Like many other millennial women that are busy planting seeds and starting families, I have unassailable dreams of traveling the world with my kids. Admittedly, these visions have always been more about exciting destinations, and less about the method of getting there. I suppose the “getting there” part is a common afterthought in this age, since we can usually just jet to whatever city is calling our name at the drop of a hat.
Never had I really considered taking my family on a road trip across the country, believing that road trips were merely a quaint means of family travel from a bygone era. But once the idea got into my head, it became abiding and truly unshakable. I quickly became a mama on a mission, determined to chart a route across the United States to see everything we could possibly see in one summer’s time.
Hence began an epic family journey that took us over 8,000 miles across deserts, through mountains, and directly into my family’s past. The seed was actually planted when we discovered through genealogical detective work that my great-great-great grandfather was a prisoner during the Civil War and died in service at Fort Sumter prison in Andersonville, GA.
We only had a name and a picture of his tombstone, but it became imperative in my mind to take my 84 year old father to visit the grave site of this forgotten man, and to bring my kids along for the experience.
We collectively mapped a winding route from Orange County, CA through central Georgia and finally up to New Jersey to visit the small town of Gloucester City, where my father spent his early years almost 7 decades ago. Along the way, we would finally get to see dozens of cities that had been on my to-do list for years. It was part legacy trip to visit and revisit ghosts of my family’s past, and part exploratory trip to sample the sights, sounds, flavors and cultures of towns and cities all across America with my kids.
Following the experience of moving everything we own into a garage and spending 60 straight days on the road, I have had the chance to reflect on the trip in its entirety, and start collecting a list of things we figured out along the way.
Here are 6 things I learned one summer driving across the United States in a minivan with my two young kids and parents.
1) Road trips are a cost-effective way to earn checks on your bucket list
We all dream about visiting different places for special, perhaps curious, reasons before our time is up. My bucket list is probably much too long, and as far back as I could remember I have dreamt of drinking in the Southern Charm of cities like New Orleans, Charleston and Savannah. Amazingly, in the span of less than a week, we got to experience all three on the first leg of our road trip to the East Coast.
It would be much too costly for a family our size to fly to each of these cities separately, or else it would take several years of saving to get to see them all.
By comparison, we were able to drive thousands of miles through dozens of cities for a total cost in fuel of about $700. We saved additionally on rental fees by using our own personal minivan (a Honda Odyssey), which ate up the road like a champ.
Related article: Read our list of the best toddler toys for road trips
To put this in perspective, for the price of just two round-trip flights to a single destination, the road trip afforded our family of six the opportunity to visit and pass through countless cities, and in this regard, I found family road trippin’ to be an amazing value and an ideal way to finally check some items off our immense bucket list.
2) A great way for multiple generations to explore family history together
If your family is anything like mine, then you will understand what it’s like to have parents and relatives that have left breadcrumbs all across the Country in their past lives. My mom spent her early years in Indiana, and still speaks affectionately about her distant family there.
I grew up listening to my father’s stories about growing up in Jersey; about the fabled Catholic Church where as a young boy he stole newspapers and sold them to parishioners much to the chagrin of his mother when he was finally caught, and about the high school where he threw a game winning touchdown in the final game of the season after coming off the bench to replace the injured starter.
I have heard these tales over and over (and over) again around the kitchen table, and no matter how many times they still fill me with joy.
A road trip is an ideal way to follow these breadcrumbs and help your parents return to places with intense personal and historic family meaning. The road trip allowed us to discover that the two homes my father grew up in were still standing and basically unaltered by decades of time, as was the church.
My kids witnessed their grandfather through teary eyes recollect the exact location in the church where his long-past parents and recently-past brothers would sit every single Sunday as boys. My son did a Heismann pose with Grandpa on the field where he threw those touchdowns 68 years ago. Yes, the grandkids have heard all the stories too.
We even got to spend a weekend at his favorite boyhood vacation spot in Wildwood, NJ, which brought back the fondest of memories for him and helped forge new memories that I expect they will share with their own children.
3) Just one or two days in a city will leave you thirsting for more
We found that a road trip is more of an appetizer, a pu pu platter, for helping decide on a future main course. While we did get to spend time in at least 30 cities, in most cases it was just for a night or two and we were only able to scratch the surface.
Our travel style generally involves finding quaint historic sites, unique local attractions, and bars with live music that will allow the kids through the door. This last one is a big one, and we would sometimes plan our whole itinerary around being at the Crazy Horse Saloon by 9:00pm to see live music from a local Creedence cover band, or whatever.
