It starts innocently enough. You drop a hint here. She drops a hint there. You might mention how you’ve, you know, never really been to Cincinnati. The Children’s Museum in Indianapolis, she says, is apparently second to none. You try to gauge how serious she is about this, measuring the words carefully as they bounce around your eardrums…rest stops…continental breakfast…heated indoor swimming pool. For a moment you have visions of an 8 month old screaming in the carseat for hours on end, a half eaten cheeseburger flying, end over end, between the front seats and landing squarely on the dash, spraying ketchup like a bad horror movie, and hearing the words “I have to pee…really bad” right as you pass the “Next Rest Stop: 75 miles” sign. You recoil in horror, but it’s too late. The seed has been planted. A few weeks go by and that small seed has grown into something just large and unwieldy enough to make you set aside your otherwise firmly planted sense of reason and penchant for low expectations, replacing them with naïveté and delusions of vacation grandeur.
You’re going on a road trip.
A good road trip starts with good planning. This is a very important step. I usually skip it entirely. This is primarily because another essential ingredient of a good road trip is making things exciting, and, really, what’s more exciting than feeling like things could fall apart at any moment?
My wife and I go over the details: the hotel, things to do, things to see, things not to see, places to eat, gas mileage, and the all-important ETD. ETD stands for estimated time of departure. It does not stand for exact time of departure. Exact time of departure is usually calculated as ETD +/- 12 hours. We usually agree to leave early. Really early. Too early. It never happens. If we’re on the road before lunch high-fives are not out of the question.
With an 8 month old in the back, we’re taking it easy on this trip. We’re driving 115 miles. That’s 1 mile, 115 times. We can do this.
We get a surprisingly early start, dish out the high-fives, and make it 3 miles before the first ‘Is that our hotel?’. I look around. I see trees. I see corn. Some clouds. I do not see a hotel.
‘No, that’s not our hotel.’
‘Well, where is our hotel?’
‘It’s in Indianapolis.’
‘It’s about 100 miles away.’
‘But where is it?’
This conversation will be repeated many times. It wouldn’t be a family road trip if it weren’t. I turn up the radio.
As a parent on a family road trip, there are many roles to play – driver, navigator, snack-giver, radio operator, lane-change-watcher-outer (“car…car…there’s a car…car”), and perhaps most importantly pee-time-calculator. Pee-time-calculation is an art. It combines the disciplines of mathematics, sociology, psychology. How long has it been since they last peed? How far are we from the next suitable exit? What is the average socio-economic status of the citizens residing within, say, three square miles of the next suitable exit? Child A will indicate a need to pee in approximately 20 minutes, whereas Child B is not due for 45. However, as soon as Child A declares an emergency situation Child B will respond in kind, even though Child B will likely not use the facilities upon stopping. This means we’ll be making two stops within 20 minutes of each other. If I can hold Child A off until the 30 minute mark….a dangerous gamble. The only thing crankier than a kid on a long car ride is a kid who pees his pants on a long car ride.
We get to the hotel, and then what I think is the hardest part of the trip begins: forgetting you’re an adult and letting go. It sounds easy. It looks easy in the movies. It’s not easy.
It’s easy to remember being a kid. Not as easy to remember feeling what it’s like to be a kid. I feel a twinge every now and again; something brings it back. A sight, a smell. We pretend like we never really grow up. Like we still embrace that innocence and freedom of five, six, seven. “Kids at heart” we say. But it’s not that simple. I’m a grownup, through and through. Just because I still get excited watching Luke Skywalker blow up the Death Star, doesn’t mean that, even for a second, I could go back.
So, like adults, we discuss things to cram into the day. Racetrack? Museum? Both? The kids have other ideas. One has claimed the king bed as his castle. The sheets pulled up to his chin. He laughs at the way it feels. The other is checking every nook and cranny. She desperately wants to use the hotel phone. I think she might want to call Barbie. Our youngest is crawling, everywhere, fascinated by the texture of the carpet.
“Is this a real hotel?”
“Yes this is a real hotel”
“And we’re spending the night?”
“Yes, we’re spending the night.”
The innocence? The freedom? It’s theirs. And my heart is happy for them.
We have fun in Indianapolis. We catch a concert. We swim in the pool. We overindulge in the continental breakfast. We laugh at each other.
And before we know it we’re boarding the hotel elevator to head home. Our two-year-old is on outside elevator button duty while our five-year-old has graduated to inside elevator button duty. “G…that means Ground Floor”, he says proudly. We pile in the car, buckling seatbelts in what has become an almost ritualistic exercise of click-tug-click-tug.
“Are we going home?”
“To our house?”
And that’s exactly where we end up. Safe and sound.