It’s the stuff of teeth grinding and stress-induced headaches, a prospect that makes your average parent hysterically bargain for alternatives. Yes, I am referring to road trips with kids. I have an irrational fear of flying, so my young family – wife Kate, 2-year-old Hank and baby Leo – and I take the challenge head-on. I live for the open road and freedom on terra firma. My family road-trip goal is overall ride smoothness from ignition to destination.
Since Leo was born, we have accomplished three major road trips – all with increasing success. But how do we measure this success? Is it the diminishing amount of toddler kicks to the back of Kate’s passenger seat or baby tears per hour? And how do we distract our children enough to prevent said kicks and tears?
Modern technology has attempted to provide an answer. We have built-in TVs, Wi-Fi and iPads as standard features in some of today’s minivans, but my Millennial friends and I have an aversion to such brain-cell-scorching pastimes as watching “Dinotrux” from the headrest of a Honda Odyssey. Besides, many babies and toddlers require more active engagement.
The keys to Hank’s happiness in the car are snacks, Melissa & Doug’s “Water Wow” (a watercolor coloring book), 15-minute stretches of running in circles, daydreaming and lots of sleep. Kate and I have been oh-so-lucky with Hank, who has slept through the night since he was 4 months old. Every morning, we looked at each other in disbelief, asking, “Is this kid still asleep?”
On a recent drive to Mendocino to visit my mom, Hank started the trip sucking on one of those siggi’s yogurt tubes (vital for any toddler road trip) and perusing a Richard Scarry hardcover story book that outweighs his brother. “Can you make sure Hank is back there?” I ask Kate. “I can’t see him behind that giant book.”
I should mention that we always take Interstate 5 north. (Angeleno brethren who prefer the 101: Tell me why you want to add three hours to a road trip with two bottle feeders.) If we have timed our departure correctly, by the time we hit the Central Valley, the toddler will have passed out. Hank slept through the entire Central Valley portion of this particular drive, something I wish I could have done.
When we finally welcome the sight of the Bay Area suburbs and the stench of cattle-produced methane clears from my sinuses, I get hungry. Hank awakes and expresses similar feelings.
As an L.A. parent, I could extol the virtues of preparing your own healthy avocado-laced lunches for the road, but who can deny the siren song of the In-N-Out Burger? Hank certainly cannot. Like a true California boy, he loves the classic chain. It is the only burger he will actually eat – after I pick out the tomatoes and lettuce, of course. An In-N-Out stop is also a great chance for Hank to run amok for 15 minutes. While you wait for your order, he might be pressing on the ketchup pumps, taking lemons out of the lemonade jug, testing his balance on the benches and cutting in front of people in line. I tell him if he behaves, I might get him a milkshake.
The frolic and the food did the trick, making the afternoon ideal for a toddler naptime. Hank’s eyes got heavy as we approached the Richmond Bridge and finally made it to the 101. On his way to sleep, he peered out of his window with an inquisitive look of wonder and I explained the majesty of the Coast Redwoods until he dozed off.
The afternoon and Leo, however, never meshed. He has always lacked the sleep discipline of his older brother. The key to a smooth ride with Leo is attention. Kate will sit in the back seat when Leo becomes restless. On this trip, he was becoming agitated by Bakersfield (who isn’t?). A fussy baby on a road trip can be agonizing, but all my beautiful wife had to do to calm Leo was sit with him and stare into his eyes.
Sometimes, that doesn’t work and we have to make a stop and get Leo out of the car a bit so we can untangle our nerves. But on this trip, all was well and we arrived at our destination with no further toddler kicks or baby tears – already anticipating the drive back home.
Isaac Parfrey is a writer, composer and L.A. native who enjoys roaming Southern California with his wife, Kate, and sons, Hank and Leo. Follow him on Twitter @IsaacParfey.