Family Road Trips: The Best Of Times, But Also The Worst Of Times

Family road trips, you guys.
Why are they so amazing?  Why are they so traumatizing?  How did we all fit into one woodchuck station wagon?  Will there ever be a day we all agree on the same playlist?  (Or mix tape, depending on the era of your road trip memory..)

family road trip

I’m gonna go out on a limb and assume you have, at minimum, one vivid memory associated with a family road trip.  Or perhaps like me, your memories are divided between the distant past of growing up and the current reality of road tripping with your own children.

Layers of factors that predict the success (or the complete breakdown) of a family road tripping together:
The Level Of Crazy In Your Family:  Families have an infinite combination of dynamics, as you well know, and when you put them all into the same car for seven+ hours, people gon’ get scrappy.  How many are in your family?  Are they feisty?  Are they in your personal space?  Are they little? Is your dad trying to eat his reheated Chinese food in the car as y’all pull out of the driveway?  Does Grandma have Coco the Poodle on her lap?  Y’ALL KNOW COCO GETS CARSICK.

Road Trip Route & Destination:  This is the difference between playing the Alphabet Game on billboards and signs or having to resort to counting hog farms, the difference between the scenic view of Big Sur or the repetitive passing of corn fields and power lines.  Your route, full of winding curves, could cause the little one to get carsick.  On the other hand, your journey could also result in the most stunning iPhone photos, tangible reminders of time spent with family in a larger-than-life location.

Vehicle Of Choice: The best road trip stories seem to involve an Oldsmobile, a station wagon that lets you sit backward, or the tried-and-true minivan.  If you were cruising down I-40 sprawled out in your Suburban with an Airstream hitched onto the back for your bathroom breaks, then good for you.  Others of us were buckled into a Ford Windstar peeing into coffee tins because leaving the Interstate by 0.6 miles “took too long”. So, there’s that.


I couldn’t help but ask friends to chime in on their most memorable family road trips.  While each story was its own masterpiece, I was surprised to notice a few themes and take-aways:
1.  Naps took priority over seat belts.
Some of y’all got LAID OUT in your minivan to get beauty rest.  Like, laid flat on the floorboards in a sleeping bag because the seat belt was too confining.  Others strategically positioned a “trash bag of clothes” on the floorboard as a make-shift bed.  Maybe you called dibs on the bench seat which meant your sibling was banished to sleep on the floor of your Plymouth Sundance.    Perhaps you never, ever removed your seat belt but slept sitting up in the seat, with your head rolling all around because you couldn’t get your neck to lock up.  Shout out to all my people who napped with their mouths wide open and woke up with their photo on the Internet, thanks to the exploitation of a family member.

road trip

creative sleeping quarters

2.  Things got interesting when it was time for a bathroom break.
Nothing like pulling off into one of those gas stations where you gotta get the key from inside and hearing Dad yell, “DRAIN EM IF YOU GOT EM”.  You’re like “ohhhh awesome, so this is how it ends. Lemme drop a pin on this location and text it out so everyone knows I died from tetanus at the Citgo.”  Maybe you lived luxuriously and got to stop for a two hour bathroom break at Cracker Barrel that included country fried steak, a quick game of Checkers, and winning that triangle with the golf tees.  Some families don’t mind long breaks out of the car.  Some families require long breaks out of the car, especially when you’re driving with a four year old and a two year old, whose collective pee-pee-potty times are 20 minutes, plus getting them food, plus nursing the baby, which rounds us up to an extra hour and a half per stop.  On the other hand, some families barely skid into the rest stop parking lot and set up the kid potty for their five year old to poop at the “pet area”. *Fingers crossed* she’s an efficient little five year old.

3.  The driver’s plight: staying awake and keeping everyone alive.
God bless the driver who must push through lunch coma and pay attention to road signs and stay 10-and-2 through extreme weather conditions.  Hail?  DRIVE.  3am?  DRIVE.  Vomit in the backseat?  For the love, pull over this exact second.  Ain’t nobody need to see those Arby’s onion rings more than once.

Sometimes the driver gets a bad rap, but they do what they gotta do. If Dad spit out the window and it happened to reenter the car through the back window, then maybe we should at least pause and appreciate that Dad’s spit tasted like Dr. Pepper.  If Mom grinded the tires on the rumble strips across five states just to stay awake, so be it, hush that fuss.  Staying awake as a tired driver is the worrrrrrrrst.  Dad would know.. he’s the one slapping his face out the window to wake up.  Or that time my friend’s dad was so exhausted, he thought he was in the wrong gear, so he threw it from Drive to Neutral at 75mph.  That’ll wake everyone up…
road trip

4.  Parents got creative maintaining order in the back seat.
We’re all familiar with the empty threats that parents call out about turning the car around and threatening to “come back there”.  You could tell Mom was preemptively strategizing how to keep the peace when she gave all the siblings “Seat Buddies” like this is a bus field trip to the planetarium, instead of a nine hour drive to Yellowstone.  When sibling chaos erupted from the backseat, some parents would Go-Go-Gadget their arm around back and start swatting until the fussing stopped.  Other parents went straight to an armory of weapons… The wooden yardstick that was effective for reaching any delinquents on the back bench.  My friend Brendan told me his mom kept a water gun in the front seat to break up fights.  “That worked until we brought our own water guns.. that was the day we learned to not squirt dad when he’s driving.”

5.  On a related note, many family road trip shenanigans stories tend to end with: “My parents were not amused”.
When you get bored in the car, anything can happen.  Which means, more than likely, parents are not happy to see how you’ve chosen to entertain yourself.  Including, but not limited to:
-That time you and your brother made water bubbles using Big League Chew + water and popped them over and over again, all down the front of you..
-That time the left blinker went out on the car so you hung out the window with a light saber to signal a lane change…
-That time your brothers kept farting in their fists and throwing it in your face…
-That time your sister made a sign that said “HELP” and held it up against the car window..
-That time you snuck a bucket into the car after a day at the beach, full of water and a sand crab, which eventually became a dead crab…
-That time you and your sibling had a contest to see who could pull a tooth faster…
-That time your brother pulled your hair from the back seat, so you promptly pulled his elbow right out of joint… road trip to Myrtle Beach became road trip to the hospital
-That time your family finally made it to Mount Rushmore but your sibling insisted on staying in the van to watch Shania Twain videos…
All of the above, I repeat: PARENTS NOT AMUSED.

Family road trips are ultimately about memories made and time spent together, which is easily the cheesiest platitude I’ve ever typed.  But really.  There’s something fascinating about a person who can look back four decades and remember the road trip snacks they ate at a rest stop at four years old.  And someone who can look back on the van breaking down in Colorado, when Dad slept on the cabin floor outside the bathroom, and say “That was by far the best two week vacation we took as a family”.

Travel with family requires bravery and flexibility and, like, a million snacks.  But it shapes the stories that will be told around the Thanksgiving table years from now.  Stories of utter chaos in the most scenic places.  Laughs, tears, games, photos, mischief.  The most unpredictable road trips are the ones taken with family, full of memories that now start with “Remember when..”.  The ordinary times, the worst of times, the best of times- all in the name of family bonding.