Driving across the Midwest from before dawn until after dark may not sound like the beginning of a relaxing family vacation. Growing up, I viewed the 20-hour trek from Minnesota to my grandparents' Colorado home – a drive my father is famous in our family for doing in one day – as boring but unavoidable.
I didn't appreciate at the time how much I learned on those trips, not only about getting along with my sister but also about geography. After hours of driving over the plains, we saw the Rocky Mountains take shape on the horizon. How must the settlers have felt, my mother asked, seeing this obstacle rising up in front of them?
Our car had no entertainment system, and none of us were able to read for long on the road. Instead, we had contests to see who could find all the letters of the alphabet on road signs. We sang songs. My sister and I fought over whose stuff was on whose side of the invisible line that ran down the center of the car.
Once I had children of my own, I found myself wondering if I would have the time and energy to create similar experiences for them. Would they discover firsthand just how big Nebraska is? Would they see for themselves how much of the country has to be covered by cornfields so we can enjoy abundant food in our grocery stores? Would they learn to entertain themselves by looking out a car window? And if they didn't, would it matter?
Until recently, my two children had not ridden in a car for more than four hours at a stretch. They are used to traveling, especially from our home in California to visit their grandparents in Minnesota, but their trips have been by plane. With limited vacation time, we want to spend our trip at our destination, not getting there.
Clark, who is almost 5, carries his own backpack of books, toys, and snacks through the airport. Once on the plane, he listens for the announcement that "it is now safe to use electronic devices," knowing he'll get to watch a movie.
His 2-year-old brother, Harrison, loves watching planes take off as we wait for our flight.
But this summer we took a trip through Maine and New Brunswick that gave us all a taste of those family road trips. We drove a rented minivan from Boston through Maine and into Canada. It had no entertainment system, so the boys had just themselves, their parents, and the view out the window to entertain them during several days of driving.
Clark invented contests for us: He counted deer-crossing signs, and I counted moose-crossing ones. He practiced his recently acquired writing skills by writing notes in a small notebook and then handing them to me: "To Mome frum Clark."
Clark "read" a "Bob the Builder" book to Harrison when Harrison was getting fussy, and the boys shared bags of crackers.
There were moments, of course, when I couldn't imagine driving for 20 hours like this – when both boys were crying at once, when they decided to entertain themselves with a spitting contest, when I heard Harrison say, "I throw rock water" and realized that he had gotten a rock and was waiting for a view of the water to try to throw it in.
By the end of the trip, the car floor was littered with string cheese wrappers, tourist brochures, and Clark's collection of rocks from Maine and New Brunswick beaches. I had a new appreciation of how much conversation, food, and distraction it takes to engage kids who are strapped into car seats and have no movie to watch.
But when Clark asked, "Why don't many people live here?" as we drove through Maine's forests, I knew he was starting to realize that not everywhere is like the crowded metro area we call home.
As we left Maine and headed north, he told me how interesting it was that the rope swing on the beach in Maine was close to the water one day and farther away the next. When he wasn't contemplating the tides, he and Harrison clapped along with a Chieftains song on the MP3 player.
And that made me think that maybe someday we'll take the time to drive to Minnesota rather than fly, so that Clark and Harrison will know what's between there and here.