This summer, we embarked on an adventure.
Ever since Darren and I got married, we’ve said we’ll take a cross-country drive to California like his family did in 1988. This year, we looked at each other and said, “We’re going to have to actually do it, you know.”
I write this in a hotel room in Flagstaff, Arizona. We’ve been on the road for six days—we’ve driven through Virginia, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. Tomorrow we’ll cross the line into California, the halfway point of our Big Road Trip.
We’ve never undertaken a trip quite this big before. We weren’t sure exactly how to plan for it. We’re still figuring that out, to be honest. But from the get-go, we treated it just as if we are vacationing overseas. We’re not looking for bargains and money-saving tricks. We’ll be paying it off for a while, but we consider the experience worth it.
(Since we’re not a camping family, that means hotel rooms every night. It does take some of bite out of the cost that we get a discount at Choice Hotels through our HSLDA membership.)
We’ve learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t. Most importantly on this particular trip, Darren thought to bring a small plastic bucket.
Two kids threw up the night before we left. Another kid spent three hours between Tennessee and Arkansas throwing up into that bucket. And then I myself threw up on Historic Route 66 in New Mexico. (Darren says I’m probably not the only person who has ever done that.) That bucket has spared us a lot of grief and mess so far.
Aside from the Great Upchuck Revival, though, the road trip has been every bit as fun as we hoped. It’s a compromise between Darren’s love of structure and my love of “white space.” He planned our route and made hotel reservations for each night. We have a few important destinations along the way. But mostly, we don’t have any scheduled stops. Instead, we decide what we want to do along the way (eating lots of snacks as we go).
So what have we discovered on this first stage of our great journey across our vast homeland? Well, quite a lot. Given here in no particular order:
- Virginia Safari Park in Natural Bridge, Virginia. You drive through the park, getting up close and personal with animals like llamas, deer, ostriches, zebras, antelope, and elk. You can also get a look at other animals (from a safe distance) like rhinos and giraffes. Most of the animals expect you to have food for them, so they crowd the car and smear their noses against the windows. Even now, hundreds of miles later, the memory of the greedy llamas can set all the kids laughing. “Hey, hey, let’s hang out. I’ll bring the drinks, you bring the food. I lied about the drinks. But you still bring food.”
- Crater of Diamonds State Park in Arkansas. You rent a shovel and a bucket, and head out into a big open field to dig for diamonds, minerals, and rocks. Also a lot of mud. If we were more patient, we might have found something remarkable. As it is, we came away with some cool rocks and good memories.
- Packing perishable items in a cooler sounds like a great idea. Midwest and Western heat laughs at such pretension. It curdled our milk, melted our chocolate, and soured our lunchmeat.
- Casey Jones Village in Jackson, Tennessee. A small museum dedicated to the railroad hero Casey Jones. (Not to be confused with the baseball poem “Casey At Bat,” which doesn’t have anything to do with railroads. Which some of us possibly had to figure out once we got to the museum.)
- Mesaland’s Community College’s Dinosaur Museum in Tucumcari, New Mexico. This was a serendipitous find as we sailed along Interstate 40. It’s a very small museum, but very kid-friendly. Worth the stop if you’re close enough. Maybe you too can get a selfie with a triceratops skull.
Also, leaving bread out in New Mexico heat results in your minivan smelling like a brewery.
- We’re going easy on the “educational” aspect, but Darren did ask if I could look up a few state facts every time we crossed a border. We look up nine facts: 1. Abbreviation; 2. Capital; 3. State flower; 4. State tree; 5. State bird; 6. State size; 7. Population; 8. State Motto; 9. State Nickname. EnchantedLearning.com has been my reference site for all of the information. So far Virginia’s Sic Semper Tyrannis (“Thus always to tyrants”) is one of our favorite mottos. Tennessee’s “Agriculture and Commerce” was voted the lamest. No offense to Tennesseans. I’m assuming you weren’t consulted.
- The Petrified Forest, Arizona. We actually saw the painted desert; the forest was another forty-five minutes out of our way. But the painted desert was awe-inspiring. Or, as Ranger put it, “slapping wolf tails!” That means “really cool.” I think it does, anyway.
- Mad Libs were invented for road trips. The fact that it’s very educational is just a bonus. Even the seven-year-old now has a working knowledge of verbs, nouns, adjectives, and plural nouns—but mostly we just remember laughing at pirates who sailed “by chicken across the ocean green” and found buried chests “full of golden realizations and sparkly stuffed animals.”
- The kids are completely bemused by all the Rte. 66 memorabilia. What’s the big deal? We explained that it was a highway before there was interstate, but that’s kind of like handing a Walkman to kids who have an iPod.
- The Grand Canyon, Arizona. Have you seen it? Then you need no explanation. Have you not seen it? Do so if at all possible.
We’re pausing for several days in California to see friends, then starting the long drive back. I’m sure we’ll see more great sights, uncover unexpected treasures, and eat lots of snacks along the way.
A friend remarked that we sounded like a band of unruly hobbits.
“That’s actually pretty fitting,” I said.
He added, “Vomitous Hobbits would make a great band name, you know.”
Maybe that will be next summer’s adventure.
Photo Credit: First image graphic design by Charity Klicka; all other images by Sara Jones.