Sunday, 20 April 2008
Living in the Midwest means driving. A lot of driving. We used to live in Columbus, OH--a bright, flat city in the center of a wide, fast web of freeways. Visiting our families in Northern Indiana meant jumping into the car and four hours later, pulling in to Nana's house, with barely time for one restroom break.
Now that's all changed. We've moved to Central Wisconsin--which is a lot farther away than the hop and a skip to the in-laws. When you factor in the traffic around Chicago, that translates to a seven to eight hour trip.
If we're lucky. Bad weather plus holiday rush hour traffic can make it ten.
Four hours to a four year old and a two year old were nothing; A long nap, a snack and a couple of songs and they woke up at their grandma's to be showered with presents and hugs.
But seven hours in a car with two preschool age children is its own special circle of Hell. For them and for us. I’m not entirely sure why I am so determined to keep up a rigorous schedule of family visits with my children while they’re still so young. Family ties are important to me. And as nice as technology is, phone calls, emailed photos and YouTube videos just won't cut it if I want my children to have great memories of their grandparents and various aunts and uncles.
For our Hoosier relatives we trek Southeast for holidays, birthdays, weddings, funerals and sometimes just because. Most of these trips are just me and the kids. I'm not married to a workaholic or a misanthrope but suffice it to say that my husband prefers to sleep in his own bed and has a low tolerance for family gatherings--his as well as mine. I’m ok with that. Traveling alone with the kids lets me set our own agenda—which is usually more child-friendly.
For the most part, these are not leisurely, pleasure trips. They are utiliatarian-get-there-as-soon-as-possible-with-as-few-stops-as-necessary-driving-marathons. So what does one lone driver with two very young kids do while traveling 75 miles an hour down the Illinois toll road do?
A lot of this depends on a couple of things:
1. Driver's bladder capacity
If, like me, your children are very young and it takes you 10-15 minutes to get them out of their car seats and holding your hands, to toddle into a truck stop bathroom, where you will desperately try to keep them from putting their hands on anything or pray that they don't put something in their mouth that they find on the floor, you'll skip the potty breaks altogether. It may seem tempting to want to lock your doors while your kids are sleeping and pop into a Gas & Sip restroom but I don't recommend it. The odds are miniscule that someone is going to break into your car to steal it with your children in the backseat, but a well-meaning and probably clueless passerby (usually one without children) may call the authorities and you may be left to explain to a state police officer how dire your bodily functions were balanced against the safety and well being of your children. I'm not telling anyone to go looking for astronaut Depends, either. Just limit your liquid intake and do your best.
2. Individual child's capacity for discomfort
I don't subject my children to Abu Ghraib levels of torture or anything but sleeping sitting up, strapped in a chair that is probably sticky with apple juice or chocolate milk while the DVD player blares "Blues Clues" seems sort of Clockwork Orange to me, personally. If you're lucky, your children are on the cusp of potty training and don't mind reverting to the Pull Ups for the ride to Grandma's. The astronaut analogy may work here. Kids love astronauts. Warning: this will only work a few times. Then you’re stuck with at least two or three restroom stops or you may end up washing the safety seat covers when you get to your destination.
3. The ability of the passengers and drivers to self feed
If you have an infant that can't hold its own bottle yet, forget attempting this trip alone. Bribe a friend, or force your co-parent to sign on for the trip because the very thought of a crying, hungry infant makes me break out into a cold sweat.
If you've got kids who will barely sit down for a meal in a chair at home but worship at the Golden Arches, you're probably fine. A drive through with McNuggets and French fries is probably a standard stop. I still pack a cooler with a couple of juice boxes, some apples and a couple of packets of trail mix or raisins for the kids. The kids still love that stuff but we also stock up on cookies, fruit snacks and Dum-Dum suckers.
4. Entertainment options
If you sprung for the DVD system in your vehicle, congratulations! If you have a portable system, that works, too. If not, there are lots of music artists out there who specialize in kids' music. It's all well and good to while away the trip listening to "Wheels on the Bus" but you may find yourself with the urge to throw yourself under one by the time your trip is finished. Try mixing it up and finding a station you can enjoy but one that doesn't drive your kids crazy, either. They don't want to listen to NPR any more than you want to hear Laurie Berkner sing the Clean Up Song for the thirteenth time.
I’ve found Magna Doodles to be a car-trip staple--they make them in portable sizes and the kids can draw until they lose interest. For my kids, this means about ten minutes. Comic books are also highly recommended. Even if your kids can't read yet, they've got LOTS of pictures to look at and the things are still pretty cheap. I strongly suggest a pouch-type pocket that you can strap to a child’s car sear to hold toys, books and odds and ends to keep them busy. We have the Kangaroo.
5. Your solo navigational skills
If you don't have a passenger who can read a map, you're going to have to know where you're going. Print out and memorize directions well before you leave. I say this because I have gotten off on the wrong exit EVERY SINGLE TIME I drive through Chicago. I-90, I-94, I-294, I-290--Four damned numbers and I still can't keep the roads straight in my head and I don’t want to risk all our lives by trying to read a mapquest print out while driving. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve nearly ended up in Sheboygan. (Note to self: Get GPS).
I recently invested in an I-Pass for the toll roads, to avoid stopping to pay tolls. For a $50 initial investment ($10 deposit on the transponder and $40 in prepaid tolls), I think I’m going to get my money’s worth. You can purchase these online at www.illinoistollway.com. This system is also good on other toll roads that use E-Zpass.
I look forward, longingly, to a time when my children are more interested in our destination and when we can plan trips that mean more fun than an Illinois rest stop. But let’s face it—if these trips are necessary, you just want them to go quickly and smoothly. Mine do, for the most part but I still pack a cell phone, a car charger, my AAA membership card and some extra strength Tylenol, just in case.
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