When are we gonna get there?

The days are shorter, leaves are falling, and another summer of family road trips are in the scrapbook.

I hope you had a great time with back seat fights, squealing kids, and indignant cries of “he’s still looking at me!”

Really.  I hope you had a great time.

In the eyes of our children, family road trips gradually become the stuff of legend.  At the time, they may not seem so great.   But hang around a decade or two and listen to your kids when they get together and talk about all the fun they had poking each other in the ear, hogging the back seat, and generally driving each other, and you, crazy.

Family road trips aren’t always easy on mom and dad, who pull out of the driveway optimistically convinced that a change of scenery will endow their children with a greater awareness of the wider world.  But in the end it may feel as if nothing was gained but frayed nerves and some exceptionally awful sunburns.

From hunter-gatherers to stagecoach pioneers to mini-vans, parents have traveled with children in tow, with a great deal of ruckus raised in the process.

That is until the last few years.  Things appear to be changing.

These days the big family wagon comes with screens and surround sound.  Combine it with each child’s own electronic arsenal, usually with headphones, and you have potential for hours of silence from your kids while the miles slide by.

All well and good, except that it isn’t.

Kids have a million watts of energy pouring out of them all day long.  At least they should.  But these days they are trained from before they can walk to just sit in front of screens and be okay with it.   Where does all that energy go?  I have no idea, but I do know that energy, like youth, eventually burns out, and you can’t get back the energy you didn’t use as a child just because you’re old enough now to realize the loss.

I’m not advocating free-for-alls in the back seat.  Some degree of order must be maintained.

Thirty years ago, without the benefit of our modern high-tech pacifiers, the Huston family struggled like everyone else on car trips.  Some miles were better than others.  On the plus side, we often succeeded in amusing ourselves.  You know the games: See how many states’ license plates you can find, dumb joke contests, drawing pictures of the scenery for future scrapbooks, running races around rest stop restrooms to burn off energy, and singing the national anthem with each of us alternating words, while co-pilot Mom made sandwiches and peeled hard-boiled eggs for everyone in the back seats.

But occasionally Dad had to drop the hammer.   When all eleven kids were home we had one of those stretch vans like the hotels use.  You climbed an extra step to get in, and when you slid the door shut there was a space between the doors and the seats. (This was before universal seatbelts.)

We nonsensically called it the wheel well, and when one of the kids clearly needed a time out, I would pronounce the dreaded judgment, “Okay, it’s the wheel well for you!” and the offender would have to relocate to the spot by the side doors, usually to the hearty derision of those who had escaped the punishment.

It wasn’t particularly classy, but at family reunions one of our now grown-up children will occasionally point a finger and say, “hey, remember that time you had to sit in the wheel well for an hour?” and they’re off to the races with the memories of all the dumb stuff we did on vacation.

My wife and I just smile.

So I hope that along with the video gadgets you brought on vacation this year you also found time to do some really stupid corny stuff in the car.  Next year you might consider dropping the DVD player altogether.  What’s the worst that can happen?  Fights over window seats?  Listening to “when are we going to get there?” every twenty minutes?

Sounds good to me.  And someday it will even sound good to them.



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