books on tape are either read by the author or an actor and are a true delight.
- PODCASTS. By miracle, we’ve found some podcasts that all of my kids agree on despite their wide range of ages. There are such great ones out there! Our favorites are Wow in the World, Smash Boom Best, Radiolab for kids, and their absolute favorite – Greeking Out.
- GAMES. My 6 year old can play these for HOURS. The boys join in every now and then:
- DJ. Each person chooses a song and we go around. We’re all grateful my daughter grew out of her Sofia the First phase but now we’re stuck with “Every Time We Touch.”
- 20 questions. Which in our family really means 43 questions at least. So many hours of playing has actually taught my daughter to ask general questions and narrow them down.
- Association. This is a simple game we came up with on one of our drives. One person says – I’m thinking of ____ and the next person goes purely off association and says – and I’m thinking about ____. The mind trick here is to accept that we all have different associations and you have to let go of your own direction.
- I Spy. Nuff said.
- Cloud Shapes. This is just finding shapes in clouds and pointing them out to each other.
- KINDLES, BOOKS. Two out of three of our kids can read in the car. My son creates a private reading room for himself by hanging his coat up and sectioning off his seat area.
- MAPS, ROAD ACTIVITY BOOKS. Every now and then the kids like to pull out the maps and see where we are and where we’re going. We keep them in the seat pockets in front of them. My daughter also has activity road trip books that she likes.
- GPS. At this point the kids don’t ask if we’re there yet. They know to check on the map and see where we’re headed and how long it will take. It helps with expectations and reduces questions. A win for all.
- Download all your podcasts and books ahead of time. Losing Wifi mid story is a big bummer and can cause a spike. We carry a case of CDs with us for dire times but it’s even better if we’ve thought ahead and downloaded what we need.
- Plan your stops. On our worst days we have to stop in the middle of nowhere and resort to Subway or Kentucky Fried Chicken on empty stomachs (ouch). On better days we plan stops in cute towns and have lunch, see waterfalls, or go into hot springs along the way.
- Pit stops. At this point my kids can go anywhere. Traveling during COVID has meant not going into restaurants and settling on any side of the road. It’s a skill that comes in handy. Highly recommended to train your kids.
- Turn taking. We take turns with everything – who sits in the back-back, who sleeps on the air mattress, who chooses the best spot, who decides what dinner will be. It doesn’t eliminate fights, but it reduces them.
Things NOT to do:
- Don’t go into a desolate area at night, without wifi, on a road that lasts for hours, with no gas stations. You don’t think you’d get to that? Maybe not. But if you ever drive from Colorado to Santa Fe fill up on gas first. And feed the kids beforehand too.
- Don’t get to 7:00pm and STILL not have a place to stay, or prospects for dinner.
- Don’t get the Happy Meal at McDonalds unless the kids aren’t hungry. Two nuggets and a huge toy.
- Don’t get caught coming out of the Blue Ridge Mountains at night. It’s often foggy. VERY foggy.
- Don’t let your husband shlep everyone to ONE MORE waterfall when everyone is already at their breaking point.
Final thoughts if you’ve made it this far:
Believe it or not, I was against getting a minivan. I thought it would be too big. I imagined a large sea between me and the kid in the back-back. And what about the gulf between Tsuri and I that didn’t exist with the Subaru Outback? Ha. That little bit of storage space between our seats probably saved our marriage.
But no matter how big the car is here’s my final tip – find times to stretch back and hold your kids’ hand. Maybe it will be when all the kids are sleeping but one, or when your kid suddenly sings harmony with you, or maybe just because. Those are moments you’ll remember too.