How a Bad Vacation Can be a Beautiful Thing
At one point, I laid my head on the steering wheel and sobbed hysterically, “I can’t do this! I can’t do this!” From the backseat, a small hand found my shoulder. While patting it reassuringly, her tiny four-year-old voice said, “But you’re the Mommy. You gotta do it.” I didn’t want to do it. Absolutely not.
Instead, I wanted to leave the van and all its contents and be rescued by a moderately handsome and incredibly capable Forest Ranger. And then spend the rest of my natural life drinking Margaritas and watching my Forest Ranger build me a shopping mall out of twigs. Alas, I was the Mommy and I had to push on.
I was three thousand miles from home, alone with five energetic and incessantly noisy, quarreling children on a winding, single-lane mountain road, parked at a pull-off that afforded just enough room for the vehicle to (barely) rest.
I’d just driven through road conditions I didn’t know existed on Planet Earth, rife with steep ninety-degree angles precariously up and treacherously down. A mountain wall on one side and a dangerous drop-off on the other. And my personal favorite — driving while hugging blind curves. They were obviously named, “blind curves,” because I’d closed my eyes and prayed there was nothing coming towards us when rounding them. I still had another sixty terrifying miles to my next destination. Oh. Joy. The torture must continue.
In between sobs, I watched chunks of the dirt road crumble and fall thousands of feet beneath the archaic van’s wheels. My fear of heights was at 10+ on the anxiety level Richter scale. How did I get here? This was going to be the vacation of a lifetime. Instead, everything possible had gone wrong. And we were only halfway through our trip.
Now, viewed through the portals of time, this six thousand mile trek across the US, became one of our greatest and most humorous family tales. Living through a disastrous trip makes for the best stories. Parents, don’t sweat the small stuff. If your vacation doesn’t go as planned, as long as you all come back alive — and do not need decades of intensive trauma therapy — one day it will be your own epic family saga.
I’m offering my own worst family trip as evidence of this.
Several years ago, I decided it was time to show my five kids the wonders of this beautiful country. Camping seemed the perfect method to achieve this goal. Not one to do things halfheartedly, I meticulously planned three weeks of Wild West immersion. I pictured us singing beside the campfire, wading in clear streams , enraptured by timid wildlife and effortlessly scaling mountain peaks on many natural hikes. My children would see their mom differently. They would respect the new, improved, Wilderness Survival Mommy who gave them such a grand adventure. Newly divorced, I was eager to embrace single motherhood like a force to be reckoned with.
I’d never camped, pitched a tent, backpacked, cooked over a fire, or even made a fire, but I did careful research. I read a book about it. Looking at the pictures, and simple directions, camping seemed a breeze.
How hard could this be?
I was taking five kids ages 4 to 14 in a rickety old minivan on a three-week excursion, with limited cash and without another adult. This was well before Google maps (or Google anything for that matter).
We had to drive from Indiana to California and back, a trek of roughly 6,000 miles. And not to be an underachiever, I’d decided to fit in twelve major stops, making for some grueling, long drives to achieve this.
What could go wrong?
This plan was met with enthusiasm by my family.
From my mother, “Are you insane? Three weeks in the car with THOSE kids?”
My oldest daughter’s response, “Camping? Is there internet? I’m not going if there’s no way to get online. I do have a life, you know.”
My only son stoically informed me that we were, “Doomed.”
For some inexplicable reason, my youngest began to sob uncontrollably.
Simultaneously, a vicious battle erupted between the other two daughters over seating arrangements in the vehicle.
It was shaping up to be the trip of a lifetime.
Finally, the big day arrived.
The kids had rallied a bit. After stuffing the minivan beyond capacity, we rolled out. In addition to camping gear and necessities, my kids had filled every recess of the vehicle with other “necessities” — hair care products, nail polish, books, video games and game players, makeup, and oodles of toys
I was certain we were smuggling an undocumented immigrant to freedom, although I could never plainly distinguish him amidst the stuffed animal zoo and dolls we were hauling.
Someone said to bring rope. I had no clue why rope would be useful, but I brought it, like the good Wilderness Survival Mother that I was.
My son was the only one who packed light. His bag for the entire twenty-one day excursion consisted of a single pair of underwear, some out-of-state fireworks, and a machete.
