Neither Snow, Nor Rain, Nor Puking Children‏

Memories of last year’s road trip…Alone in the middle of nowhere with puke, diarrhea, sick crying baby, mess, four kids to care for and still 700 miles of driving to go before home…now this is livin’.

After a week of jam-packed family time in Montana, we are HOME! Yesterday we pulled into our driveway at 5 AM after 16 hours on the road.  (Wrote this after Thanksgiving 2013.)

Wide open views from the (in town) backyard of my husband's parents in Montana.

Wide open views from the (in town) backyard of my husband’s parents in Montana.

By all-nighter road trip standards, we had a great trip: dry roads the whole way, no close calls with deer, no road construction, no vehicle issues whatsoever, no sick kids. And for all of that, I am very thankful.

By ordinary living standards, it is pretty miserable: crammed van stuffed with people, Christmas presents, and luggage, not enough leg room, tired kids that cry when street lights pass over, feeling too hot then too cold over and over again, two exhausted parents that don’t feel like driving but just want to get home, just under 1,000 miles to cover.

When we finally arrived home, we carried the kids into their beds, and felt thankful for winter darkness at 5 AM that let us sneak our kids into bed and keep them sleeping for a few more hours. After riding in constant motion for 16 hours on the road, when I flopped into our bed, that nice, flat, motionless bed felt like it was moving.

I’m glad I’m not a trucker. I’m also glad this isn’t last year’s road trip.

Last year my husband Jarred stayed in Montana a little after Thanksgiving to work on a scale project. That meant when it was time to saddle up and head back to Minnesota to take the kids back to school, I performed the feat of hauling four kids from Montana to Minnesota by myself. Last year, my oldest was 6 and the youngest just 19 months. For extra challenge, we added in stomach flu.

When this was fresh in my mind last year, my husband hadn’t arrived home yet, so I didn’t really want to publicize that I was home alone with four kids, and I never did write about it. Nothing like sitting in a van for hours on end, though, to bring back those fond memories that really are just too good to not share…

Last year’s solo road trip went fairly smoothly for the first few hours. I left at nap time and the kids all rested. A few hours in, I congratulated myself for rigging up our DVD player with the plastic tie from a garbage bag, which enabled the kids to see the screen and be content, which of course, meant I could drive.

About an hour later, somewhere on Hwy 212 east of Broadus, MT, on the stretch of road that is about 100 miles of no civilization, stomach flu kicked in for my baby. I heard a gurgling sound, and looked in my rear view mirror to see her puking all over herself and her car seat. I immediately pulled over and put on my flashers, although I don’t recall if anybody ever actually drove past.

Here are a few realities of puke in a vehicle:
1. Car seats have bottomless crevices.
2. Baby wipes become both bath tub and washing machine.
3. Smell permeates quickly and lingers indefinitely in a confined area.

I cleaned up the poor little girl, stripping off her dirty clothes and bagging them in a plastic sack. I scooped up chunks and wiped down her car seat with copious amounts of baby wipes. And I really wished it had been just puke, but it was an all-inclusive stomach flu, so I also had to change her leaky messy (and very smelly) diaper as well.

Alone in the middle of nowhere with puke, diarrhea, sick crying baby, mess, four kids to care for and still 700 miles of driving to go before home…now this is livin’.

After that episode, I managed to crank out a few more hours of driving, but by 7 PM in Rapid City, I was completely spent. We checked into a hotel and after wrangling check-in, luggage, and settling down kids in unfamiliar beds, we went to sleep.

Four kids hanging out in the hotel with Mom.  As you might guess from all the smiles, this was not the trip with the stomach flu.

Four kids hanging out in the hotel with Mom. As you might guess from all the smiles, this was not the trip with the stomach flu.

Kids are early risers, and by 6 AM with everyone awake, we dressed in swimming suits and headed to the hotel indoor pool. A little relaxing in water, hot tub, and water slide made the thought of a day full of driving a little more bearable. That combined with some waffles, and we felt ready for another day on the road.

I forget the details, but picture an endless day in South Dakota alternating keeping peace, passing out snacks, making gas stops and cranking out miles.

Needing a break at supper time, we pulled into the McDonald’s in Worthington, MN. Normally, I hate McDonald’s and its Play Place with claustrophobia-inducing tunnels that smell like stinky feet and chicken nuggets. That night, though, I was thankful for a spot for the kids to run around and play while being contained.

Just when I thought we’d have a little down time, stomach flu hit again.

