Road Trippin’ Just Isn’t What it Used to Be

Written May 14, 2012

Back in college, hearing the words “Road Trip!” instantly evoked a rush of excited emotion.  The freedom of the open road and the promise of new discovery lured me like the Sirens’ call.  Something about blue sky, sunshine, a long stretch of open highway, and good driving tunes made life feel limitless and free, and love of a good road trip was partly what drove me to attend a college far from home in Bozeman, Montana.

While going to school out in Bozeman, road trips were a standard part of my non-classroom college life curriculum.  With many long stretches of road between towns in Montana, driving long distances is the norm.  In my social circle of Montana natives and farm kids from a few other states, it felt pretty normal to spontaneously hop in someone’s pickup and cruise back roads if nothing better was going on.  Friends, music, a cold drink, jerky, and some gravel roads always felt like a perfectly fine way to spend a Saturday night.

Most of those late night cruises had no destination, just ample time squished together to hash out all of life’s details.  Somewhere, somebody has a “Dead End” sign in the back of their garage as a momento of one of those evenings, but what I mostly took from those nights is good memories of a time when I lived with four of my best friends and our lives were wide open with a world of possibilities.

In addition to the those late night meanderings, we embarked on a few Big (with a capital “B”) Road Trips.  Stored away in the college section of my memories are the trips with a car full of friends on spring break travels to Southern California, Las Vegas, and a Thanksgiving trip to Denver.  Broke, with just enough money to split the gas, we scouted out the cheap hotel rooms and food, but were utterly happy with the heady taste of freedom, fresh and new, all around us.

And now, fast forward ten years after college graduation.  (In the movie version of my life, you’d hear that screeching sound of a record player scratching to a stop.)  My college roommates are off in other places, married, all with kids.  And speaking of kids, my road trips these days have a decidedly different flair.

Road trips in my present life involve our four kids, one minivan, and just shy of 1,000 miles to log.  That soaring sense of freedom and a carefree lifestyle that marked road trips in the days of yore, hmm.  I believe we lost all that somewhere on the wayside of having our first child.  But with my husband’s family all in Montana, and my side of the family in Minnesota, road trips are still a common part of life.  The distance between the families is long, but we don’t let a not-so-little stretch of I-90 get in the way of making regular family visits.

My four little road warriors, at our hotel in Belle Fourche, South Dakota…287 miles down, about 700 miles to go with me as the only adult on the trip. Yes, I’m crazy.

Everyone’s heard the “It’s the journey, not the destination,” phrase, but that’s really not the case for us.  It’s the destination.  The journey?  It’s really just something we tolerate and endure.  The journey is the means to an end; we’re driving to visit our family.  More time on the road just means less time visiting the people we love.

Sure, we could stop at one of the many not-so-alluring attractions in South Dakota, but we usually just drive on by with the ultimate destinations in mind.  Ironically, by skipping any fluff along the way, with our four kids in tow we now make the trek between MT and MN faster than ever.  We drive at night.  When the sun starts going down, we load up the kids in their pajamas, fill the tank with gas, stock up on snacks, water, and coffee, and set off.  If the kids are exhausted from a week of visiting with cousins, the trip is all the more peaceful.

Usually we assemble some makeshift beds on the floor of our van and let our oldest kids stretch out a little bit, and the younger two sleep in their car seats.  Yep, we certainly realize that everyone is supposed to be in their car seats all the time, but we acquiesce to comfort in the middle of South Dakota, where in the middle of the night, we are usually the only vehicle on the road for as far as we can see in both directions.

Driving all night long certainly involves a fair amount of self-loathing (and coffee), but we decided it’s definitely worth the sleep deprivation to have a quiet van on the endless miles.  My husband settles in behind the wheel, and I sit in the co-pilot position, on kid duty.  I snooze in between settling whimpers, drink requests, and territorial disputes over foot space.  We stop for gas and bathrooms as quickly as possible.

In the rural west, it’s fairly common to encounter gas stations that close at night, offering only pay-at-the-pump gas.  We’ve adapted by always hauling our own plentiful coffee supply, and I have absolutely no qualms about ducking behind the gas station in the middle of the night, and finding the, um, “alfresco” bathroom facilities that include gravel and shrubs.  In some ways I actually prefer those late night bathroom accommodations, because a patch of grass always look much cleaner than most highway bathrooms, and a sky full of stars over head is much more pleasant than a rusty air vent.

With a few trades on driving duty and a few gas stops, my husband and I can leave our house in Minnesota at the kids’ bedtime, and arrive in Montana shortly after breakfast time at their grandparents’ house.   Everyone has a rotten night of rest, but the nearly 1,000 mile trip is accomplished in fairly short fashion.

While the phrase “road trip” doesn’t really evoke excited emotions much these days, the elements of spontaneity and surprise still appear to be alive and well.  Last Monday afternoon we got a call that Jarred’s brother and family that live up in Fairbanks, Alaska were back visiting their hometown of Broadview, Montana.  We haven’t seen Jarred’s brother’s family in over three years, so with just a few hours of packing and planning, we set off on the road back to Montana to have a chance to catch up with family for a few days.  We got up last Monday morning making plans of getting more settled in our MN life, but by late Tuesday morning, we were far west, unloading our van of squirrely kids in Montana to go play with their many cousins.

And today, I am embarking on what may be an act of insantiy.  Jarred has a week of projects to take care of in MT, but after already being here a week visiting, I’m ready to get back and take on some projects at our new home in MN.  So, I’m heading out on the 1,000 mile trip back to Minnesota with our four kids BY MYSELF.  If the kids were older and more self-reliant, this wouldn’t be that much of a feat, but our oldest is only six, and the youngest is just 13 months.

We will fire up the DVD player and I will placate them with a few new cheap toys and plenty of yummy snacks.  I’ll be pulling off to nurse the baby several times on the I-90 exit ramps, and we’ll stop and sleep at a hotel somewhere in South Dakota.  (Have I mentioned that I often have fantasies of somehow excising South Dakota, making Montana and Minnesota neighboring states?)  My ultimate goal is to arrive home safely with my sanity intact.  I’ll also settle for arriving home safely, sanity can be restored at a later date.

By the time anyone reads this, we will all be back home.  And with any luck, we won’t take on any road trips for a long time.  Well, until next month when we are heading to Montana again to see my husband’s long-time friend get married.  Have I mentioned that when I hear “Road Trip!” I involuntarily cringe and shudder?

© 2012

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