Fifteen minutes into the first long highway stretch, my six-year-old began fidgeting. The poor child was born with a strange debilitating disease, known scientifically as, “Gerbil-Size-Bladder.” It is a fact that children afflicted with this disorder are predisposed to attacks when you’ve just passed the last restroom for 700 miles.
We had to push hard to make it to the first camping destination. I’d planned on one night in a cheap hotel on the way. The many bathroom breaks were taking a toll on my schedule. But never mind. This was an exciting adventure! Meanwhile, I had positioned my oldest child shotgun, so we could bond.
Here is a sample of that stimulating conversation:
Me: “You must really be thrilled about being in high school this fall?”
Her: “Uh, huh.”
Me: “I remember all the great times I had in high school — proms, the clubs and activities. Parties. Just think of all the fun you’ll have! What are you looking forward to in high school?
Her: “Uh, huh.”
Me: “So, have you gotten your class schedule yet?”
Her: (Long pause) “Yeah.”
Me: (Getting excited, because the conversation was really warming up) “What’s your schedule like?”
Her: “I dunno. I forgot.”
After an hour of this intense exchange we were worn out. Slipping headphones on, she retreated into another dimension. The only evidence of life was occasional head bobbing. At least I didn’t have to check for a pulse while driving.
From the back seat, my nine year old daughter (the Infamous Middle Child) let out a blood curdling scream, while pointing at Gerbil-Size-Bladder, “She is BREATHING on me. Tell her to stop breathing!” As any loving parent would do, I threatened to secure the next violent offender to the roof. I suddenly knew why I’d brought rope.
Highlights from our trip journal
Day Two: New Mexico: We finally made it to the first real stop of our Great Vacation!
I severely scorched my bangs in a futile attempt to light the campfire. But hair is a such a small sacrifice for this grand and awesome adventure.
It took one hour to locate and extract the tent from the vehicle and another hour to attempt setup. Tent failure occurred multiple times. Our final product is a ramshackle shelter but will suffice if no one moves or breathes. I have no idea what to do with some tent pole thingies. And there are no instructions. This is much harder than the camping book said. Children catch scorpions with sticks and place in jars. Find escapee scorpion in tent later. Spend rest of night in minivan.
Day Three: Painted Desert, Arizona: Make thirty stops for Gerbil-Size-Bladder en route to destination and to break up fights between the natives. Arrive late. Take drive through desert, while pointing out beautiful areas for planned scenic dust hike. See numerous signs warning of rattlesnakes. Postpone hike permanently.
Set up tent. Learn fires are prohibited. Eat hearty dinner of cold beans out of a can like real campers. Listen to son singing, “Beans, beans, the magical fruit,” while farting in harmony. A collective family vote sends him to van to sleep.
Days Four to Five: Grand Canyon: Children discover “primitive restroom” means a smelly hole in ground. Even Gerbil-Size-Bladder bans use. No electricity means no hair appliances. Girls threaten mutiny. Son is empowered and thrilled that screaming into the Canyon, can make all wildlife within 100 square miles run for their lives. I did not need bear repellent after all.
Day Eight: Somewhere on a Terrifying Mountain Road: Wear out a set of brakes on a terrifying mountain road in Arizona. Spend day in dirty garage with ancient, drunken mechanic. Gerbil-Size-Bladder pleased with proximity to restrooms. Son is sad to leave ancient drunken mechanic’s nude model calendar behind. Middle daughter and Oldest daughter beg to go home, rather than have frizzy hair due to extreme western heat.
Day Ten: Hoover Dam: Two children cry for a half hour upon discovering beavers did not build Hoover Dam. Stop at Las Vegas for the night. Park in the secure casino parking lot. Put children to bed, leaving oldest to watch siblings. Bolt down to casino, slam three neat cocktails in 2.5 minutes. Return to room. Dream that tomorrow will be better.
Day Twelve: Las Vegas: In the morning, we discover the van was robbed while in the secure casino parking lot. Spend rest of the day in Las Vegas PD, filing a report while sitting with a very eclectic group of citizens. Son perks up and begins asking questions about sex workers and fees. I spend hours trying to avoid explaining “prostitution” to the youngest two. The older girls are impressed with sex workers ability to walk on five inch platform heels.
Thus far, this is the high point of trip for the kids.
Viva Las Vegas.
Day Thirteen: Death Valley, California: Temperature 125 Fahrenheit. It is the hottest place on planet today. Youngest daughter vomits all over occupants and contents as vehicle is overheating in the desert. While cleaning steaming puke in the vehicle, I wish open container alcohol laws did not exist.