I hauled my little three-year-old son into the bathroom with a terrible mess in his pants. While my two oldest kids played in the Play Place (and I felt paranoid about not being able to watch them), I cleaned up my son in the McDonald’s bathroom. Meanwhile, I tried to keep my baby from touching anything gross in the public restroom. And of course, everything in a public restroom at toddler height is pretty gross.

By the time he seemed clean again, I’d used half a package of baby wipes. I bagged up the wipes along with the completely filthy pants and threw it all in the garbage. No pair of handed down sweat pants is worth the cleaning effort at that point in a long road trip.

I just consider those pants an offering to the road trip gods. The McDonald’s bathroom garbage seems like an appropriate place to make an offering to road trips gods, right? Every time I go past Worthington, MN, I think of those pants. In my head, they’re still sitting in the garbage can. I hope they’re not.

I dressed my little boy in clean clothes, we all washed our hands very thoroughly, and my kids had a little play time before the last four hours on the road. You know when you’ve been on the road for a while when “just four more hours” sounds like a relief.

At our last gas station stop of the trip, I refueled and went inside the store to quickly grab milk and eggs for home. Milk and eggs are essentials for survival at our house.

I walked inside to find only one half gallon of milk in the entire store. With a crew of avid milk drinkers, a half gallon of milk is a joke. When the cashier told me they had no eggs left, that was the point in the trip that I about lost it.

Throughout that trip, I really tried to just be calm and roll with whatever came up: puke, yelling, crying…I knew we’d all survive all that. But after 30 hours alone on the road with four kids, I really just wanted to punch the guy who had no eggs. That was my last straw.

When I get gas, I don’t need 25 kinds of energy drinks or 50 kind of tobacco, and my kids don’t eat lottery tickets. But, I really do need milk and eggs, especially on the tail end of a 950-mile trip.

All frustrations, sickness, and exhaustion aside, we arrived home safely that night. Road trip mission accomplished. I tucked four kids into their own beds at home and for several days after, I held down the fort, but was pretty much worthless.

Last year’s trip was definitely a feat of motherhood endurance.

And today, I’m once again exhausted after a long road trip. But all in all, I’m thankful for the relative easiness of this road trip compared to the one last year at this time.

More than anything, despite the inevitable exhaustion that comes with these trips, I am committed to what these road trips mean: connection with family. With my husband’s family in Montana and mine in Minnesota, we’ve committed to a lifetime of road trips in order to keep connections with family that we love.

Being held by Great Grandpa Thelmer on Thanksgiving morning is just fine.

Being held by Great Grandpa Thelmer on Thanksgiving morning is just fine.

gingerbread house tag team

Five cousins show off their completed houses.

Five cousins show off their completed houses.

Exhausting road trips mean hugs from Great Grandma and Grandpa, making gingerbread houses with Montana cousins, eating breakfasts with Grandma and Grandpa, my kids watching Grandma sew their Christmas blankets, and countless hours playing and reconnecting.

And for that, neither snow, nor rain, nor puking children will stop us from hitting the road.

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Over the Missouri and Across the Plains to Grandmother’s House We Go

At night, I sometimes love South Dakota. The majority of the tacky tourist signs have no lights, so they just fade away. . . .It’s nothing but empty highway surrounded by wide open prairie under a starry black sky. 

Thanksgiving for us means loading up our van and heading 950 miles west to Broadview, Montana. Instead of making the trip in two days, we crank it out in one long blur of a night. We load up the kids, luggage, snacks and coffee, and hop on I-90 west.

The kids get “comfy,” which means arguing about foot placement, head space, blankets, heat, and noise, then laugh giddily, yell in tired frustration, listen to several rounds of “shh….it’s time to go to sleep,” and then finally drifting off one by one to a mediocre at best night of sleep in the van.

And then we drive, and drive, and drive…over the Missouri River and across the plains, to grandmother’s house we go.

It’s a long way from SE Minnesota to SE Montana, but we make this trek at least twice a year to see family. Our trek used to start in Montana and end in Minnesota, and for the last year and a half since moving into our new home, we’ve swapped starting points.

As exhausting as it is to make an over-the-road trucker trek with four kids in tow, there is also something exciting about it all. Our home is now in Minnesota, but heading to Montana feels like heading home. After living there for about 12 years, I just get excited when we start heading west. I love the change of scenery, wide open spaces, and the fresh perspective that comes from time hitting the road.

