No country for young boys

My wife and I just finished driving to California and back with our three boys. We live in the Eastern Time Zone, so this was a substantial road trip.

Why would anyone drive cross country with three little boys? Are we crazy?

Apparently.

We went to California for my sister-in-law’s wedding. The cost of flying the family there and then renting a minivan for several days was a big factor in the decision to drive.

Plus, we’re crazy.

Sane people would have gone into debt to fly. Probably. Honestly, I have no idea how sane people think.

Driving 5,000 miles (8,000 km) with a one-year-old, a three-year-old, and a seven-year-old was a fun adventure – the kind of fun that takes years off your life.

I’m older now, and wiser. It’s the kind of wisdom that’s only useful for those driving consecutive days with children, which is something, God willing, I will never have to do again. So, it may turn out to be useless wisdom; that would be the best case scenario.

Happy, soothing pictures from the Pacific Ocean to calm my nerves.

Happy, soothing pictures from the Pacific Ocean to calm my nerves.

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In case any friends out there find themselves with such a daunting journey ahead of them, here are some nuggets of wisdom I learned on our trip:

  • Nothing makes a preschooler have to pee more urgently than traveling a mile past a rest stop.
  • Driving is often touted as a great way to see the country, but America all looks pretty much the same at night. The dashboard lights are the same everywhere.
  • One-year-olds can be amazingly peaceful car passengers, for a little while.
  • Speed limits are unnecessary if there are enough trucks on the road.
  • A three-year-old and a seven-year old can fight over which movie to watch for longer than any movie lasts.
  • Everyone knows “I’ll turn this car around and go home!” is an idle threat.
  • To Daddy, “I’ll turn this car around and go home!” is a beautiful, forlorn daydream.
  • The western states are too big. They should be divided up so kids don’t have to ask, “Are we still in Colorado?” 300 times.
  • A seven-year-old + a third row seat + the Rocky Mountains = puke. It’s simple arithmetic.
  • The rift between the McDonald’s and Wendy’s factions can tear a weary family apart for the duration of the highway break.
  • Regardless of who won the restaurant debate, you’ll have an upset stomach for the next 200 miles.
  • Sprint does not operate a single cell tower within the state of Nebraska.
  • When the Garmin tells you your next turn is in 524 miles, you are someplace you don’t belong.
  • Despite what seems like constant tumult, kids do actually sleep in the car. You realize this when, after arriving home at 7 a.m. and going straight to bed, the kids wake you up two hours later.

Driving across the US and back with small children is not for everyone. Rational, mature, reflective adults have no business attempting it. It’s a fool’s errand, and only we fools know how to do it right.

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Road trip: Hell on wheels

In the past month, we’ve taken two road trips of no less than nine hours each way. If you’ve ever traveled with three boys under six, I apologize for any PTSD symptoms I may be awakening within your psyche. But you probably get the shakes whenever you see a minivan careening down the highway, so I’m not completely to blame for your tremors.

out for a drive

Hang on. It’s going to be one wild ride.

We tried driving through the night. The darkness did coax the children to sleep sometime during the third go-round of the Peppa Pig DVD, and we were not brought to a complete standstill by the many thousand construction zones we navigated. But these benefits were dampened by the parents’ exhaustion at daybreak, making the first day more hangover than vacation.

Driving during the day brings a spiritual brand of exhaustion. This weariness stems from whining children and repeated episodes of Sponge Bob. It doesn’t matter that you maxed out your library card renting movies for the trip; they will only watch two, and you will consider the second one a blessing.

Some parents eschew the practice of placating children with movies or electronics. They say such devices are figurative opiates that drug the children rather than engage them. They may have a point, which I would help them prove if I could get away with feeding the boys literal opiates on the trip. But until that enlightened day, their high-minded theories will have to remain untested.

ready for the road

“Everyone take a nice big sip of ‘sleepy tonic’ back there. Daddy needs to concentrate on the road.” (Image: Russell Lee/US Farm Security Administration)

There are many rest areas on the highways, conveniently located between the places where a kid needs to pee. I don’t mind him peeing into the woods alongside the road; it’s probably cleaner than the rest area bathroom, but that just means there will be different reason to pull off at the rest area.

Did I mention that long drives summon the Type A personality from the depths of my dark soul? I yearn to cut time off the trip. You don’t do that by stopping at, and in between, all the rest areas.

All the construction zones encountered on our highways would lead one to expect an improving quality of road. That is, until it becomes apparent that 10% of the zones have someone working in them. The other 90% are there to help us practice merging. We got lots of practice when our six lanes funneled down into a single lane. Standstill traffic has a magical effect on sleeping babies; it wakes them, in a wrong side of the bed kind of way. It makes older children ask questions that trapped parents can’t answer.

“Why are we stopping? What’s in front of the this long line of cars? Why is the road closed if nobody’s working on it?” And the ever ingratiating: “Why didn’t we take a different road if this one’s packed with cars?”

Being stuck in traffic with seven hours of road ahead of you is awesome and these questions just add to the fun.

So relax and enjoy the banter. You’ll get there . . . eventually.

My vacation in handcuffs

So we took the family to Washington, D.C. and this happened.

the middle one did it

“That’s him, officer! The pitiful-looking one with the puppy dog face!”

