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Six in a station wagon, six thousand miles

Published: 5/31/2012
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Editor's Note:
This article originally appeared in 1999 as the week's lead story for Boston Globe's travel section.

By Maddy Butcher Gray

At Niagara Falls, they chased gulls. At the Badlands, they asked, "What are we supposed to be looking at?" And in Minneapolis, the highlight was riding the hotel elevator.
Travel with kids can be a trip. It was for my friend and me with our four children as we drove from Massachusetts to Montana and back in three weeks.

We learned to love each other. OK, we came to hate each other at times.

This is a story about making the best of 6,000 miles with six in a station wagon. Our travelers were myself, 33, and Agnes, a 26-year- old French friend, and her 7-month-old daughter, Alix. My boys, Aidan, 7, Beau, 5, and Cormick, 3, filled out the roster.

We set out one sunny July morning, and the departure was memorable: The car was stuffed to the hilt after hours of packing. As we pulled out of the driveway, Agnes was scrunched in the front passenger seat, cursing in French, holding and spilling hot coffees. All four children were yelling or crying, full of anxiety and excitement. My husband could only shake his head.
All I could do was laugh. It was that nervous, what-the-hell-are-we-doing laugh.
I carry a pill box in my purse that holds Tylenol. The cover reads, "Laughter is the best medicine." I did use the Tylenol a few times, but humor, I learned, was the best remedy for wrong turns, gum in wrong places, and defusing the endless kid confrontations.

With the right attitude, what might seem excruciatingly boring (driving all day) or headache-inducing (four fidgety children fighting several times a day), can be rerouted into moments of triumph or, say, tolerance.
Agnes (pronounced AHN-yes) and I had planned extensively. We were keen on seeing Montana and my parents, who live there. We were not keen on flying. To fly from Boston to Bozeman and back would cost about $600 per person. And upon arrival, we would need to rent a car for about $500. Besides, like so many other irrational people, we just don't like to fly.
Our expenses were gas, food, and lodging. For 12 days, not including the week in Montana and two nights at a cousin's farmhouse in Michigan, we spent $100 per day for six of us. This tally came from roughly $20 for gas, $20 for food, and $60 for lodging. It did not include servicing the car after 3,000 miles, souvenirs, tolls, or things we purchased before leaving. We relied on supermarket food and splurged for fast food every other day.

I had shopped for car-friendly toys and foods. Each boy had a backpack full of games, toys, activity books, things guaranteed to occupy him for hours on end. Agnes carried a variety of infant toys, including teethers, rattles, and plush bunnies, to occupy Alix. I readied my first-aid kit and address book. After much deliberation, I bought a camcorder. We took a cooler for milk, yogurt, cheese and, as it turned out, antibiotics.

We took five of everything that stinks after one day (socks, underwear, T-shirts) and less of outer layers. Sandals were the footwear of choice.
Miscellaneous items included cameras, notebooks, postcard stamps, maps, tour books, and a cellular phone for emergencies. To avoid costly phone bills, I arranged to have a toll-free number to my home.

The boys, who had never traveled for more than a full day in a car, looked forward to the trip without really understanding what it entailed. Beau, even after repeated explanations, was sure we were going to get to Montana that first night.
So off we drove, out of our suburban neighborhood and into the tedium and thrill of crossing America. We traveled north past Buffalo and through Ontario to Michigan by Day Three. From there, we drove north then west across the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, then Wisconsin and Minnesota before motoring through North Dakota and Montana.

We thought we'd prepared well and anticipated everyone's needs and desires. We learned better.

I wish I could say the toys were all used and endlessly appreciated. But in truth, the most entertaining toys were the "bad guy" action figures from Happy Meals in North Dakota.
What we did the most in the car was talk. Talk, negotiate, plead, and yell. We talked about the trip and how far we had to go until the next rest stop, until the next motel, until Montana. We talked about the weather. We taught them French. (They learned "J'en ai marre!" which means "I've had it!")

