There’s really no way around it: traveling with kids sucks. From all the preparation and planning to the schlepping and supervising, you could compare making a road trip with children to organizing a military campaign. That said, it’s hard to imagine any of history’s great generals — Agrippa, Charlemagne, Bolivar — calling off an advance every five minutes so their soldiers could pee.
After several torturous days on the road over the summer, I vowed not to make any trips with the children for a long time. But my sister recently moved to North Carolina, and I figured a short drive to her place in the mountains would be easy enough to handle.
So. Frickin’. Stupid.
You see, I trusted my GPS, which by now I should know not to do. This device informed me the drive would take one hour and 55 minutes, which gave me a warm, fuzzy feeling of optimism.
It didn’t turn out as planned:
9:01 a.m.: We pull out of the driveway and head towards the highway. The kids have proclaimed KidzBop lame, which is awesome, so the regular pop station plays.
9:07: A sweet voice from the backseat murmurs something about needing the bathroom. I pretend not to hear it.
9:11: We pull on to Interstate 85, an 8-lane highway I call “Thunderdome” because it is driven exclusively by blindfolded people who believe speed limits are suggestions.
9:13: My son asks me to change the radio station. I tell him I’m not taking my eyes off the road for even a second, so he’d better learn to like easy listening. (I’m sorry, DJs, but you can’t claim to play “only the best music” if your lineup includes “Break My Stride.”)
9:20: My daughter calls from the back seat that she really needs the bathroom.
“Son of a b—ch!” I blurt out as some complete waste of space swerves across the road toward the exit, causing four separate cars to slam on their brakes. My kids erupt in laughter. For the next five minutes they take turns yelling, “Son of a b—ch!” before exploding in delighted giggles all over again.
9:25: My daughter announces she has laughed so hard she has peed a little. Sigh.
9:33: We pull off the highway to use the bathroom, and my daughter changes into one of the many backup outfits I packed for her.
9:50: Back on I-85 I almost miss our exit trying to come up with a plausible interpretation for my son of the song, “Talk Dirty to Me,” one of the better brag-rap-with-a-klezmer-interlude hits on the radio these days.
In the grand tradition of parents everywhere, I lie with abandon.
“He wants to talk about dirt,” I explain to my son.
He is completely comfortable with that explanation.
10:01: My daughter needs to use the restroom — again — so we pull over — again — at a gas station. A line of moms and kids waiting for the bathroom snakes out to the pork rind display. I think I recognize a few from our last stop, but I can’t be sure.
When the guy using the men’s room emerges, my son bolts toward the open door.
“Hey!” I shout, but before I can tell him to check the entitlement, the women in line tell me it’s fine. I am incredulous, as it’s one of those individual restrooms. There would be no men in there. There are no men in line. There is no discernible reason why they wouldn’t make use of it, instead of standing in line for the women’s restroom. I practically shout, “Suckers!” as I drag my daughter in after my son and shut the door.
10:15: Back on the road we encounter a traffic jam and my children learn a new word: “clusterf—k.”
My son asks after the meaning of the song “Hotline Bling.”
“They’re such great friends she can call him up anytime,” I answer. “Even late at night. When she’s all alone. And wants him to come over. And, like, watch TV.”
10:31: The kids settle in to watch movies on their iPads, headphones firmly in place. I slip a book-on-CD — a biography of Al Capone I’ve been desperate to read/hear — into the car stereo.
10:42: My son leans forward and asks me what a “hit” is. Seems he never attached his headphones to his iPad and has been listening along. I switch off the stereo.
10:43: We pull over to use a bathroom. We are now definitely out in the country. The towns are farther apart, each consisting of a depressing and sterile main drag built by the 1980s in brown glass and brick.
I wonder what it would be like to grow up in such a remote place. Would it feel like a refuge or a cage? Would you have an anxious need to escape to the larger world or a desperate desire to hide from it and cling to the familiar?
“Is this a booger?”
My son is thrusting his finger in my face. I squint.
“Yes,” I answer. “Yes it is.”
“Cool,” he says, and PROCEEDS TO TUCK IT BACK IN HIS NOSTRIL.
“What the hell is wrong with you????” I ask.
Inside, the gas station doubles as a general store, selling boiled peanuts, pickled peaches and refrigerator magnets printed with the Lord’s Prayer. You know, in case you want to get your God on while making a sandwich.
11:01: At a traffic light a man in a Nissan Altima chatting on his phone pulls abruptly in front of me, causing me to hit the brakes. My kids’ heads tumble forward and back like overfilled water balloons. A bumper sticker on his car informs me he is a carbon-neutral commuter. I wonder if he’ll work on his d—khead-neutral certification anytime soon.
Another sticker on his car commands me to “Buy Local Art.”
He’s absolutely right. It’s really gauche of the people living in the double wide trailers that line the highway to enrich their collections exclusively on buying jaunts to Paris.
My kids learn another new word: “a—hat.”
11:09: My children ask me to put on their favorite CD, an album by an outrageously talented country music duo named Maddie and Tae. I’m grateful to get away from the radio. As I listen to their songs, I am struck by how brilliant these young women are. They write like bards, play like maestros and sing like angels.
12:15 p.m.: We have now listened to the CD three times. I hate this CD. I want this CD to die.
12:17: We stop to use the bathroom.
Back on the road we switch on the radio and my son asks what “Take Me to Church,” an alterna-emo hit by some Irishman who likely didn’t date much in high school, is about.
“Sweetie, not even the guy who wrote it knows,” I answer.
12:50: We arrive at my sister’s house, just in time to use the bathroom.
And this is where technology once again fails parents. If GPS designers really wanted to be helpful, they would allow you to enter both your destination, plus the number of children you are traveling with and their ages, figuring in bathroom breaks accordingly.
They could call it a G-Pee-S. I would snatch that device up in a heartbeat.
My little girl done gone country on me at the general store.