The Great Road Trip

By Nanci Olessen
Issue 112, May/June 2002


Road TripA couple of years ago, I told another mom that I was about to drive from Minneapolis to Philadelphia with my three kids (ages four, five, and nine) and another friend’s kid (age ten). I would be the only adult. The woman looked at me and said, “Oh my God! Be sure to rent one of those TVs with a VCR–it was the only way my husband and I could even think of driving cross country with our kids.”


“Oh, we’ll be alright,” I said. “We don’t need a TV.”


What this woman didn’t know is that the trip to Philadelphia would be my sixth cross-country drive with children, and my second long journey as the only adult. I have driven, with my husband and kids, to the West Coast and back three times and to the East Coast and back three times, and I’ve done at least six other trips to places like Michigan, South Dakota, and Montana. Last winter my friend Barb and I drove with my middle daughter (age six) 2,200 miles to Yellowknife, in the Northwest Territories of Canada.


I like driving with kids across the country. One of the greatest things about it is how long it takes. I’m serious. Yes, my children squabble in the car. When they were smaller they cried, even wailed, for miles at times. And it’s true that we’ve been unable to find a campground to stay in at 9 p.m., when the baby was poopy and we’d been in the car for 11 hours straight. Just as every moment of your 25-hour labor is emblazoned into your head and body, I remember all the excruciating moments of travel. I remember when the car stunk like old bananas and we took the wrong turn and my legs felt numb from being cramped in the back seat, and I was tired of singing “Little Rabbit in the Woods” with all the actions.


Yet I would get in the car again with all of my kids in a second. Because, out on the road, you recreate your family. If your children fall asleep, which they most certainly will at some point in a 29-hour drive, there is time for two adults to talk. If it’s your partner you are driving with, you might begin with a conversation about everyday things like bills and house payments. But after a while, if you’re both still awake, the road does a number on you, and you find yourself confessing what you really think about life after death or that you just found out that your great-great-grandfather was gay. These topics, along with the night air and the unfamiliar road and the snores and sniffles from the backseat, can brew into a welling up of tears or the kind of laughter that you might not have had for a while, where you lean forward, gasping, almost peeing in your pants. A road trip can really take the edge off an impending midlife crisis.


But there are also hours and hours when the kids are awake and the adults are simply wranglers: one is driving (that’s the easy part) and the other is doing the many things that need to be done to keep it all going, like passing out apple slices or starting a game of “I spy with my little eye.”


Our kids each bring one daypack full of pleasures for the road. The things they love most are paper, pencils, and books. We have some car bingo, some magnetic baseball games, and a few other made-for-the-car activities, but it is the paper and pencils that always rule. When you bring too many things, they just get in the way. If there are too many distractions the kids won’t really get to see just how big Nebraska is. Didn’t you enjoy the chance to stare out the window when you were eight, thinking about whatever came into your head? Leave time for a conversation to begin or maybe a game of pretend.


Late on the night before a road trip I am usually at the grocery store buying bags of those tiny carrots that are already washed and peeled, the carrots that liberated us all. I also buy chips and crackers, but I’m big on those carrots as well as apples, and any other travel-friendly fruit that’s in season. Individual yogurts are handy. I also like to pack a jar of peanuts, peanut butter and jelly, and some exotic chocolate (only for the adults). If you’re a coffee drinker, take a good thermos–and a big jug of water. (Juice is sticky. Juice spills. Juice makes people nervous and squiggly.)


I like to pack a cloth tablecloth and cloth napkins, real (plastic) plates, real silverware, and real cups. You can’t convince me to stop washing my dishes right at the picnic table, with my little plastic tub. (I have been called an eco-prude.)


What we really love to do is leave the interstate and drive into towns, following the signs to a school or city park. We look for cafés, too. I swear some of the best in the world are thriving in small towns across America, serving up old-fashioned doughnuts, and eggs and hash browns for $2.50. True, the coffee is usually less than memorable, but the Formica and the metal napkin holder and the waitresses who learn the names of your kids-those are the important things.

Why my love affair with family road trips? It’s the way we spend time together. The way we switch seats. The way we fall asleep and drool on each other’s sweaters. The way we wedge a towel in the window to shade us from that powerful and unnerving Nevada sunlight. It’s the cassettes we listen to that become the theme of our journey.


My husband and I like to drive through the night and then take naps by lakes or rivers the next afternoon. (In case my mother is reading this, we do exercise caution, and we make solemn vows never to drive if we’re too sleepy.) We look for local campgrounds so that we can walk around the town at night. Or we search for mom-and-pop motels, the ones with painted metal chairs in front of each door. There are still a lot of those, and, if they’re reasonably clean, they’re usually the best bet going. If they have a clean pool, yippee!


Life is still very sweet out on the road in America. There is a great deal to explore. Sure, there are more strip malls and signs of rapid change. But in one Nevada town we followed the signs to a small county museum, where we learned about the families who walked alongside their covered wagons from Illinois to California in the 1860s. We spent an hour there, talking with the elderly volunteer and gathering Xeroxed information for our children’s classrooms. A good mantra for any road trip is the last three lines of my favorite poem, Gary Snyder’s “For the Children”: “Stay together. Learn the flowers. Go light.” So load up and see what’s out there. Find those great places to stop; dare to avoid the interstate-and rediscover your family along the way.


About Nanci Olesen

Nanci Olesen is the host and producer of MOMbo, A Mom Show, broadcast nationwide on the Pacifica Radio Network. You can hear MOMbo online at and can learn more about it at Nanci lives in Minneapolis with her three kids, ages 7, 8, and 11, and her husband. The whole family will drive to Yellowknife, Northwest Territories of Canada, this summer, stopping to backpack in the Canadian Rockies.