Granted, sometimes that excitement is pretty covered over in exhaustion of packing up a family of six to be gone for a week.

It’s a never ending packing list, combined with four anxious kids that keep asking “Why can’t we just leave NOW?!”, completely oblivious to the fact that we can’t just let the supper dishes and milk sit out on the table for a week or so until we get back.

And by the time we pull in to Grandma and Grandpa’s house in Montana, we’re mostly just a shell of our usual selves: fried, edgy, tired.

In the midst of the all-night road trip, though, there is a period of “golden hours” that I really do love.

The golden hours are when we hit South Dakota. Now, if you’ve ever driven across South Dakota, you’d probably agree with me that it’s generally not a state to be excited about. On I-90, it’s a 400-mile stretch of grass land at varying elevations, interrupted with an excessive amount of road signs suggesting you visit a reptile garden, or a pioneer something or other, or a drug store-turned tourist attraction.

At night, though, I sometimes love South Dakota. The majority of the tacky tourist signs have no lights, so they just fade away. It’s nothing but a long stretch of mostly straight highway. At 2 AM, the traffic is almost non-existent. Driving along at the 75 mph speed limit, I sometimes go six minutes before I see a car on either side of the highway. And while the kids and my husband sleep, it’s nothing but empty highway surrounded by wide open prairie under a starry black sky. It’s so peaceful.

That’s when I love South Dakota. It’s when I think I’d be quite content to have a house plunked out in the middle of all that nothingness, where as far as you look, you can’t see a single light but your own headlights.

South Dakota at 2 AM is my thinking time. Driving along at night is one of the few times that I am completely alone with my thoughts. Nobody else is there (awake, anyway), and there are no other distractions to fill my head.

Almost invariably, it makes me think of the very first time I headed west to go to college. Just barely 20, I loaded up my Buick that I bought from money earned working the night shifts over several summers at Lakeside Foods. I drove alone to Bozeman, Montana to start my junior year of college.

When the Buick and I arrived safe and sound in Bozeman, I didn’t know a single person in the state of Montana.

It’s amazing to me to ponder how that trip out west for college started a whole sequence of events that lead me to the point of today. College, marriage, and four kids later, we now make treks to Montana as a family of six.

As I drive along, my head sorts through six months of life since our last trip. If I had some sort of device to convert mental thoughts to words on a computer, I’d have about six weeks of articles all completed. As it is though, by the time the night ends, my mind is fried and I can’t remember all the thoughts I had in my head.

Maybe my mind is slightly fried because we’ve had five cases of strep throat at our house in the last ten days.

The bad news: five of us had strep throat in the last ten days, just before a big road trip.  The good news: my daughter has great imagination and coordination to arrange empty medicine syringes to look like rockets, telling me "One, two, three...blast off!"

The bad news: five of us had strep throat in the last ten days, just before a big road trip. The good news: my daughter has great imagination and coordination to arrange empty medicine syringes to look like rockets, telling me “One, two, three…blast off!”

In the time before I get too tired and switch off driving with my husband, I’m thankful for the fullness of my life. I can’t say I’m thankful for strep throat, but I’m grateful that the sickness in my house is an easy fix with basic antibiotics.

And on this nearly thousand mile road trip, I’m thankful for clear roads, no deer on the highway, and most of all, the families that continually give us a wonderful reason to make road trips back and forth to Montana and Minnesota. I hope you all have a wonderful holiday.

Sunburns, Easter Eggs, and Amazing Grace

What in the world?!  There’s an antelope standing out there on the street!

If I can say that and it sounds believable on the morning of April Fool’s Day, I’m either A) in Montana or B) surrounded by people that could use some morning coffee.  Both A and B are correct.  We headed off to Montana the week before Easter to fill up on a dose of our Montana family that we’ve all been missing.

When left our house in MN to head off on the trip, I cautiously left behind our kids’ snow pants.  Leaving a yard completely covered in white, taking no snow pants felt a little risky.  As I drove across western South Dakota on an I-90 thickly covered in a sheet of ice, I again questioned my decision.

Snow-covered mountain plateaus in the distance and sweeping views on our drive on the snowy Hwy 212 in south-eastern Montana.

Snow-covered mountain plateaus in the distance and sweeping views on our drive on the snowy Hwy 212 in south-eastern Montana.

By the time we pulled into the driveway at Grandma and Grandpa’s house in Broadview, Montana, though, our kids were wondering why I didn’t think to pack their spring jackets.

