My husband called our summer road trips through all 50 states “Camp Mom.” For eight years, our three girls and I left as soon as school let out. We did not return until sometime in August. It was a blast, a pain in the ass, and the absolute best thing I ever did.
I always say that parenting is the most fun I never thought I would have. This is why. The four of us spent so many summers adventuring to places unknown, having another “learning experience,” surviving the bicker fests, laughing, and getting lost, and being goofy, and seeing the country. This was our gift to each other.
I like to think that my girls are strong because of our time together. I know they made me a better mom. On these trips I learned how to keep them talking and to keep them asking questions. They learned how to become interested in the things around them. They also became fierce champions of each other.
I Had No Idea
These road trips were about seeing the country and seeing what every state has to offer. They turned out to be so much more. I learned so much about parenting. More importantly, I discovered so much about the kids themselves.
I discovered their interests, their dreams for the future, their inner dynamics, and their personal quirks. These are the important things that are so hard to discover when you spend most of your time fighting about homework and a messy room. Mostly, though, I got to know them as people. It turned out that they were real people with real ideas and feelings and dreams and hopes and fears. They became my best friends.
I do not mean that in the way a parent abdicates responsibility just to keep their kids liking them. I mean it in the way that I really appreciate their points of view, their turns of phrase, their observations, and their comradery. This shared experience bound us to each other in a way I could not foresee at the time.
A Need to Experience Four Corners
We started when the youngest was five and the oldest was ten. I had a work conference in Tucson, Arizona, and a whole bunch of vacation. I have always been fascinated by the southwest. The alien desert landscape had been calling me to explore for a while now. I had never been to a real desert, Maine’s desert notwithstanding.
So, with Tucson on the horizon and several weeks of vacation, I thought why not? Why not just do a circular road trip through Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah. We would take a photo at the spot where the corners of these states meet for the bragging rights. A couple of years earlier, I was in Denver for a conference which got me thinking about going to the place where the corners of these four states meet. Unfortunately, this was not a day drive from Denver but the seed was planted.
In Maryland, you can get anywhere in the state in about 3 hours. I had not considered that this may not be true for the rest of the states in the country where space is so vast and so empty. That trip to Denver had sparked a need to do the “Da Vinci,” or rather, putting each arm and leg in a different state at once. With the Tucson conference, I finally had my chance.
A couple of weeks before the trip, Ellie the oldest, came to me and said that a friend asked, “Your parents actually want to spend four weeks with you on a road trip, why?” To which I replied, “Why not?” It had never occurred to me to not want to spend that much time alone with the kids. Perhaps I was naïve.
One Suitcase for Our Road Trip Itinerary
It took months of planning and mapping out the locations of every Walmart, Emergency Room, and whatever else I thought we might need to know. As soon as school let out, the four of us boarded the plane with two huge binders of paper and headed out to Phoenix. If you are wondering about all that paper this was way before smart phones and map apps. Today’s smart phones make it so much easier to find things. I still do a trip folder with the key logistics and confirmations in one place but it is the bare minimum.
In addition to a suitcase just for my binders, I packed every last bit of “what if this happens, what will I need?” stuff I could imagine. In other words, I completely over-packed. On the plus side, we were flying Southwest and we each got two bags free and a carry-on. I am happy to say we wound up a couple of bags under the limit.
I still remember boarding that plane. We were excited but a bit apprehensive, especially me. This was my first big trip with the girls without my husband. In fact, all my preparations centered around coping with disasters without Rob to lean on. I would be lying if I said I was not a bit terrified. Nevertheless, off we went on a 4-week exploration of Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado. It was glorious, it was fun, it was fantastic, it was a four-week bicker-fest from hell.
Get a Mini Van
At the tender age of 5, our youngest Celia was not yet a “read on your own” kind of gal. She spent most of this trip, and plenty of others, torturing her sister M.E.. Celia knew how to press every single one of M.E.’s buttons. And she did it over and over and over again. Poor M.E. rose to the challenge every single time, while Ellie and I yelled at the two of them for most of any given car ride to SHUT UP!.
Things would calm down a bit once they were out of the car but not always. We had quite a few public displays of bad parenting along the way. I did learn one extremely valuable lesson on this trip – ALWAYS RENT A MINIVAN! Forget the cost, the crappy fuel mileage, the fact that it is a bleeping minivan.
Always, and I mean always, get a vehicle with three sets of seats so the youngest cannot get to the middle child and the middle child can hide way in the back and ignore her bratty younger sister. Having a minivan with a DVD player was a bonus, especially if it was playing a movie we all knew so we could quote the good lines in unison. Yep, back in the day there was no streaming or streaming down loads and in-vehicle DVD players were rare.
