The Great Road Trip: Jack
Kerouac Never Had It So Good
Mothering, May-June, 2002
By Nanci Olesen
A couple of years ago I told another
mom that I was about to drive from Minneapolis
to Philadelphia with my three kids (ages four, five, and nine) and another friend's
kid (age ten). I would be the only adult. The woman looked at me and said, "Oh
my God! Be sure to rent one of those TVs with a VCR—it was the only way my husband
and I could even think of driving cross country with our kids."
"Oh, we'll be alright," I said. "We don't need a TV."
this woman didn't know is that the trip to Philadelphia would be my sixth cross-country
drive with children, and my second long journey as the only adult.
I have driven, with my husband and kids, to the West Coast and back three times
and to the East Coast and back three times, and I've done at least six other
trips to places like Michigan, South Dakota, and Montana. Last winter my friend
Barb and I drove with my middle daughter (age six) 2,200 miles to Yellowknife,
in the Northwest Territories of Canada.
I like driving with kids across the
country. One of the greatest things about
it is how long it takes. I'm serious. Yes, my children squabble in the car.
When they were smaller they cried, even wailed, for miles at times. And it's
that we have been unable to find a campground to stay in at 9 p.m., when the
baby was poopy and we'd been in the car for 11 hours straight. Just as every
moment of your 25-hour labor is emblazoned into your head and body, I remember
all the excruciating moments of travel. I remember when the car stunk like
old bananas and we took the wrong turn and my legs felt numb from being cramped
the backseat, and I was tired of singing "Little Rabbit in the Woods" with
all of the actions.
Yet I would get in the car again with
all of my kids in a second. Because, out
on the road, you re-create your family.
If your children
fall asleep, which
most certainly will at some point in a 29-hour drive, there's time for two
adults to talk. If it's your partner you are driving with, you might begin
with a conversation
about everyday things like bills and house payments. But after a while, if
you are both still awake, the road does a number on you, and you find yourself
what you really think about life after death or that you just found out that
your great-great-grandfather was gay. These topics, along with the night
air and the unfamiliar road and the snores
and sniffles from the backseat, can
brew into a welling up of tears or the kind of laughter that you might not
for a while, where you lean forward, gasping, almost peeing in your pants.
A road trip can really take the edge off an impending midlife crisis.
there are also hours and hours when the
kids are awake and the adults are simply
wranglers: one of you is driving (that's
the easy part), and the
is doing the many things that need to be done to keep it all going, like
passing out apple slices or starting a game of "I spy with my little
Our kids each bring one daypack full of
pleasures for the road. The things they
love most are paper, pencils, and books.
We have some car
baseball games, and a few other made-for-the-car activities, but it is
the paper and pencils that always rule.
When you bring too many things, they
just get in
the way. If there are too many distractions, the kids won't really get
to see just how big Nebraska is. Didn't
you enjoy the chance to stare out the
when you were eight, thinking about whatever came into your head?
the night before a road trip I am usually
at the grocery store buying bags of those
tiny carrots that are already washed and
that liberated us all. I also buy chips and crackers, but I'm big on those
as well as apples and any other travel-friendly fruit that's in season.
Individual yogurts are handy. I also like to pack a jar of peanuts, peanut
jelly, and some exotic chocolate (only for the adults). If you're a coffee
take a good thermos--and a big jug of water. (Juice is sticky. Juice spills.
Juice makes people nervous and squiggly.)
I like to pack a cloth tablecloth
and cloth napkins, real (plastic) plates,
real silverware, and real cups. You can't convince me to stop washing my
at the picnic table, with my little plastic tub. (I have been called an
What we really love to do is leave the
interstate and drive into towns, following
the signs to a school
or city park. We look for cafes, too. I
of the best in the world are thriving in small towns across America, serving
doughnuts, and eggs and hash browns for $2.50. True, the coffee is usually
less than memorable, but the Formica and the metal napkin holders and the
waitresses who learn the names of your kids--those are the important things.
my love affair with family road trips?
It's the way we all spend time together.
The way we switch seats. The way we fall
asleep and drool on
each other's sweaters.
The way we wedge a towel in the window to shade us from that powerful and
unnerving Nevada sunlight. It's the cassettes we listen to that become
the theme of our
My husband and I like driving into the
night and then taking naps by lakes or
rivers the next afternoon.
(In case my mother is reading this, we
exercise caution, and we make solemn vows never to drive if we're too sleepy.)
look for local campgrounds so that we can walk around the town at night.
Or we search
for mom-and-pop motels, the ones with painted metal chairs in front of
There are still a lot of those, and, if they're reasonably clean they're
usually the best bet going. If they have a clean pool, yippee!
Life is still
very sweet out on the road in America.
There is a great deal to explore. Sure,
there are more strip malls and signs of
But in one
Nevada town we followed the signs to a small county museum, where we learned
about the families who walked alongside their covered wagons from Illinois
to California in the 1860s. We spent an hour there, talking with the elderly
and gathering Xeroxed information for our children's classrooms.
mantra for any road trip is the last three
lines of my favorite poem, Gary Snyder's "For
the Children": "Stay together.
Learn the flowers. Go light." So load
up and see what's out there. Find those
great places to stop; dare to avoid the
interstate—and rediscover your family
along the way.
producer and host, MOMbo: 1990-2007