Family travel memories overlap into everyday bonding

A silly animal spotting game brings a family together as they explore a new country across the globe. More importantly, the memories of that game keep the family close long after they return home.

Melanie Stetson Freeman

Jonah, our ten-year-old, sat bundled in fleece pajamas and scratchy wool blankets. His nose pressed right up against the large, cold, damp window, eyes wide open, trying not to even blink. He waited patiently, resolutely, for the first sign of sunrise – straining to see the first sheep.

This vacation rental rested within an idyllic countryside, surrounded by rolling green hills and a flock of grazing sheep. The previous morning, my husband Geno had caught us all off-guard when he victoriously exclaimed, “First sheep!” and Jonah was determined not to let that happen again.

New Zealand boasts a sheep population of about forty million. That’s more sheep than people! Geno reminded our boys daily. I’m not exactly sure how the first-sheep game started, but we’d been playing since we’d arrived in New Zealand. Traveling by car each day on an epic road trip, staying somewhere new almost every night, searching for and proclaiming first sheep had become a favorite family pastime.

Each first-sheep was awarded one point. Points were cumulative, with Geno currently in the lead and Jonah a close second. I was third, though to be fair I’d had more success in the first-cow game – which, to my chagrin, nobody else seemed to want to play. Joshua, our 13-year-old, claimed boredom when it became clear he was going to lose.

Soon, we’d be on the road again. We’d see plenty of sheep along the way, of course, but the first sheep was the only one that counted.

The game grew even sillier as our trip went on and evolved, as games are prone to do. Other animals were added. First-sheep, then first-cow, first-horse, first-bison, first-chicken, first-deer, first-goose, first-dog, even first-penguin.

As each new animal was spotted, we argued over whether that particular animal officially “counted.”  Typically, whoever spotted the new animal argued that it did.  Everyone else was firmly opposed to that animal’s inclusion. There were protests, attitudes of forced outrage and a lot of laughter.

We drove hundreds of miles and saw a lot of sheep, along with many other breathtaking slices of nature; stunning lakes, rivers, mountains, farms, coastlines. We visited national parks, hiked, took photos, went boating, built snowmen, ate fish and chips, skied (in June!) and spent some amazing family time together.

No stress, no pressure, just fun.

This was a pretty drastic change from our lives in the northern hemisphere. We’d left home on the first day of summer vacation, traveling away from the stress of work and school overload. After a couple of long flights, we’d arrived in New Zealand’s winter with suitcases full of fleece, down, and wool. We rented a car and began following our vague notion of an itinerary that would “hopefully” – place us back in Auckland on time for our flights home.

As the first-sheep game attests, we like to win in our family. I was raised with an anything-that-is-worth-doing-is-worth-doing-well ethic, and my husband is one of life’s over-achievers. I suppose it isn’t shocking that our kids have learned our competitive behaviors.

Reflecting back on our time in New Zealand, what strikes me most is the realization of how soon our kids will be grown, that life is insanely short, that it is all happening right now, this minute. It is so easy to get sucked into the day-to-day of work, school, sports, errands, housework, obligations, and a million other tasks. Sometimes, we need to step outside of our daily circumstances to experience life’s deeper significance.

I wonder if my boys will enjoy traveling with us in the future? Will we all be able to hike through gorgeous national parks together? Will we maintain the financial resources to take these extended, exotic vacations? Will we always love each other, and enjoy being together, the way we do now?

On the last day of vacation, while driving towards the airport, Geno shouted out with absolute jubilation, “Llama!  First llama!”

I didn’t actually see the llama, which seemed like the most unlikely animal possible. Jonah vaguely agreed that he saw ”something”; Joshua was laughing too hard to give his opinion.  Although I don’t think Geno made it up, that doesn’t stop me from giving him a hard time every time he mentions this particular “victory” – which is more often than you’d expect.

So I usually say something like, “Whatever. I won first-cow!” If the kids are around, they’ll light up and adamantly jump into the conversation.

Although New Zealand may have done nothing to quell our competitive spirits, I can attest that the many miles – and sheep – of our adventures certainly offered new perspectives on the importance of enjoying family every day, not just on vacation days.

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