Saving Money on a Road Trip
This trip had a bunch of firsts for me. I learned some of the best ways of saving money on a road trip. I discovered the value of the annual National Park Pass and the National Park Service’s Junior Ranger Program. The annual pass lets you into any national park free and the Junior Ranger Program is a great way to get your kids engaged with whatever any given park has to offer. I also discovered the value of being a member of our local science center and zoo. Science centers virtually all over the world are still reciprocal so you get in free if you are a member of one. Many zoos used to be this way as well, but not anymore.
I learned that while dressing your kids the same will get you some strange looks, it makes it so much easier if you need help in finding one of them. “She’s dressed just like this one only smaller (or taller depending on who is lost).” I realized that things go so much smoother when one of the grandma’s or my husband joined a leg of the journey. It turns out that virtually everyplace has a Country Club road and that it will somehow figure into your driving directions. Finally, I learned that no matter where you go, when you tell someone you are from Baltimore, you immediately have something in common.
Hi, I’m from Small-timore
When I was in college, one of my professors said that Baltimore is like an 18th Century English city. Big but also small enough that people automatically feel a connection to each other. I thought this was just true with people I met back home. It turns out, the same holds true no matter where you go.
Everyone just seems to have been to Baltimore or knows someone who lives or went to school in Baltimore. “Oh, you’re from Baltimore. My cousin’s best friend went to college there.” Or “Baltimore, I grew up there and still have an Aunt that lives there.” Sometimes people substitute some other place in Maryland as being part of Baltimore, but that is OK because it gives a starting point to another conversation.
You Forget the Bad Times
At the end of our four weeks, I was exhausted. The kids could no longer tolerate the sight of each other. Everyone was breathing on everyone else and invading those imaginary lines you set up around you to designate “your space” in a cramped car. Rob joined us for the final week of the trip and by the end of it he was through.
When I got back home, I pretty much decided that the family could not handle this much togetherness and so this was just going to be a one and done. That is until Rob scored a conference in Hawaii the next summer and the “let’s get the kids to all 50 states” idea popped into my head and would not leave. After all, once we got Hawaii, I knew my annual conference would get up to Portland or Seattle and well, that was Alaska. Between visiting family and friends, we had already been to most of the states in the Eastern half of the U.S.. We just need to see the 30 or so on the other side of the Appalachia Mountains.
The 50-State Quest
For the next seven years, every January I started the massive task of planning the next summer’s travel itinerary. You know how you do not seem to remember the excruciating pain you were in when you gave birth to the first one so you go ahead and have another? Well, my brain had somehow ditched the memories of those 4-weeks of bickering and only kept the memories of the fun times.
Needless to say, our subsequent trips got longer and longer and longer until the last one went for a full 8-weeks. Somewhere along the way, my children turned into real people with real interests and a real thirst to check out the new and different. They became explorers themselves and then the trips turned fantastic.
Our priorities changed from getting new furniture or eating dinner out to spending it all on exploring the good old U.S. of A. with a couple of side jaunts into Canada for good measure. More and more family and friends joined in on the fun so by the end of our 50-state quest, we had a group that averaged 10. Sure, we still had our moments, like when Ellie left I forget what on the bus from Vancouver to Victoria and I just lost it but who occasionally doesn’t?
We Learned so Much
Over those years, we learned so much about ourselves and each other. Everyone learned so many new things about nature and places and art and science. We learned how to make dinner on an engine block while driving from place to place. Not to mention, making ice cream while we hiked or baking cookies on the dashboard, so we had a treat when we got off the trail.
When dad was with us, we needed to get out of the hotel a bit faster than normal because he was always ready to go. The kids worked hard to keep it together when one of the grandmothers was with us because they wanted to make that time special. We figured out that you did not need to bring it all because every town has a store. We learned that having a plan for the day is a good start but that is all it is. Some days it was nice just to scrap the itinerary and do something spontaneous or nothing at all.
I learned to trust my children’s judgement and they learned I was pretty fun to hang with. We all learned not to take anything, including ourselves too seriously, and that a bit of snark goes a long way to shifting the mood from cranky to fun.
Missing Camp Mom
My girls are grown now. Both Ellie and M.E. are out in the world with big-girl jobs. Celia is off to college doing her thing. We still manage a good family adventure at least once a year but usually to places outside of the U.S. like Iceland or Newfoundland to name a few.
Looking back, I can see how everything, the bickering, the learning experiences, the inside jokes, the crankiness and exhaustion and joy and wonderment, has given our family a deep well of shared experiences that we routinely draw on so we never run out of things to say to each other and never run out of a desire to spend time or travel together.
As summers roll around, I start missing Camp Mom. It was such a big part of our lives for so many years. Taking road trips through all 50 sates started as a whim, it became a quest, and is now a legacy that keeps us close and eager to explore more either alone or together. I invite you along on our future journeys.