Summer has arrived in full force on Long Island. The parking lots to the beaches fill before noon. The blooms on the hydrangeas are so plentiful that the branches droop to the ground, trying to bear the weight of the blueish, purple-flowering globes. All of my favorite summer flavors—basil, tomatoes, corn, fresh mozzarella, and berries make regular appearances at my dinner table.
It is also a season for road trips.
Last week, Brad and I returned from a trip to Michigan to visit our parents and extended family. It wasn’t until I read J. Courtney Sullivan’s article “Notes from a Road Trip” in the latest issue of Real Simple that I realized we are a road-tripping family! Together we have logged thousands of miles and traveled many of the major interstates that connect the east and west coasts. Over the years and miles, we have developed our own road trip “manual” that defines how we travel.
For us, car trips were born out of necessity. If we wanted to see family or go on a vacation, we needed to drive. There wasn’t money in the budget for airlines tickets x four, especially during the graduate-school years. Our first long road trip occurred when the kids were little and we lived in the Chicago area. It was my grandparents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary and the Smith clan was gathering in Montana at my uncle and aunt’s ranch. After seeking advice from several of our friends who had young children, we decided to drive through the night. We left our house around 6 pm and drove for the next twenty hours. I can still remember the point when Brad and I both hit the wall. It was close to 5 am and the first signs of morning streaked the sky. We stopped at a rest area for some brief sleep. At that moment, I was ready to ditch the budget and grab the nearest hotel room where I could sleep in a prostrate position on a comfy bed. Of course, the kids woke earlier than usual as the sunlight streamed through the van’s windows. The final hours to the ranch seemed to last an eternity. We survived and still tell stories about that experience. Thankfully, most of our road trips since then have involved primarily daytime driving, which suits both of us much better.
In a couple of weeks, we will once again hit the road as a family and head north for a week in Quebec, spending time in Montreal and Quebec City. Our road-trip manual will be in play.
First, we will leave the house early, by 6 am if we are lucky. There’s something about starting early on a road trip. Driving during the morning hours invigorates. The unfolding day is fresh and exciting. And, since we live near a major city, we avoid, or at least try to avoid, rush-hour traffic.
Second, we don’t stop for lunch. Instead, we eat our packed lunch in the car. We do this for two reasons: to save money and to save time. Since the majority of our trips are to visit our parents who live twelve-plus hours away, we look for ways to save time by limiting our stops. Another car-trip ritual we follow is to stop for an ice-cream treat in the afternoon. This snack fills our stomachs so we can make it in time for dinner, albeit sometimes a late one. Sitting down to a home-cooked meal after a long day in the car is a delicious reward.
Third, our car trips are a mix of silence and stories. Driving for long stretches definitely puts a person in the “zone.” I always pack a variety of books and magazines to read while we drive, but often I find myself staring out the window, lost in my thoughts. The sound of the car’s tires against the pavement and the passing of trees and other cars becomes a meditative experience, allowing time for reflection—something I often don’t take time for in my everyday life. At different points throughout the day, stories of family memories and previous trips bubble to the surface and are retold. However, lest you think car trips are only filled with tender moments, let me set the record straight.
Sometimes the busyness of preparing to leave on a road trip, coupled with other life stressors, make for tense driving. Additionally, the silence in the car reflects angry thoughts and is the result of an argument rather than the recalling of some sweet family memory. Yet, the miles heal. Eventually, someone apologizes and seeks to sort out the conflict. After all, there is plenty of time.
Lastly, road trips are a chance to forgo the usual habits that govern our days. As our children grew, we allowed more DVD watching. This past Christmas, Anna watched one movie after the next as the miles passed. I never would have allowed that when she was little. But she was adamant that this was the only way she would survive the trip. We also eat foods that we don’t normally consume when we drive. Who cares if the day starts with a donut, involves a mid-morning snack of chips or a candy bar, and includes afternoon ice cream? That’s part of the fun of a road trip.
I am always grateful when the car pulls into our final destination after a long day of driving. I feel like I will never want to sit down again. Later, falling into bed, I am struck by the fact that I began the day at home and now I am in this new place, miles away from where I started. New adventures await. My body relaxes and the hum of the car’s engine fades from memory, ushering in peaceful sleep and dreams.