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Essay

Two for the road, maybe

Family travel can stir every emotion, even pleasure

Email|Print| Text size + By Tom Haines
Globe Staff / August 12, 2007

Here's a bit of family road trip reality: On an afternoon in July 2005 when the temperature sat somewhere around 95 degrees, I stood on a blacktop parking lot outside a convenience store in Port Huron, Mich., and buckled my son, then 3, into his car seat for the next pull of a 980-mile drive. I then pushed a VHS tape of Bob the Builder into a portable television, a hand-me-down from my brother's older kids that was plugged into the car lighter. My son, pumped up on roadside diner food, then burned out by a quick run around a park, looked at me, looked at the screen, and vomited into the cassette slot. The picture went dead. {bull} Now I'm not going to say that I was completely happy to be scrubbing up the mess and whacking the TV to summon the image of an animated handyman with a penchant for singing. (Though I've heard it said that adventure is agony told in the luxury of reminiscence.) I will contend, though, that that moment and others like it are a big part of why I have come to love the chaos of the family road trip.

Plenty of praise is heaped upon the high points of reaching a destination when taking children to new terrain: watch a young boy hug a towering West Coast fir, for example, or fly beneath Christo's flapping flags in Central Park.

But I want to celebrate the journey itself -- complete with back-seat underwear accidents and midday meltdowns. Because it is in moving, in some manner of cooperation, from one perfectly good place to somewhere unknown that an already intimate collection of people can pull closer. It is out there together, in other words, that you can really feel the love.

While running a gantlet this summer that passed shores of Lake Seneca and Lake Erie and slopes of the Rocky Mountains, my 2-year-old daughter woke from a sweaty nap to find herself in yet another moving car.

"Where's Luca?" she cried out, looking for her brother. Luca was about 16 inches to her left, strapped into his car seat, and uncharacteristically still asleep.

"I NEED," Colette screamed, "to tell Luca SOMETHING!"

I can imagine the skeptical sighs my rose-colored musings might elicit from seasoned parents reading this in cozy homes on a Sunday morning. But consider a few key things.

First, having the choice to hit the road with the family is a luxury. For many in this country, budgets are too tight and shifts too long to allow for an optional odyssey. For others, refugees from fighting or hunger, for example, packing up the family is a harrowing escape with uncertain end.

Second, in modern middle America, a common journey is one of the rare times a family gets to be together from daybreak to bedtime. More, though, it is a venture in which everyone contributes to success or failure.

If a journey is going to be a family endeavor, though, it cannot include DVDs, iPods, and assorted electronic companions that allow people to be alone, even when together. (Neither Bob the Builder, Thomas the Tank Engine, nor Winnie the Pooh has had a back-seat broadcast in our car since that ill-fated day in Port Huron.)

You will need replacements. One option is the alphabet game, "On my way to grandmother's house, I put in my basket . . .," in which each person adds an adjective and noun for the letter of their turn. "On my way to grandmother's house, I put in my basket . . . elephantine ellipses . . . a quick Quaker . . . weird wainscoting."

Such diversions, alas, rarely last as long as even one screening of Mr. Rogers's "What do you do with the mad that you feel?"

Then comes real adversity. Two miles after hurtling past the turnpike service plaza, and 47 miles before reaching the next, the 5-year-old in the tighty whities says, "I have to pee."

First, reply calmly: "Can you hold it for three-quarters of an hour?"

Then negotiate: "Look, I promise to drive 80 miles per hour, and when we get to the rest area I'll give you a Skittle."

Often, panic arrives, with wailing and waving of arms until an emergency stop is made, or a dark spot spreads across the child's shorts. (Notice that I am including no anecdotes in which I lose composure. Indeed, as my wife, unlike my children, is able to read, any of her moments of weakness will also remain unreported.)

There is payback for hours of filling the verbal vacuum and changing more than one pair of tighty whities: Out on the road, removed from a household's accumulations and daily distractions, simple things regain meaning.

During a pit stop on the banks of Idaho's Little Salmon River, sticks and stones replaced toys during happy splashing. At a Selway River swimming hole, hands scooped canals and rocks became towers to form an imaginary island.

With ever more distance from home, intimacy, too, increases. As this summer's 25-day road trip drew to a close, my daughter said more and more frequently, "I want Daddy!" Her words may have registered fatigue from unfamiliar surrounds, but they were welcome to a man who knows such attention will soon enough turn elsewhere. (Things did not look so good one particular afternoon, when she woke to find ponderosa pine out the window instead of New England salt marsh. "THIS," she screamed, somewhere between fear and frustration, "IS NOT IPSWICH!")

If you want any chance of affection at all, it is important to let the kids set the course, too. Passing alongside one of New York's Finger Lakes, my son called out to stop at a small-town playground. He could not have held out much hope, as we had just begun our drive for the day. But I pulled over quickly and said, "Boy, do you have the best ideas!" (I did not mention that the morning's first coffee hadn't seemed to take, and we had just passed a mini market.)

Returning along Interstate 90 weeks later, my son looked out at a blurry New York landscape and said, "When can we stop at a rest area?"

A blue sign loomed on the horizon.

"In one mile," I said.

The kids unloaded and kicked a soccer ball, using a tree trunk as a goal, then settled on a pad of concrete to draw with colored chalk. They plotted designs together, laughing and sprawling, as semis, RVs, motorcycles, and cars, some loaded with small bicycles, sped past a hundred yards away.

After 30 minutes, my son stood up from his drawing and walked silently back to the car. He pulled the door open and looked at me.

"I'm ready," he said.

Tom Haines can be reached at haines@globe.com.

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