I never threaten to turn the car around. That’s a cliché and an empty threat, but more important it offends my sensibilities as a father. I will never turn the car around and sacrifice the time I’ve made. Ever. We could accidentally leave grandma’s heart meds back at the house and I’m still not going back. FUCK IT WE’LL BUY IT THERE. My only goal on the road is to get to There, which means I will never go back to Here, for any reason, until we have achieved the primary objective of getting to There. Then we realize that There sucks and begin silently counting down the days until we get back home.
So when my kids act up in the car, I do not threaten to go back. Instead, I threaten to leave them on the side of the road. This is ALSO an empty threat, but a much more pleasing one to my sensibilities. I could leave these children on the side of I-95 and continue my journey unabated, maybe even listen to my music. I could also make much better time. HEAVEN. That’s the kind of wonderful mental image that helps me gut out the next 100 miles.
Every family has taken their version of the great American road trip. When I was very young, my mom drove us from Chicago to Maine (through Canada!) and back. I have no real memory of that car ride. Presumably I blocked it out, voiding it from consciousness as one would an extended prison sentence. If you have three kids, as I do, you’ve probably taken a few extended road trips because booking any plane tickets for a family of five causes the travel search engine to laugh in your face and costs the same as a down payment on a new Toyota. I would rather kill myself than spend that much money, and so I voluntarily lock myself into a dirty minivan with these animals for hours on end instead and I come VERY close to killing myself anyway.
And that’s what I did this past weekend. Three kids. Two days. Seven hundred miles. I willingly signed up for this, so I have no one to blame but myself. But I’m gonna share the misery of this experience with YOU, because it makes me feel less alone in my anguish. By all means, share right back.
Before the trip
Really, the road trip begins even before I’ve left the house. I sleep terribly the night before, knowing that there’s a vast stretch of SUCK awaiting me. We need to leave the house, and we need to leave it quickly. Every minute we waste dicking around in the morning costs us a minute out there on the road, maybe more because we’re not outracing traffic. I have grand ambitions of passing by every major city on our route at its EXACT off-peak traffic time, blowing by New York just as office schlubs are trying to get out of work early, feeding themselves into the great maw of 95N and various other hellroads. I will not be stuck among them. That won’t be me. Maybe we should leave right now in the middle of the night, I think to myself. Then I could fall asleep on the road and kill us all. Neat!
I finally fall asleep somewhere around 4:30 a.m., then wake up around 7:00 a.m. (already too late!) and begin yelling at everyone to get their ass in gear. I finish packing the car just as my children say they desperately need something that is located at the very bottom of a bag that is at the very bottom of the pile I have so carefully arranged in the back. I begin cursing IMMEDIATELY. Might as well break the seal and get it over with.
I get the kids in the car and get all their shit set up, but we have to wait another 10 minutes because Mom is always the last one to the car, because Mom is the only one who actually wants to PREPARE for this trip by packing snacks and waters and other vital crap. So it’s left to her to get all of that in order while a bunch of ungrateful assholes sit in the car, wondering what’s taking her so long.
We’re finally out on the road and smack in the middle of morning rush hour traffic. FUCK. I white-knuckle the steering wheel and seethe as I imagine all my best laid plans for beating traffic quickly slip away. My wife implores me to calm down. A year ago, she took the kids on a seven-hour car ride without me, and she said it was a piece of cake. No one fought. Everyone had a nice time. The obvious conclusion was that I, not the children, am the primary driving force of all tension on family road trips. And it’s true. The road conjures within me a kind of manic depression that I am fully aware of and powerless to beat back. I want to get there fast and I want everyone to shut up, and when neither of those outcomes occur—because they can’t!—I become Angry Dad.
Ten more hours to go on this leg.
We stop because, in a twist, I’m the one who has to pee. Also, we need gas. In order to expedite the stop, I inform the children we will NOT be getting donuts or pancakes or any fancy shit. If you gotta piss, that’s one thing. But don’t expect this to be a leisurely rest stop. Do they still take 30 minutes to whizz? They do, because getting them out of the car means turning off screens and moving travel blankies and myriad stuffed animals and putting shoes back on and all that shit. We go to piss and everyone in the rest stop toilet looks like they could murder my children. On the way out, the kids ask me to buy Doritos at 9:30 a.m. and I acquiesce because FUCK IT. It’s the road. You guys have a free pass to eat absolute garbage at odd hours. Enjoy it.
We have taken great pains to make sure these kids have every possible diversion at their disposal in this car: screens, snacks, audio books, games, Jim Gaffigan on Spotify, etc. We brought a portable DVD player that is a true piece of shit but was much cheaper than springing for the fancy car model with the DVD player built in. My wife printed out a checklist of every state license plate and attached it to a piece of cardboard, then LAMINATED it so that the kids could play the license plate game. My youngest son tears the game up before notching any plates at all.
