The art of the gadget-free family road trip

If you grew up a baby boomer on the western edge of the Midwest, as I did, you probably experienced driving vacations. These trips included the pseudo-wood paneled station wagon, a car air conditioner that quit when temperatures shot past 100 degrees F., and untold hours with nothing to do.

I could choose activities such as pestering my older brother, reading, sleeping, playing "Animal, Vegetable, or Mineral," singing "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall," or asking my parents questions.

Our road trips were like the one in "National Lampoon's Vacation" without Chevy Chase, the dead great-aunt (my grandma was very much alive and won a purseful of nickels in a small Nevada border town), or the dog tied to the bumper (ours stayed home and pouted in a kennel).

Some things have changed for me in the 21st century. My husband, Sherman (who is kookier than my dad was), and I live on the eastern edge of the West, and drive a small SUV (the car seats are not vinyl). My mother brings along her electric piano, not a purse laden with nickels.

What remains the same? Bucking current trends, we do not bring along electronic gadgets. The kids have many hours to remember how to amuse themselves. Rural America slides by our windows, unchanging for miles. The blue sky, unmarred by tall buildings and trees, overwhelms our view. Time, space, and the lack of distractions require that we spend time together.

Wyoming inspires our own version of "Home on the Range" - complete with proper North American animal names. "Oh give me a home /where the bison roam, /and the deer and the pronghorn play."

The sky really is not cloudy all day and we do get to see deer and pronghorns playing (alongside wary cows).

Just as certainly as my brother and I would start poking each other or breathing on the other's side of the seat, our son and daughter begin to fight. The kids turn into the Bickersons. Help! We are trapped with them somewhere close to the middle of nowhere.

"How about a game of 'License Plate Bingo'?" I ask.

"Colorado," Jackson shouts, just as I'm finishing the question.

Great, I'm already behind.

Meanwhile, I realize that the town we're approaching is supposed to be on another road, not this one. After I unfold our map, my superior navigating skills verify that we missed the turn. How did we not notice a state highway where wide-open spaces dominate?

"Nebraska! Kansas!" Jackson adds as Sherman and I busy ourselves with signs and the map.

"Are we lost?" Christina asks.

"We can't be lost in Wyoming," my husband replies. "Besides, we'd see cars from different states on a national highway."

We turn north when the next highway arrives to save us from driving further south. Everyone sees two or three Wyoming plates, total.

As we approach our final turn, Jackson asks if we brought any CDs.

Nope.

"I really wanted to listen to 'Choo, Choo, Boogaloo,' " he sighs, talking about our favorite road trip CD by Buckwheat Zydeco.

"Sing the songs yourself," I suggest.

And he does. Only remembering a few verses from "Skip to My Lou," he begins to make up his own. Soon we're all clamoring to share our invented verses. Chaos breaks out before I command we take turns in a clockwise order. Sherman sings out, "Cows in the pasture, moo, moo, moo...."

We approach 300 verses by the time we've gone 60 miles. Our bottoms are getting sore as the sun drops lower in the sky. Grandma sings, "Took out my hearing aids, what else could I do?" We refuse to stop singing. Fort Anywhere or bust.

Just when Lou is about all skipped out, we conquer another hill. No mirage, the brick buildings of the former Army post sit at attention in the valley.

We have survived without CDs, movies, Game Boys, laptops, or cellphones. On a road trip without distractions, we were forced to amuse ourselves - together.

Family vacations aren't just about where you go, but how you get there.

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