Suzanne Tobias

July 30, 2014

Family road trips offer a chance to reconnect

Bemoan the family road trip all you want.

Bemoan the family road trip all you want.

I recently returned from about 2,600 miles with my husband and teenagers – a winding but whirlwind journey to the coast of South Carolina and back – and believe more than ever that the road soothes, settles, equalizes.

Recalculates.

A road trip is, in the words of author John Green, “like doing something without actually doing anything,” which makes it perfect for families.

Shortly before we left, I heard some morning deejays discussing the merits of electronic devices on road trips. One of them said children shouldn’t be allowed to plug into iPods or similar devices because it’s rude to those around them, a signal that they don’t care about what’s outside the window or what you might be yammering on about from the front seat.

Several callers agreed, saying they grew up without smartphones and MP3 players and turned out just fine, thank you very much. Their parents required them to be “present” and “engaged” during family road trips, they said, and they planned to do the same.

They lolled around the back seat of the station wagon, ate snacks, waved at truckers, played the License Plate Game and tried not to annoy Dad so much that he’d threaten to turn this car around, so help me, and never go on another vacation as long as we live.

I remember that. But I also recognize that 12 hours in a car can try even the most patient soul, so we didn’t prohibit earbuds, handheld games or long naps.

Turns out, most of our family’s recent trip was unplugged and quiet except for a few favorite satellite radio stations looping in the background.

Hannah finished an entire novel before we arrived at the Mississippi River. Jack dozed most of that first morning, waking only to tap my shoulder and ask me to pass the Teddy Grahams. I juggled the GPS and our printout from Google Maps, alerting Randy if the two differed so he wouldn’t panic when the voice broke in:

“Recalculating.”

That’s what the road seems to do, regardless of your route. Crammed into our fuel-efficient compact car, seats littered with pillows and sunflower seeds, we laughed, bickered, reconnected.

We chuckled at the billboards and roadside stands – “Tasty Jerky Just Ahead!” – and ate our meals in silence at a Cracker Barrel in Alabama so we could eavesdrop on the tables around us. We smiled when the waiter called Hannah “young miss” and Jack “young sir.” We stifled laughter when the man next to us complained loudly about his “gastrointestinal dis-TRAY-us.”

We marveled at steel bridges and Great Smoky Mountains, at morning fog over Arkansas hills, at the Talladega Superspeedway. We saw amazing sunrises. We counted Baptist churches in Kentucky. We grumbled as Interstate 40 narrowed to one lane near Memphis, so close and yet so far from the comfy hotel room that awaited us in Little Rock.

When we planned this vacation, we considered flying, as we always had. The airline course mocked us from the Google Maps screen – “3 hours, 55 minutes … from $629 round trip” – as the highway routes promised 20 hours or more.

I’m glad we took to the road. We needed the time.

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