The GPS lady tells me there’s a 25-minute slowdown up ahead, but it’s still the fastest route. How is that possible. Are you really telling me I’m gonna sit still in a jam for 25 fucking minutes? Fuck you, lady. Do I still throw myself directly into the stoppage? I do, because I know that veering off the main highway means braving stoplights, and stoplights are death. It’s also an easy way to become even angrier at the GPS, asking aloud WHERE IS SHE TAKING ME? because Google Maps expects you to have some working knowledge of the urban layout of downtown Aberdeen.
Lunchtime. We have packed a lunch for these kids so we don’t have to pay $40 for fried gas station crap. Do they want the prepared lunch? They do not. They want McDonald’s. I scan in vain for a rest stop, only none materializes. When in need of a meal, the road suddenly becomes as barren as the fucking Antarctic. I want a true rest stop; an easy turnoff. But there’s nothing; no blue sign assuring me salvation is at hand in 10 miles or less. I’m going to have to get off at a real exit, which inevitably means the McDonald’s will be located four fucking miles away from the highway. Sure as shit, when I pull off to find food, we end up at a mall. A full mall, with all the attendant mall parking agonies. I am a moron. I don’t say a word while we eat. Everyone must piss again, even if they don’t have to piss. No more piss stops for a while. They ask to switch seats around in the car and I refuse. Your seat is your fucking seat. This isn’t a commune.
The car now looks like a landfill. There are piles of wrappers at the children’s feet. There are stray crumbs in every last orifice of the minivan. I expect the microbes inside the car to skip through stages of evolution and mutate into full families of roaches at any moment.
My wife is driving now because my driving made her carsick. I usually do the bulk of the driving because I am a control freak and because I’d rather drive than parent. The kids are starting to wear down now. They’re bored and cranky and sore. A family road trip is merely a chance to hear the word STOPPPPPPPPPP!!! cried out at peak volume and in various different angry intonations, over and over. I often have to turn around to fix the DVD player and remind my kids to not only keep their hands to themselves, but their FEET as well. These motherfuckers kick each other! Did you know this? You should know this.
I am back at the wheel. There’s another traffic jam ahead and the GPS’s estimated arrival time is growing even as we get closer. I can see it happening in real time, and it’s HORRIFYING. I can’t even fathom it. What could possibly be causing this jam? It’s not even rush hour yet! Did someone up ahead die? Scrape their ass off the road and clear the goddamn way. What are all these other cars doing out here? Are these people vacationing too? The goddamn nerve. I hope they all die.
We’re still in the traffic. I am the unhappiest man alive. I am a big giant baby filling up my diaper because I was stupid enough to expect the road to cooperate. I’ve had miracle road trips before. Ever get a clear shot on a trip? It’s the best feeling. You blitz along the highway, arrive fresh as a daisy, and joyfully declare “There was NO traffic!” to anyone who will indulge your boasts. It’s the greatest dad feeling there is.
This is not that road trip. This is the road trip you meticulously plan to avoid. Alas, I’m here in the middle of the shit, promising my children, Papa Smurf–style, that it’s not much farther even though it is. They don’t buy it. They know dad is a horrible liar, and they will make him PAY. They have devolved into fits of menacing laughter and an unintelligible singsong patter that is making my eardrums bleed. We spend the final hour of this leg trying to sort out who hit who.
We get to the hotel. There’s no bar. We get BACK into the hell car to get food and fill daddy with beer and whisky. At night, I am kept up by my sons whisper-fighting in the adjacent bed. They accuse one another of hogging the covers even though the bed has TWO blankets on it to prevent such fights. No matter. They found a way. It’s too hot and I cannot see the thermostat in the dark. I think I accidentally turn on the heat. In the morning, I tell my wife stopping for the night was definitely the right move even though I have no evidence to support it.
Day two: Hour four
We’re so close to the end and now the children begin spazzing the fuck out, screaming so that I can’t hear the GPS lady guide us into our final destination. I scream at the kids and then my wife screams at me to calm down and then I insist I AM being calm. That’s a clear lie. I am acting like someone is holding me at gunpoint. We pull over to beg the kids to please behave for the final stretch, but they start up again with stupid voices and shit the second I get back into gear. That’s it. NO SCREENS FOR THE WEEK. We just ruined our own vacation with 10 minutes left to go. I want to die.
Finally, we make it. We pull into the vacation house driveway and I find my second wind, knowing a full week of sun and drinking await me. Sure, there’s sun and drinking at home. But this will be sun and drinking somewhere NEW! And that makes it totally worth it. Yessir, sure was. This’ll be great. This’ll be awesome.
And then the kids tell me it’s too cold.