Though this is not a real police lineup, there were several times during the week when I wished he were in police custody so that the rest of us could enjoy our vacation in peace. At the attraction where this picture was taken, his aunt bought him a set of toy handcuffs. For the rest of the day, including the duration of our visit to the Air and Space Museum, he handcuffed me to random objects. He could have done us all a favor by handcuffing Buster to the stroller, but Buster’s wrists are too small to really pinch painfully in toy handcuffs. And it’s no fun wielding the authority vested in shackles if you can’t cause pain with it.

Buster spent the bulk of his vacation chasing Big Brother and screaming for the latter’s toy handcuffs. Buster can bust out one hell of a shriek when a brother doesn’t surrender the toy he wants. I’m sure some fellow hotel guests can back me up on this. But his parents did a pretty good job of keeping the high notes contained within normal waking hours. Those kids you heard yelling in the halls all night were a totally separate group of poorly raised children.

New Baby did an admirable job of keeping himself quiet at night. The long days of touring the city made him sleep hard, followed by some hard waking up in the morning. None of us boys in the family wake up easily, and by the looks of things, New Baby will be no exception.

morning

“Oh my God! Where am I?”

always morning

“What time is it?”

morning still

“I did what last night?”

glorious morning

“Oh man! Could I ever use a milk toddy right now.”

After finishing the difficult work of waking up in the mornings, we spent our days seeing the sights, some familiar, some new. But for all the things we saw, the best part of this trip was discovering that D.C. has some pretty decent pizza.

I am a northeast native, living in a Midwestern world. The people here have learned not to speak to me of pizza unless they wish to unleash the condescending snob within. I can find merit in all things Midwestern, except pizza. It hurts my heart whenever I hear Big Brother say, “I love Domino’s pizza.” If he only knew.

It never occurred to me that D.C. would be the first step in his education. Who knew they’d have pizza reminiscent of the northeast? All of us, even picky little Buster, ate and ate and ate many delicious slices. And nobody’s mouth found a leisure moment to blaspheme the holy meals with talk of Domino’s. There is hope for us yet.

After my traditional confrontation with one of the conscientious workers inside a subway booth, it was time to come home. I guess I won’t have to worry about overdosing on pizza again for a while.

After carting three kids around the big city for a week, the wife and I could sure use a vacation.

Mr. Washington’s sauna

When I asked my son if he wanted to visit Mr. Washington’s house, he asked what any righteous four-year-old would. “Can we go to Mr. Lincoln’s house instead?”

Though his priorities were above reproach, I was left with the sad duty of explaining to him that Mr. Lincoln’s house is in Illinois and we were going to Virginia. Once he understood how harsh geography had robbed him of his first choice, he agreed that Mr. Washington’s house would be a fine substitute.

I like Mount Vernon. It is interesting and beautiful. It is also on a hill in Virginia – an important consideration if you are visiting in the heart of summer with small children.

Mount Vernon front gate

A beautiful home, if you can make it there before you melt.

I guess the area around Mount Vernon is called Northern Virginia to trick people into thinking it might not be hellishly hot there in July. I won’t be fooled again. In fact, I am rethinking my January beach volleyball plans in South Dakota.

Mr. Washington built his house on a hill overlooking the Potomac. It was a good idea for someone with a horse to carry him back up the hill every time he wanted to go dip his toes into the water.

Potomac wharf

It looks like a carousel but there are no horses. Just like there are no horses to carry you back up the hill. Psych!

Many interesting parts of the estate are downhill from the main house. My wife and I didn’t have any horses to carry us back up the hill in the stifling heat. Fortunately, our boys did. They had a couple of plodding nags, affectionately called Mommy and Daddy.

My wife had the foresight to bring the double stroller. I’d wanted the single. While the little guy could only be expected to toddle odd bits of the greater Washington area, I argued that the big boy could do his own walking. It was no smooth sailing, pushing that cart loaded with 65 pounds of childhood up dirt paths, but without it, my four-year-old and I would still be on the banks of the Potomac, arguing about how he was going to be transported up the hill.

Mount Vernon carriage

This belonged to Mr. Washington, but I could swear I pushed my boys up that hill in it a few times.

By the time we toured the main house, everyone was tired and sweaty. I have observed that tired, sweaty kids are not always on the their best behavior. If Mr. Washington’s spirit happens to flit around the halls of his home, he has now observed it too.

Mr. Washington’s house is full of interesting knick-knacks. He, and anyone truly devoted to preserving his legacy, would certainly want a curious child to try to touch them all. Undoubtedly, he would encourage such a child to stray from his group and open any door that might have been closed against the public by mistake.

Mount Vernon overseer cabin

Washington’s overseer had sense enough to barricade the doorway of his cabin so the young’uns couldn’t get into his things.

Mr. Washington was a good marketer. This was the man who slyly wore a military uniform to the meeting where they were going to pick out an army commander-in-chief. This strategic thinking persists at Mount Vernon, where the gift shop straddles the park exit and beguiles weary tourists with its air conditioning.

We did not buy any souvenirs, but I cannot tell a lie: a one-year-old I know might have rearranged the display of some of the trinkets in the store.

The river looks so beautiful, cool, and inviting. Ignore it and go to the gift shop. That's the trap with the air conditioning.

The river looks so beautiful, cool, and inviting. Ignore it and go to the gift shop. That’s the trap with the air conditioning.