I recently took my three kids (ages six, four, and two) on a road trip from Florida to North Carolina without my wife because I am a crazy person. A funny thing happened, though; it turned out okay. Maybe I’m not so crazy after all (nope, my wife has confirmed that I’m still crazy).
The drive up was relatively uneventful, in large part because my mom, who was a member of the caravan (the full logistics were complicated, so I won’t get into them), rode along in the passenger seat for a good portion of the trip. What normally is about a ten-hour drive took nearly twelve, but who cares? It’s not like we were trying to keep a schedule. Well, the kids certainly weren’t.
We finally arrived in Winston-Salem around 9:30 p.m., stopped by the old family home where my parents were staying, and proceeded to the hotel where the kids and I were staying. By the time all the kids finally gave in, their sleeping forms littered around the room, filling obscure corners of the beds and parts of the floor, it was past midnight. I eventually fell asleep only to wake up a couple hours later with a small head on my face.
In the morning, we somehow managed to all get clothes on and shoes and even socks (maybe) and headed down for the highlight of the trip: the free continental breakfast. There is nothing my children enjoy more than hotel breakfast. And with good reason. They each devoured a half a muffin, one spoonful of yogurt, and two or three sips of milk. I slurped down a cup of coffee while shuttling back and forth to the buffet and standing by our table, alert and ready to intervene.
The other hotel guests, relaxed and carefree as they sipped coffee, read newspapers, and ran their fingers through their wet hair, looked on at the spectacle that was our dining experience with thinly concealed fascination.
Later in the day, we celebrated my sister’s birthday (the reason for the impromptu trip), went swimming, and enjoyed spending time at my mom’s family home: a magical place that has captivated generations of children and adults. There is a winding wrought iron staircase that climbs the side of the house to the second floor, which has been converted into an apartment, that is irresistible to children. There is a backyard with soft grass and beautiful old trees. There is a little park across the street with a tiny creek and stone bridges. And an abandoned train track just beyond the park. And, perhaps most importantly, there is a spooky basement with an old door that conceals an old staircase that leads to nowhere.
My mom walked with the kids to the little park where they explored the creek. She told them how she used to play there when she was a kid. How they used to build bridges across the water out of stones.
“Is that little bridge one of yours?” my six-year-old asked, pointing out a line of smooth stones traversing the trickle of creek water.
“Oh, I don’t think so,” my mom replied. “That was a long time ago.”
Later, the boys and I went to explore the abandoned train track. We hiked up someone’s gravel driveway and veered out onto the track that is brown, rusty, and overgrown with knee-high weeds. I re-created a picture of my oldest son that I took on the same spot almost three years to the day before. Back when we were a family of four, not five.
The boys spent a few minutes walking along the track, inching up to where it ventured out across the small bridge above the road below. As the boys hatched a plan to clean up the tracks, to pull the weeds so the trains might pass that way again, I remembered coming up there with my uncle when I was a boy. The track was active then, and my uncle and I placed a penny on the track for the train to crush when it passed by. So much personal and family history in one place. So many memories for so many people.
We spent another night in the hotel. Sleeping on top of and around each other. On beds, in cribs, and on the floor. Someone fell off a bed at some point during the night, I think, but they didn’t seem to be too bothered. One more excursion to the hotel breakfast. One more rushed meal. One more spectacle. And then we were gone.
We moved down to my other sister’s house in Charlotte for the night before making the drive home. As dusk settled, we walked up and down the hills of the neighborhood. We spotted a deer feeding at a neighbor’s house. Then the kids chased fireflies for an hour.
We don’t have fireflies in Florida, so they were ecstatic. My six-year-old caught one after another with ease. He placed them in a jar to keep till morning. He was thrilled with his newfound talent.
One more night of fitful sleep in a strange place and we were on the road home. The drive back was long, but ultimately uneventful. We stopped sparingly. The longest delay being a rest area stop in Georgia where after using the facilities and playing in the picnic area we sat in the car for about thirty minutes while certain children who shall remain unnamed refused to get back in their seats. Sometimes you just have to wait it out.
In the end, we made it home. We made some memories, ate a lot of junk food, and fulfilled our family destiny, which is mostly driving Interstates 95, 26, 77, and 40 to Winston-Salem and back. The good thing about taking a solo trip with three young children is that it does increase your parenting confidence and tolerance for pain when it’s over. Kind of like exercise, the doing it part can be miserable, but the having done it part feels nice. Now that I’ve conquered 600 miles with my kids, going to the grocery store with all three of them in tow seems just a little less daunting. Taking them all to the beach by myself, though? Nope. That one is still miserable. But hey, you can’t win them all.