From a tolerable soundtrack to sleep-inducing pit-stops, Stefan Lanfer breaks it down.
For the past few years, my family has made an annual summer trip from our home in Boston to Lake Rabun, in northern Georgia. This year, with my not-yet-two-year-old daughter, Maya, not-yet-road-trip-ready (and still able to sit on my wife’s lap on the plane), I decided to hit the open road with my almost-four-year-old son, James, our dog, Scout, and rendezvous with my wife, Ashley, and Maya down south.
With my return thousand-plus mile road trip now a week in the rear view mirror, here are a few reflections about what made the difference between a barely-bearable-hellish-slog, and the fun, memorable, father-son (with a late addition of James’ grandfather, “Grande”) experience it turned out to be.
The key ingredients:
Seriously Heightened Anticipation:
It was on the calendar on the fridge. I drew a picture of our car—James and I inside—on our departure date. I crossed off day by day. “Wow, James! Just five more days until our ROAD TRIP!” “Two days!” “Tomorrow!” Man did I ever pump it up—an approach validated when I caught this recent piece in The Week magazine about the “scientifically perfect” vacation, suggesting that the pleasure in planning, and anticipation and memory of vacations, can outweigh the thing itself (and even counterbalance, when the thing itself is a bummer).
Once we were on the road, there was no talk of hours or miles or days to go (and certainly not the fact that, when we got the call from my wife, Ashley, and not-yet-two-year-old daughter, Maya, they’d made it—by plane—to their first stop in Atlanta, we were stuck in standstill traffic in southern Connecticut). The talk of our progress on the road was always about the awesome next stop that was “not long now!” The much-hyped stops on our way included:
- Pepe’s Pizza in New Haven, CT, where, to the amazement of our waitresses (“Most parents give their kids the cheese“), James guzzled down Pepe’s famous white clam pizza.
- The Ocean in Spring Lake, NJ, where we stopped over the first night with my cousin Maisie and family. They had a house full of toys James couldn’t get enough of. With the promise of day two starting out with a plunge in the ocean, and waves and sand of a beautiful beach just blocks away, then the ocean-side, then the backyard pool, I figured my odds of a good long nap (for James) were pretty strong (see note on proper seat adjustment below).
- The “Astronaut Museum” (a.k.a. The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum) in Washington, D.C. With James now determined to be a drummer and an astronaut (where he knows the key ingredient is “work hard!” Just ask him, he’ll tell you.), the promise of a visit to the museum on the Mall in D.C. kept us rolling through day two. We hitched up with college friends and their two kids for the journey—the highlight of which was probably the epic escalators and the METRO rides—a good reminder to be a little less obsessed about the destination, and remember to celebrate each step of the journey. James is captured in these photos with new friend, Ella, mugging at the museum, and then before and after the effects of air conditioning kicked in on the ride home, on a hot D.C. summer day.
- Tasty, if not nutritious, food. (See “Waffles and Ice Cream” below.) Because, at least on this ride, regular rules and aspirations of balanced meals (vegetable, what?) don’t apply.
(If possible) An Ace Reliever:
As it happened, James’ grandfather was in DC for a wedding Saturday night, not even a mile away from where we were staying in Chevy Chase, MD. We picked him up at the Hilton at 6AM and, after an obligatory Starbucks run, hit the road for the final ten hours, fueled by…
Waffles and Ice Cream:
First stop of that last morning was (once again, with much hype) James’ first visit to a Waffle House. “That’s the one I want!” James exclaimed, pointing to the “big, round waffle” on the menu and announcing his order before our friendly waitress had a chance to say “good morning.” Needless to say, a huge hit (and, following the old rule, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” we ate there again—twice—a week later on the drive home.) Here is the grainy, camera-phone-photo proof, “I wolfed down that waffle!” declared James to Ashley when we finally made it to Lake Rabun that night. He sure did.
A Tolerable Soundtrack:
A few days before we set off for our trip, I was getting stressed about our old, tired music selection. I posted this update on twitter:
Three days to 19 hr road trip with my almost-four-year-old. Help me with music he’ll dig that won’t drive me nuts.
The answer came quickly from a former colleague:
Looking for music? Barenaked Ladies: Snacktime, They Might Be Giants: Here Comes Science, For The Kids compilations. Good for kids, won’t drive you nuts.
What a lifesaver. I promptly downloaded and burned copies. As we set off from Boston, I asked James if he was ready for the (hype hype hype) NEW ROAD TRIP MUSIC. “Yes!” he said. I slipped in the Barenaked Ladies: Snack Time, and immediately we were carried away by what became our road trip theme song—“one two three four five six seven eight ten, WHAT ABOUT NINE? 7, 8, 9!”
Oh, and it Never Hurts to Adjust that Seat Properly:
The difference between this ten minute nap:
The only time James ever seemed to lose his cool was during a two-and-a-half-hour nap, after hundreds and hundreds of miles on I-81 in Virginia. Grande and I heard these cries of, “No!” and later, “OWWW!” and finally, “I want to get OUT!” Looking back, his eyes would be open or opening, and he seemed awake, but he wasn’t—which was clear, because, when he was, he was his usual singing, laughing, amazing trooper self.
Nevertheless, a little rattled by the distress calls of his subconscious, soon after he did finally wake up, with hours still to go, just south of the Bristol Motor Speedway, we spotted a Tastee Freez and screeched into the parking lot to “fuel up” for the home stretch.
All in all, an amazing trip. For all the flying we’ve done in recent years, there is something about travel by the (mostly open) roads. It slows things down. The meditative space of miles upon miles upon miles—life, fatherhood, my writing, work—I think about the pace of our constantly connected lives, where all interstitial spaces are so easily consumed by some distraction—blackberry, iPhone, instant messages, Facebook, Twitter…
There is something to being on the road, with the rare space and time for one’s mind just to wander, for time to slow down, to be alone with your thoughts. Then James wakes up and has to pee.