Before our recent family vacation, our friends wished us well – but guardedly. “Have a nice time” was often prefaced with “good luck” and “I hope you survive.”
Seeing as we were leaving for a one-week getaway to South Carolina to meet with far-flung family in a beachside house with a backyard pool, free tennis and access to all the coconut shrimp you could ask for, these vacation wishes, tinged with concern, might sound odd. But here’s the thing – we were driving. And the prospect of spending more than 17 hours in a car with two kids (aged 2 and 4) and a mother-in-law (age withheld) sounded unappealing to most of our friends.
I’ll admit, there were times when I questioned the decision. After we booked the house, I looked up flights a few times before acknowledging that the cost for us to fly south was outrageous. So instead of paying thousands for airfare, we splurged on maps, atlases and an oil change and decided to get behind the wheel.
When my husband and I were kids, we each survived family road trips. My parents drove us to Florida a couple of times, and his family frequently drove to Vermont and once even ventured all the way to California. If our parents could do it then, we figured we could make it work now.
Admittedly, things were different in the eighties. Our parents drove boxy sedans with cushy bench back seats and looser (or so it seemed) seatbelt regulations. With two kids in the car, one could lie flat on the back seat while the other could stretch out on the floor, providing there was ample padding to neutralize the hump in the middle. An unwritten code dictated a switch every few hours, and for the most part, us kids could travel in ultimate comfort.
In 2011, nostalgia aside, we weren’t going to be giving up on our car seats. The solution was a two-screen DVD player that strapped onto the back of the headrests. We bought Dora, Scooby-Doo and Spider-Man DVDs, packed a large bag of treats, got Nanny to ride in the back with the kids, and were on our way.
We made it to the U.S. border in Niagara Falls without incident, and after a cursory conversation with a customs agent, we waved goodbye to Canada and excitedly continued to our week at the beach.
Over the hours, the scenery and atmosphere around us started to change. We began to see signs for Waffle House and Cracker Barrel. At some point, my husband and I adopted southern accents and began incorporating “y’all” into our conversations.
As our journey took us farther and farther south, we saw a series of billboards advertising a single store that sold everything from brassieres to chandeliers, porcelain dolls, fireworks and cheap cigarettes.
Our overnight stop was punctuated by a dinner where we were served enough food for three families. We were mesmerized by this America we had never seen up close. As adults, we had often flown over the United States to reach resorts, casinos or cities such as Boston or New York, but we hadn’t driven through it like this before. The ground approach provided a different perspective indeed.
On Day 2, the drive continued smoothly. Aside from occasional outbursts over the DVD player, the kids remained happy and excited. Our ever-listening four-year-old son started speaking with a slight yet definitive twang, and repeatedly asked when we were going to stop for grits. Our daughter, still too young to master a drawl, looked out the window, napped and watched her screen whenever one of her movies was playing.
Nanny knitted in the back seat and told us stories about people we didn’t know. Although we were originally concerned about adding a fifth person to our crew, she was fantastic at keeping the kids occupied, the movies running in equal rotation and the snacks evenly distributed.
The week in South Carolina was a blast – the pool, beach, tennis and shrimp exceeded all expectations. Our kids fawned over their older cousins and we got reacquainted with my husband’s brother and his family. All too soon, it was time to hit the pavement again.
Now, if I was initially leery of the drive down, I was outright dreading the journey home. The vacation would be over and we’d be faced with the prospect of work, a home without a pool and no beach in sight. Two days of transit to get back to regular life sounded unbearable.
But while the drive was long, it wasn’t the disaster I feared. We stopped at a Cracker Barrel to see why it warranted such marketing spending across the southeastern United States. We weren’t disappointed, and walked away with peppermint sticks and souvenir mugs. Our twangs subsided as we rocketed closer to Canada.
When we got home, we unpacked the car, said goodbye to Nanny and welcomed the sight of our own beds and healthy skim milk in the fridge.
A 17-hour road trip with five people has every opportunity to go wrong. But we made it work. We prevailed driving through 42-degree heat and torrential rain alongside reckless truck drivers.
Our lives are normally hectic, but in the car we had the luxury of time to spare. We played I Spy, taught our son how to snap his fingers, contemplated our top 10 albums of all time, and talked about the future. At the end of it all, we felt closer as a family.
We’re already planning next year’s road trip. But I’m thinking Vermont – a family can still bond over a nine-hour drive.
Diane Amato lives in Toronto.