Jay Palter takes his 9 year olds on a summer road trip the whole family will appreciate now and remember, always.
People looked at me like I was nuts when I told them what we were doing for our summer vacation.
“Driving from Toronto back to Edmonton. Just me and my twin 9 year olds in the back seat.”
As crazy as it may sound, it was a trip to remember.
We left Toronto on Monday July 23 and 4,204 kilometers and 47 hours of driving later we arrived in Edmonton. Along the way, we visited with old friends, experienced some spectacular geography and watched A LOT of movies. (Well, the kids did anyway. I was driving.)
Our route took us through the state of Michigan where we enjoyed the sand dunes of Silver Lake and played bingo on a car ferry while crossing a rather rough Great Lake. We ended that day with friends in Minneapolis, eating exceptional pizza at Luce and drinking some great local beer. (Well, I did anyway. The kids had root beer.)
By Thursday morning, we were making our way through southern Minnesota. I remember crossing the Missouri River and how the terrain seemed to suddenly become Dakotan. We took the scenic drive through Badlands National Park as the early evening sun cast long shadows on the contorted landscape. The kids were genuinely impressed—for about 10 minutes, then they begged me to turn the video on again.
Friday morning found us heading toward Mount Rushmore. Unlike my previous “drive-by” visit 25 years earlier, I was struck this time by the sheer audacity of this monument. Americans sure know how to honour the memory of their fore-bearers. We witnessed a stunning electrical storm somewhere near Wyoming and ended the day in Billings, Montana.
On Saturday morning, we motored straight back to Edmonton, but not before a quick “back to school” shopping expedition to any cross-border Canadian shoppers’ favourite destination: Target.
Road trips are a palette with which to paint life’s memories
As I was musing about this trip in the months leading up to it, I recalled my own road trips and the memories they created.
One of my earliest childhood memories involves a road trip my parents took me on through New York and Pennsylvania. I distinctly remember visiting Hershey, PA and touring the Hershey’s chocolate factory. That was back when they took you on a tour of the actual factory making actual products. Seeing and smelling the vats of chocolate will stay with me forever. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory will forever remind me of that trip.
As a young man in my early twenties, I took another road trip across western Canada and the US that shaped me in a different way. Three weeks of traveling in Alaska was followed by a road trip from Seattle to Minneapolis, by way of Vancouver Island, the Canadian Rockies, The Tetons of Wyoming and, of course, the aforementioned drive-by Rushmore visit.
In retrospect, this trip had a significant influence on the rest of my life. The pure majesty of the land profoundly affected me and led me, in part, to commit several years of my early working life to advocating for ecological sanity. I also found inspiration in the west—in the desert landscapes of the south and their subtle beauty, in the First Nations peoples and their proud histories, and in the frontier spirit of the western North American enterprise. Curiously, this life-long easterner now lives in the west.
So, when I set out on this summer’s road trip with my 9 year olds, it wasn’t just driving and amusements I had in mind. I was hoping for life-shaping experiences and memories. The joys of exploring, of setting out in the morning and not knowing where you were going to arrive at the end of the day. Or what you would discover.
I was also in search of some unscripted time with my kids. No routines, no lessons to get to. No need to fit our together time into the slots between our other activities. It’s good for all of us to see each other out of our element because that’s often the most revealing of who we really are. Not all the discoveries we make on road trips are about external geography. We learn things about each other and our relationships when we leave our familiar places and take journeys.
Suggestions for your road trip
By no means am I an expert, but I did learn a few things in planning this road trip. Here are some observations and hopefully some useful suggestions for you to consider in planning your own life-changing road trip with your kids:
1. America is still “the beautiful”.
Get out there and experience the vastness and magnificent beauty of the United States. Driving across the country affords you a unique opportunity to interact with the land and people and create your own history. Whether you are an avid naturalist who camps and hikes your way across the country or a tourist who hops from attraction to attraction, what matters is that you get out there and experience it on your own.
2. The beauty of North America doesn’t end at the 49th parallel.
While you’re out there, head north to Canada and see just how similar and different we are. The political border may be a straight line, but the natural beauty of the land respects no borders.
3. Be flexible and include input.
Do your research and plan a route, but be flexible. Part of the joy of a road trip is discovery. If your schedule is too tight, you’ll miss opportunities to discover and explore attractions and areas of interest along the way. And if you have kids with you, their input will affect what they remember. Some of the best and most memorable experiences come about unplanned. Be open to it—embrace discovery.
4. Road trips aren’t for everyone.
Not everyone likes road trips. Perhaps there was a bad experience on a past trip or its just not someone’s idea of fun to be in a car all day and flexible to itinerary changes. Or maybe your kids are too small for a big trip. No big deal. No need to force people into road trips they don’t want to take or aren’t ready for yet. There is always a right time for a road trip. Listen for the road to call you.
5. Backseat entertainment systems are a godsend for road trips.
If your kids are small, you’ll want a video player and lots of DVDs to watch. Trust me, quiet kids in the backseat makes the driving all the more enjoyable for the other passengers. Just make sure you turn the videos off periodically so the kids don’t miss the best scenery.
6. Bring a cooler with some snacks.
You never know what will happen and its always good to have some substantive snacks with you. Stuff like apples and crackers and cheese can make a meal in a pinch. Plus, it’s way more cost-effective to buy your pop and snacks in grocery stores so you have it with you when you want/need it.
7. Starbucks is a caffeine and wifi life saver.
If you’re like me, there are few things you are more dependent on than stimulants and connectivity. Finding reliable sources of either can be dodgy in the US heartland. Starbucks offers a perfect combination of the two. And who knew my kids would develop a taste for decaf cappuccinos and mocha light frappuccinos.
8. Mix in some amusements with the attractions.
As amazing as it may seem to you, seeing the mountain ranges and scenic vistas may not do it for long for most kids. Mix in some fun stuff for them: mini-golf, water parks, Go Karts, etc. Think about what will make the trip memorable for them too.
9. Get a GPS.
I may be the last guy on the planet to discover global positioning systems, so if you already have one of these you know what I’m talking about. It’s hard to imagine how we ever drove anywhere without them. Though, I must admit, I didn’t always like being told what to do by that bossy little box on the dashboard. Placing myself at the mercy of a computer and abandoning my own sense of navigational independence did seem like a backward evolutionary step, but that’s for another blog post.
There’s still lots of summer left to squeeze in a road trip. Book off work for a week or and pull the kids out of that camp. Pick a destination. Make some plans on the fly. Pack your van and get out there.
Life is too short not to take some summer road trips.
Read more by Jay Palter:
Image courtesy of the author