–By Wallace Smith
When I was a kid, we had a station wagon, not unlike the family truckster that is a highlight of the National Lampoon’s “Vacation” movie. Ours was brown, with an early version of do-it-yourself stick-on reflective window tinting. My favorite seat was the pop-up seat in the way back (and if you have not seen the movie The Way Back you should go watch that right now).
Our family took many day trips, winding up into and down back from the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. Most of memories about those family days include skipping stones on Dillon Lake or
hiking around Berthoud Pass, but some of those memories include way back seat queasiness after eating my mom’s “legendary” ham salad sandwiches. (I think the idea was that such moistness between bread that dried instantly to cracker form in the high altitude would “help” the bread—it did not.)
On longer trips to visit family in Kansas, the way back was not an available seating option. Depending on the trip, we would also have a luggage carrier on top of the car in addition to filling the back of the wagon. With all of our stuff, this meant that we kids sat three across on the “bench” seat. My mother had sewn a contraption of pockets that were harnessed to the headrests of the front seat and hung toward our knees in the middle seat. This was not unlike the pocket on the airplane seat in front of you—though I didn’t learn about airplane pockets until college because, when I was a kid, if we went anywhere it was on the road in the station wagon.
If our toys, activities or books could not fit in the pockets, we “did not need it.” We had to be strategic in what we took with us on the journey. Almost as strategic as we needed to be in avoiding the dreaded middle seat, straddling the hump of the axle and struggling for leg room with merciless siblings who also learned over the years of back-seat adventures to strike and poke and harm each other under the “radar” of the rear-view mirror.
Most of our on-the-road entertainment was provided in what we could get away with doing to provoke our seat mates, or getting lost in a book, or playing games together (that did not involve a screen or buttons—I suddenly feel old like the narrator of “The Wonder Years”- let me pause while you look up that reference. . .). Yet my parents would also pack some sort of surprise rewards for us to look forward to at certain mile markers or rest stops along the way—an attempt to focus on positive behavior and keep moving forward rather than the threat of pulling the car over or the classic empty threat, “I can turn this car around right now and we’ll just go home!”
I could get lost in telling stories of adventures to Niagara Falls the year that Grandma came along and we had six instead of five wedged into the wagon. Or the time we drove from Kansas to Oregon in our Conestoga with the bright intent of camping in order to save money—we were using a borrowed tent and borrowed equipment and had never camped before. There are so many family adventures that were intense drama in the moment and are now merely comedy in the rear view mirror. Yet I want to simply share some lessons that we have learned along the way, some “road rules” for traveling with kids that also apply to the family journey:
- Have a plan and include a map (an actual map can be such an educational tool that also ignites imagination in ways that directions from your phone never allow).
- Be open to adventure when the plan changes and the map is not helping!
- It is okay to ask for directions and help along the way.
- Pack only essentials and pack to share essentials with each other (passages from Luke come to mind . . . take nothing for your journey, trust in the hospitality of strangers . . .). Try to keep it very simple and pack minimally—this is not just practical, it really can help us rely on each other along the way. (I’m restraining from an entire blog regarding airplanes and carry-ons.)
- Find a way to reward positive family behavior with anticipation (and not just buying kids more stuff, or ice cream—though on vacation you should definitely buy ice cream. Unless you’re lactose intolerant, in which case the ice cream might feel like a treat of ham salad).
- Play games along the way or plan destinations that help you be together in the adventure.
- Go somewhere new and try something new!
- If you are sharing a seat (on a plane, in a car, anywhere) be merciful and forgiving.
- When packing food, skip the ham salad sandwiches.
We only have so many family vacations left before we send our oldest child off to college or whatever life adventures await her. The road trips we take now are not just for family togetherness (and amusing comedy in her future rear view mirror), but the adventures we share are opportunities for learning how to navigate the world.
Who will you share the journey with? How may you share traveling mercies along the way?