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.


Are You Settled Yet?

The peaceful view from the front porch makes it easy to feel like we’re home.

“Are you settled yet?” Ever since we moved into our new place in late March, people every so often ask me that question. I never really know how to respond. What exactly does it mean to be “settled”?

For some reason, I have this irrational, nagging fear that if I say yes to the question, somehow people will instantly have x-ray vision into my house, where they’ll scan our rooms with a tally sheet and determine scientifically if we are indeed settled or not.

And when they walk in, they’ll see how I never really got my summer clothes out of the laundry baskets and hung up in the closet, see the boxes stacked in the toy room, notice that our stuff in the attic and basement doesn’t get addressed, and my perennial garden is really mostly a weed patch. Seeing all the “someday” projects, there will be an official woman in a schoolmarm outfit with a tight bun in her hair saying, “Ah ha! It appears as though someone’s NOT really settled, are they!” And then hanging my head, I’d receive my ten demerits.

These guys have many friends up in the attic, all waiting for some attention several months after moving.

If “settled” means life is organized, like a nice, smooth running machine…well, then that answer is no. Not only am I not settled here at our new home, but I’d have to say by that definition, I maybe haven’t been settled in my whole adult life.

Maybe feeling settled means comfortably knowing all the back roads and every nook and cranny of your town. Then the answer to that is no, too. Our house is just on the far edge of the Lanesboro school district, so our kids go to school in a town that is still pretty new to me. Growing up north of St. Charles, Minnesota, the town of Lanesboro,  though just a half hour away, seemed like a quaint little town in a faraway distant land. Turns out, it’s not so distant at all, and now it’s home.

In Lanesboro, my kids now know exactly where to find ice cream, the school there has become pretty familiar, and I’m very well-acquainted with the city park and playground. But I know I’ve got a few years before I have that insider local knowledge of where to find all the really cool things. Someday, I’ll show people around the town and say things like, “Just past the house with the three-legged dog, and right before the crazy lady with 50 cats and a purple porch swing.” (I’m not sure that exists in Lanesboro, but please let me know if it does.)

I don’t mind not feeling settled in that way. In fact, I love it. I’ve both moved back home, and at the same time, to a new place. It’s the best of comfortable familiarity and the excitement of new things to discover. In so many ways, though, I look around and see a to-do list that reminds me that we are long from “settled.”

On the other hand, maybe the question “Are you settled yet?” really means, “Do you feel like you’re home? Do you breath a sigh of relief when you pull in the driveway after being gone?” And then, the answer to the question is a big, resounding “yes.” This is home.

The notion really struck me on Labor Day. During the lunch time downpour that day, our kids sat outside dry and cozy under the shelter of the porch roof, eating chicken noodle soup on the wicker loveseat, wrapped in blankets. We had a quiet, lazy morning, tired from a busy weekend of my sister’s move. I had absolutely no desire for anything or anywhere else but being right there.

Unfortunately, though, our baby girl was sick with a fever and I also suspected a bladder infection. I made the call to take her in, and I headed to Rochester with her.

Sometimes it’s fairly enjoyable to head to Rochester and run errands with my kids. This was not one of those days. Sometimes I hate Rochester. It’s not Rochester, per se, it’s really any big town. And perhaps hate is too strong of a word, but I do certainly enjoy leaving when I’m done. There is something about traffic, continual stoplights, and endless stores that drive me crazy.

Add that usual town tension to carrying an antsy baby into a waiting room with a dozen sick and/or injured people ahead of us, and I really just wanted out. Out of the waiting room, out of town, out to our porch to listen to rain in the rocking chair on the last day of summer vacation.

On the way home, the further I got from town, the happier I felt. Turning south heading out of Utica, I felt my shoulders loosen. I pulled into yard utterly relieved, and it struck me how much this place feels like home. Like a refuge. Three kids lined up on the steps to peek over the railing to see me pulling in the driveway, just the sight I wanted to see.

It was supper time and the bowls of chicken noodle soup still sat on the porch from lunch, but I’d have to say I feel settled into our busy, peaceful life out in the country. It’s nice that we’re alone out here, and at the same time, also feel like part of the community. There are still so many names to put to faces, and faces to put on places along the roads by our house. But after just moving in at Easter, we are thankful to know enough friendly neighbors to have a full night of trick-or-treating stops for our kids on Halloween.

I feel like I’ve planted my feet into the dirt up to my ankles, and I have no desire to go anywhere. It is awfully nice black dirt, after all. So to answer the question, “Are you settled yet?”, the answer is yes. When we pull into the driveway, our three-year-old no longer says, “There’s our new house!” He simply says, “We’re home!” And we are, unpacked boxes and all.

Life on the Mississippi: Boating, Babies, Burns and Beaches

Several times a summer, we take family getaway cruises on the Riviera. No, not on one of those dreary cruise ships. On my brother’s private yacht. It’s absolutely divine, dah-ling.

Yes, it’s a long-standing family ritual to head to the Riviera. The Mississippi Riviera, that is. We always go to the (ahem) highly exclusive Port of Bass Camp in Minnesota City, MN.    Not just anyone is allowed to launch there, of course. No, you first need to pay your $7 and wait your turn for the camo-painted fishing boat to launch ahead of you. And sometimes that takes an extra few minutes because a guy can only do things so fast if he already has a High Life in his hand. This is life on the Mississippi.

Nope, no cruise ships around here. But there are plenty of party barges and a few house boats that have seen better days.  It’s more like a three hour tour, a threeee hour toooour…. (are you humming the Gilligan’s Island theme song yet?)

