Lessons from a family on the road: Travel makes the heart grow fonder

The Toupin family gears up to head home after a month-long trip across the country. The highlight of the trip: just being together.

AP Photo
In 2012, more than 2 million people visited Mt. Rushmore in South Dakota.

We have watched an entire moon wane and wax since we left home more than a month ago. A blue moon rose this week. And this should usher us home in another couple of days.
The sun sets in Chiacgo at about 8:30 p.m. One month ago, it set an hour later. Summer is turning like the leaves in Ohio. And as we head back to the northeast, we find that many children are already back in school.
We are all ready to be home. It has been a wonderful trip and one that we would do again in a heartbeat. But when we saw Honey, our Guinea pig, last night on FaceTime, Jacob, our five-year-old, tried to hug the iPad. Even he is ready to be home.

Some of the lessons I have learned:
Rest areas can be wonderful places to spend the night.

The kids played this superhero game at a rest area on I-80 eastbound about 100 miles outside of Salt Lake City. The rest area overlooked a wild horse meadow. Surrounded by mountains and acres of prairie, this was nicer than some of the campgrounds we've found. After a late supper of sloppy Joes, the kids ran around, in, and out of sprinklers, saving the world.

"My name is Raptor Attack, and I have super speed!" Jacob proudly announces.
"I am Flex," 9-year-old Colie tells me. "I have super gymnastic powers."
"I am Speedstar," adds 11-year-old Maria. "I have super sports powers."

In Wyoming, we stopped at Martin's Cove, a rest stop operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. At the visitor's center we learned about the western migration. The area sits next to Rattlesnake Pass and Devil's Gate. This is the point where all the wagon trains heading west converged ­– those going to the Oregon Territory for free land, those traveling to California in search of gold, and those going to Salt Lake City for religious freedom. Even the Pony Express passed through here to deliver the mail.
Rest areas are free, often informative, and most permit overnight stays. Some however, such as the one outside Sioux Falls, S.D., allow a maximum stay of three hours. (Although no one woke us up to tell us to move!)
August is a great time to travel.
Originally, I was nervous about our need to travel during August – what I would consider to be the hottest and most popular vacation month of the summer. This is not what we found. According to the park rangers, the busy time for many of the attractions we visited is June and July. This is mainly because so many schools start in early August.
Also, the summer storms of New Mexico and Arizona made the weather much cooler in these desert climates than we expected. The only nearly unbearable heat we hit was in Nevada. I don't think any amount of rain could make that state cooler.
A camping directory or app is a must.
Often we didn't quite get as far as we hoped or drove through our destination because we needed to make time. The camping directory on my iPad was wonderful. Colie learned how to use it and would read off potential places and their amenities. For my kids, a pool and a playground was most welcome. For me I just wanted something off the beaten path. Occasionally the campground did not exist, or perhaps was a bit run down. But for the most part, this app was essential.
Keep suppers simple.
After driving all day, we all need to move. Plus the kids wanted me to play with them more than they wanted a big meal. Vegetables and hummus, fruit, cereal, bacon and eggs, chips and salsa were just perfect.
Being together as a family is the best part.
Our country is indeed amazing. We've seen the Grand Canyon, the Bonneville Salt Flats (my husband wanted to take our RV for a race, but thought better of it!), Mt. Rushmore, Legoland, Disney, the Wisconsin Dells, and the Mall of America. We've explored canyons, caves, and tourist traps. But by far, the best part of the trip for me has been being together as a family.
I find that I am more aware of my children's feelings, moods, and needs than at home where distractions – cleaning, making meals, getting things ready for church, work, or school – sometimes take my attention away from them. I have noticed all three of my children go through growth spurts.
I have seen my kids bond on this trip. Most of the bickering that existed at the beginning of summer ended. Instead, they found that they really enjoyed having each other as playmates. Every night when we stop, they invent new games, write in their journals, talk about their favorite part of the day, and just play. Sometimes we watch a movie together. (A DVD player in the RV has been an absolute must – especially when passing through the more mundane areas of the desert.)
There are no outside influences to interrupt our time. No phone calls or unexpected knocks on the door. It has just been us – growing together and exploring this incredibly diverse country.
Maria loved Legoland. Colie adored her trail ride in Utah. Jacob will always remember his first motorcycle ride at his cousin Morgan's house in Wisconsin.
But we all will remember this summer together.

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