In chorus all the kids proclaim, “Worst Vacation Ever.”
Finally arrive at Death Valley Resort. While attempting sleep in a puddle of sweat, I realize my sanity is profoundly weak. But, tomorrow we go to Sequoia National Park. Tomorrow will be amazing!
Day Fourteen: In the night, a small earthquake occurred, closing the main road to Sequoia National Park. We heed the advice of a truly deranged local person and take the shortcut, which consisted of a winding, mountainous single-lane dirt road. I have a mental breakdown upon discovery of hair-pin turns, and crumbling road, and steep drop offs. There are no guardrails. The earlier terrifying road we encountered was just a warm up for this.
Nerves are shot. Kids are hostile.
At one point, I beat my head against the steering wheel and sob, “I can’t do this. I can’t do this.” The youngest child pats my back, “But you’re the Mommy. You gotta do it.”
Get off mountain road at first opportunity — without continuing to Sequoia. Buy postcards of Sequoia National Park at a gas station as a substitute for the visit. Pull up to closest random wooded area. Point at every arbitrary tree, and tell kids, “This is beautiful Sequoia.” Everyone marvels at “Sequoia.” Success.
We even have the postcards to prove we were there.
Day Fifteen: Yosemite: Set up camp in a densely wooded area. Excited to hike and see wildlife.
Naturalist Oldest Daughter finds large carnivorous-looking pincer beetle and makes a pet out of it. And then she spends the entire night horrifying her siblings by sticking its pincers on them.
A western mutation of extremely hostile blue jays, converge on our camp, carrying away our breakfast and forcing us screaming into the tent. This is not the timid wildlife I’d imagined.
Day Sixteen: Yosemite: Take arduous climb up a mountain to see the famous Bridal Veil Waterfall, while carrying youngest child, and a 30 pound backpack filled with water bottles, snacks, Barbie dolls, nature guide books, bear repellent, bug spray, sunscreen, son’s machete and camera. Discover famous waterfall is dried-up due to drought. At least two children call this, “Lame.” Fight urge to throw self from famous dried-up waterfall.
Briefly consider covering the children in peanut butter and gifting them to them to park bears but decide it would be animal cruelty.
Day Eighteen: Lake Tahoe: A high point of the trip. Drive all day to arrive in Tahoe. Plan on camping for two nights. Thrilled to have cool temperatures and water after much time in heat and desert. As we arrive, we observe flames, smoke and helicopters and fire vehicles converging on area. Learn wildfires have closed Tahoe. Now I’m certain God hates me.
Day Nineteen: Reno, Nevada: Drive all night to arrive in Reno. Find most hotels are booked. Forced to stay at extremely sketchy motel. Cook dinner over Sterno cans in parking lot, with a scenic view of construction zone and liquor store. Exclaim in a maniacal voice to children this is a suitable replacement for a campfire in the wilderness. “Just like Tahoe!”
Barricade motel door against intruders. Son and machete take first watch. Discover pet pincer beetle is missing. Secretly hope it has made a break for freedom while children cry.
Days Nineteen to Twenty-One: The entire family gets stomach flu while driving home through the Rockies. We quickly learn the location of every public restroom in at least six states. Some of our best photos were taken at these rest stops. Did we hike the beautiful mountain peaks? Hell no. But we took great photos of them while taking turns puking and running to the bathroom.
Use Linda Blair Exorcist voice to manage chronic fights in vehicle. Play “morgue” with kids. (A fun family game, where the anyone who talks dies a painful death.)
Contemplate robbing pharmacy for anti-psychotic medication.
Pass shots of Benadryl around to soothe children, while I chug Benadryl out of the bottle. Screech tires into driveway of home. Kiss the ground.
Find pet pincer beetle under the seat, dead of an apparent suicide. Mourn beetle with suitable funeral. The excitement of this great adventure was too much for him. I empathize.
It was the most harrowing family vacation ever. But it’s our wonderful family saga. I’m certain that if everything had been perfect, it wouldn’t have been material for so many years of storytelling and laughter. Go and make your own saga — good or bad — in the end it will be memorable.
PS. My kids are now 35–25. It was only a few years ago that they figured out they’d been cheated out of seeing Sequoia. And it was only last summer that I learned the purpose of those tent pole thingies. But these are stories for another day.