And did I say yacht earlier? Well, perhaps technically it’s just called a boat. But my brother’s Larson does feel like luxury because it always starts, has nice paint, no cracks in the seats, lots of power, and was made well after I was born.

boating on the Mississippi

The misty soft focus, created by a careful smear of sunscreen over the lens, truly conveys the romance of boating.

In the boat world, it is practically new, just over ten years old, and rides smoothly and loads up easily. Most notably, the boat is a three-decade upgrade in style and comfort from our old 70’s tri-hull that used to spank its riders across waves and throw people’s backs out trying to load it onto a trailer. Ah, I fondly recall those days.

These days, on several Saturdays a summer, my brother tows his boat down to the Mississippi and my family converges on Bass Camp, our preferred place to launch. As we drive in to Bass Camp, just past the purple martin houses, my kids sometimes say, “Remember that big dead fish?” because two or three years ago (a lifetime in their world) a big dead smelly something-or-other fish found it’s final resting place on the shore next to the dock.

In the scariest nightmare ever a few days later, my then two-year-old son woke up crying and whimpered, “It’s sniffing me! The big fish. It’s sniffing me.” It’s ironic that he’d dream a smelly fish was trying to sniff him. He usually smells pretty clean.

Dead fish or no dead fish, we tromp down the scorching hot wood planks of the dock. The sun beats down as we load up my brother’s boat with towels, toys, and thirst quenchers. Once in the boat, we all fling our flip flops in a small mountain under the dash on the passenger side. No need for shoes on the river. With little tikes properly buckled into life jackets, we ease out of the dock area and slowly troll out of the no-wake zone at Bass Camp.

Once we hit the main channel, it’s throttle down time. As the motor revs up, stress immediately cuts in half. Sweat on hot heads evaporates into the water-cooled breeze. Mini vans and jobs get temporarily abandoned on the shore, replaced with deep blue water in a tree-covered valley. Little kids up front reach out hands to catch the spray as they bounce along with wind-blown grins. The feeling of easy livin’ blows all around in the breeze.

Water droplets and sand, the good life on the Mississippi River.

Once we arrive on our favorite sand bar on the Wisconsin side of the river, life settles into the Mississippi Routine. Unload the stuff, unroll the blankets, unleash the sunscreen. Liberally lather the sunscreen on the entire fair-skinned, freckle-covered crew, while debating proper application techniques and sunscreen brands. “That kind is highly toxic and causes cancer.” “Yeah, but it smells good and it’s so much easier to use.” Renew sunscreen discussion in two hours when it’s time to reslime the crew.

For the next 2-5 hours, avoid all of the following: drowning, sunburn, dehydration, horseflies, gnats, poison ivy along the treeline, flying carp while tubing, zebra mussel cuts on feet, sand consumption, losing cell phone or keys in sand or water, extreme wedgies from tubing wipeouts, suspicious squishy mud underfoot in water, and grinding up the boat prop on unseen wing dams or logs.

However, do take part in all of the finer points of the Mississippi. Turn kids loose with implements of sand destruction and watch as ponds, moats and little rivers appear on the shoreline, and mountains of sand appear on beach blankets. Every afternoon on the river should include at least one baby of sand-eating age.

Hair coated in sand, sunscreen, and peanut butter, a cup of bonus sand lurking at the bottom of the swimming suit: standard issue for a baby’s day at the river.

And of course, head to the water for swimming, splashing and the unspoken place to…well…pee. (Can I say that in the paper?) Actually, that part is spoken, my niece proudly announces her actions to give everyone else around fair warning of any unexpected warm spots in the water. It’s the same sort of phenomenon that also happens while floating in tubes down a river: even though people might be on a river for hours, nobody ever needs to stop and use the bathroom. Hmm…

Water play on the Mississippi also means tubing behind the boat. Integral parts of the tubing experience include whipping around the corners, hanging on for dear life until forearms are raw and hands can’t grip anymore, epic crashes, bodies skipping across the river like nice, smooth rocks, free high-pressure sinus cavity cleansing, and involuntary swimming suit realignment. And sometimes, tubing means slow, scenic rides for the little kids.

mississippi river

15 first cousins, including our four kids, hanging out together for a day on the Mississippi.

All of that activity also means eating is essential. The basic river diet includes sandwiches (with a strong emphasis on “sand” for little kids), munching on a few salty chips, some juicy grapes, and washing it all down with icy cold drinks from the cooler. Cookies are also a necessity. Note that babies at the river will only consume food liberally coated in sand. Sand Doritos are a perennial favorite.

A day at the Mississippi also includes wildlife. Eagles, turtles, geese, clams, fish and river rats are common sights at the river. River rats are a prevalent native species, and quite easy to spot. You can recognize this native wildlife by their uber-tanned skin and relaxed smiles. They are often found riding in boats built for speed with excellent sound systems, with red-painted boats usually thumping the loudest music. Jimmy Buffet songs are a common mating call. While slightly untamed, river rats are a friendly wildlife. Like any native species, I’m quite certain they are meant to be there.

And when the sun sinks in the sky, the sounds of motors dissipate and the quiet of a massive river prevails. Sparkling water laps at the sand bar and fading sun illuminates beach-goers in a golden warm glow. Shaking sand off the beach blankets and swishing babies in the river to empty out their loads of swimming suit sand, we pack up the boat.

Heading off into the sunset on the boat ride back to Bass Camp and our waiting vehicles, our surroundings are summery blue skies above, water below, and a lush tree-covered valley all around.

The sinking sun glitters on the water, and the moist spray smells fresh in the breeze. Sun-soaked bodies feel hungry and tired, but life is good. That is life on the Mississippi.

And finally, after a day filled with earth, water, and wind, the most suitable nightcap is little fire. That, and a few s’mores.