We all know the heady rush of joy of feeling a 50 degree day for the very first time in the spring.  Imagine, then, what a few 60 degree days with blue sky and sunshine did for our kids (ok, and Mom and Dad, too).  With new kid-sized garden shovels in hand from the bargain bin, they struck out for Grandma’s perennial garden, making dirt fly.  I believe no tulips were harmed, but I can’t be certain of that.

Then they headed to the West side of her house where the grass never grows, and spent an afternoon cooking mud pies.  My three-year-old  gave me his detailed “recipe” if I wanted to try it later.  That evening, our kids came in with rosy cheeks and a fresh sprinkling of freckles on their cheeks.

Our oldest daughter even had a light sunburn.  Here I wondered about snow pants, when I should have packed the sunscreen.

The next day we met up with a friend (and former neighbor) to catch up over coffee while our kids ran around playing.  The temperature soared to the mid 60’s, and that, of course, is cause for shorts early on in the year.  Our two littlest kids shed their shirts as they played in the dirt pile out back behind my friend’s house, rubbing their bellies in the sunshine when the shirts came off.

Temps in the 60s: No shirt needed when digging in dirt while in MT.

Temps in the 60s: No shirt needed when digging in dirt while in MT.

After endless piles of snow and cold temps, I felt like we’d headed off on a tropical vacation.  We just headed to Montana to see our family, but the unexpected warm temperatures and sunshine?  Just what the doctor ordered.

In the melee of cousins, friends, and playing, a more somber note intermixed with it all as my mother-in-law made countless phone calls and trips to town to help organize her mother’s funeral.  After many years of painful illness, we all believe Grandma Carol is now at peace.  On Saturday, tucked right in between Good Friday and Easter, we attended her memorial service.

It was a touching moment to see my husband, his brother, father, and uncle stand together up front to play guitar and sing “Amazing Grace” and “Children of the Heavenly Father” during his grandma’s service.  The second song had special meaning as a song that was also played during Grandma Carol’s mother’s funeral (my husband’s great-grandmother).

Funerals are gathering places of family, and we caught up with my husband’s extended family, held his cousin’s new baby girl, heard about an engagement, and just reconnected with family that we never get to see often enough.

After the funeral, we gathered at my husband’s brother’s house on Mosdal Road.  Yes, the road has the family name.  We had amazing homemade pasta.  Most importantly, our kids learned a valuable lesson from their older cousins:  a package of Mentos candies shoved into a 2-liter bottle of pop make a terrific fountain.  The 10-foot geyser of pop on the gravel road was, no surprise, a definite crowd pleaser.

Mentos candies plus a bottle of pop and some cousins equals lots of fun.

Mentos candies + a bottle of pop + cousins = lots of fun.

Easter Sunday came with all the usual: clean, new Easter outfits, chocolate candy that streaks Easter outfits, church, loads of ham, a full house of family, and of course…THE hunt.  The Easter egg Hunt is a big deal in this family.  Like ripping open presents on Christmas morning, it’s a 10-minute event that kids wait for all year.

My sister-in-law and her husband live on “the home farm” where his grandparents used to live.  Hiding the Easter eggs used to be his grandfather’s favorite thing all year.  My brother-in-law told how he and his brothers used to find well-hidden eggs all summer long when they were kids running around on the ranch. That said, I’m sure as this new generation of pint-sized kids tore around the yard on the hunt for eggs, his grandpa, Carl, would have been quite pleased with it all.

Surveying the egg hunt on the ranch.

Surveying the egg hunt on the ranch.

Today, Easter candy mostly gone and leftover ham in the fridge, we are heading back home to Minnesota.  We will attempt to find and pack the stray socks and shirts that our kids scattered throughout Grandma’s house.  My three-year-old hook-obsessed son packed up his new treasure box: a small cardboard box filled with new key chain and carabiner treasures gleaned (with permission) from his grandparents.

We’ll head out on I-90 East hauling our crew back home.  Our kids are also picked up some souvenir coughs and runny noses from the latest germ bug in Montana.  We’ll leave behind their baby cousin, although my five-year-old did wish we could bring her and maybe just keep her little and cute forever.

With some luck, creative parenting, and a whole lot of patience, we’ll trek across 1,000 miles.  Sometime in the wee hours of the morning, we will pull into our driveway in Minnesota.  Our own beds will never feel better, and we’ll hopefully be filled with enough Montana family time to last us until the next trip west.

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