If you followed our #HotMamaDoesAmerica summer road trip on social media, then it might have been baffling to see us at a new bar or live show in a different city every night. That’s just how we roll, and there is absolutely no shame in our game.
But the limited amount of time in each city meant inevitably that we had to take a pass on some of the more popular and time consuming activities. For example, in Memphis we sampled classic barbecue, watched ducks march through the lobby of the Peabody Hotel, and had a blast listening to live music at the original BB King’s Blues club on Beale Street.
However, I desperately wish we had at least a few more days in Memphis to take the kids to the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel and spend an afternoon at Graceland. At least we now know first-hand that Memphis is an amazing, lively city that jives with our style and for which we now hunger for an extended trip in the future.
4) Importance of striking a balance between spontaneity and preparation
When you are on the road for so many days traveling with a large family, it is crucial to have certain things in order, including hotels booked well ahead of time and a rough itinerary for how you plan to collectively spend your limited time in each new city. When driving for 12 hours straight through the middle of the country, it is also good practice to plan stops in smaller towns for resting, gassing up, and dining.
A whole day on the road is more tiresome than it sounds. Two days straight on the road is bordering crazy with restless kids and a parent with a feeble bladder (looking at you, dad). It is so important to reduce the number of things that could possibly give you a headache, and this is where preparation can really pay off.
Yet, it is equally important to allow for impromptu ideas to take hold when exploring a new place. You should not plan every little detail, because it is just more fun for some things to be sorted out when you get there as a family, like when we visited the Game of Thrones Pub in Washington, DC.
Spontaneity is like a shot in the arm for your travels, injecting a certain level of uncertainty and excitement that will help make your visit special, and make it yours. It is critical to find your own balance between planned action and spontaneous action during a road trip in which every minute in every city counts, and then you are off to the next.
5) You think you know your kids and parents, but travel changes people
I am sure I am not alone in this. Just driving my kids to shop at Target around the corner from our house can be an absolute headache. I could not fathom before the trip how my kids would respond to an entire day of confinement in the minivan.
As it turns out the kids were absolute angels, give or take a few minor squabbles and bouts of impatience. By the end of the two month road trip, eight or ten hour drives almost became routine business for them. There was something about the magnitude of our joint undertaking that must have changed their state, as though they too were on a mission to be the adventurous travel buddies we always wanted them to be.
If I could give one specific piece of advice that could help explain this puzzling phenomenon, it might be the particular effort we put into keeping the whole family up-to-date on the upcoming agenda over breakfast, over dinner, before bed, during poopy time, etc. We made sure there were no surprises, so when woke them up at 6:30 in the morning for a long drive, they were mentally prepared.
It wasn’t just the kids that seemed to morph during our travels. My mom is always the skittish backseat driver, but somehow this persistent nervousness gave way to a more relaxed persona driving cross country. Maybe it was the peace invoked by open skies and open road, being such a contrast to our daily lives in the traffic nightmare of Southern California. Or maybe we were all in an altered state of being, with mutual determination and realization that we were all in this thing together.
Whatever it is, there is no doubt that travel, perhaps especially long-term travel away from home, changes people in unexpected ways.
6) There’s nothing political about good hospitality
We are from California, and unfortunately, like many of my neighbors, we haven’t spent much time in the South. After the 2016 election, we felt even more alienated from certain parts of the country, but our road trip already had several months of planning and bookings behind it and there was literally no turning back.
We were destined to tour Trump country.
What happened next was surprising, but it should not have been. The generous spirit of the American people shined through in every place we visited from Texas to New York. Despite political gulfs and cultural differences, no place seemed foreign to us and instead felt distinctly, proudly American.
Thankfully, good hospitality appears to be a universal principle of cultures everywhere, and America is no exception. It doesn’t matter what the President just tweeted, who they voted for, or who you voted for; there is clearly something greater that binds us together as a People, and this was immediately clear upon traveling from city to city, through red states and blue states.
That’s a Wrap!
When you get down to it, what is great about travel and tourism is that you get to experience different people and cultures first hand, unvarnished by caricatures presented in popular media.
Travel has the singular power to reveal the true nature of a place and its people, and in doing so, has the monumental ability to dispel stereotypes and enrich minds with literal ground truth. Travel is an ancient pastime, but may still be our best tool to overcome cultural prejudice and misinformation. As they say, people can’t help but believe their own eyes.
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