Alix was by far the best traveler. She slept through mayhem and loved playing with coffee cups more than any toy. The boys would often turn to her when tensions ran high; time spent playing with a smiling infant was soothing.
Cormick was the hardest to keep happy. He hated being restricted in his booster seat and was not quite old enough to be entertained by conversation, exit counting, sign reading, games, or activity books.
If you have the time and energy, I highly recommend a road trip. Don't let a few thousand miles intimidate you. Learn as you go, try to prepare and bring a good attitude.

Here are some tips:
- Don't stop to eat. Yes, stop to buy food. But don't sit somewhere and dine formally. When you need to go 500 miles, save the sitting for the car. Rest stops are a time to do two things: use the toilet and run wild.
If you're traveling on the interstate and fast food is virtually your only choice, find a place with a play area. Let the children get sweaty for 20 minutes; they can eat later.
If you are off the beaten path and there it is -- the most awesome playground they've ever seen -- stop! Those sandwiches will appeal to them much more after a good run-around.
Treats were allowed after a healthy meal. M & Ms and Life Savers, with all their colors, can be amazingly entertaining in the car. So can popcorn and sunflower seeds when they're eaten one by one. Both take time to eat and contemplate. When you're going long distances, contemplation is good.

- Let children help. Delegate -- whether buying gas, groceries, or reading the map. A child who takes part is happier.
There was no sitting in the car at our gas stops. One helped pumped gas. One washed windows. One screamed that he should get to wash the windows. When the tank was full we noted the mileage, cost, and amount of gas. A 7-year-old can feel pretty smug if he gets to write down these things.

Every other day we would stop at a supermarket in order to economize and avoid fast, fatty food. The boys chose treats. While we shopped to eat better, they shopped to eat worse.
With a baby in the back seat, the boy next to her helped by making faces, playing peekaboo, and handing her toys.
At the end of the day, everyone had his own duffel bag to carry into the motel. Speaking of which....

- Choose motels carefully. Only one thing mattered to the children: a pool. After six sweaty hours and two more still to go, thoughts of that beautiful pool buoyed them night after night. For us moms, requisites were: a pool, a clean room, a free crib, and free coffee and breakfast. We met those needs and wants for under $70. Motels visited were Holiday Inn, Hampton Inn, Howard Johnson, and, most often, Comfort Inn.
A pool is a wonderful thing, though well worth scrutinizing for safety's sake. Our first had such a slippery deck that all three boys fell badly while walking, not running, toward the pool edge.
None of the pools had lifeguards. Many had adjacent whirlpools, which are too hot for young children. In general, though, pools served us splendidly. They cooled us off in body and spirit.
Our motels offered a free "breakfast bar." Healthier and cheaper than stopping at a doughnut shop on the way out of town, the breakfast bar gives you a few choices of cereals, toast, muffins, coffee, juice, and milk -- all self-serve. Free refills. Take one for the road. Gotta love it.

- Go with the flow. Be flexible. Yes, we did plan well in advance, and we did need to get to Montana in a week, but we intentionally left certain parts of our itinerary up in the air. For one thing, motels are generally cheaper if you do not call ahead. (Just don't try to find a last-minute room in Fargo, N.D., during the Prairie Rose Games.) At 6 p.m. in Syracuse, N.Y., the woman at the Holiday Inn front desk said, "Our regular rate starts at $109, but I can offer you a `Great Rate' at $69." Most motels are clustered around a particular exit, so it only takes a few minutes to shop for the best price. Belonging to AAA often took 5-10 percent off the rate, but a few times the AAA rate was curiously higher than the walk-in rate.
For another thing, a road atlas won't indicate how slow some roads can be, with or without construction. On Route 2 on the Upper Peninsula, we spent all day completing just over 300 miles. The next day, on Route 77 in Wisconsin, another undivided, scenic highway, we covered the same distance in five hours.

Don't necessarily count on the normal bedtime. If you check in around dinner time, it may take hours to wind down, especially with everyone in one room. We did learn, though, that lack of sleep has its rewards. Every morning, after a swim, breakfast, and few hours on the road, most of the children would nod off. Those exit signs go by quickly when there's no nagging. Full bladders be damned for another 60 miles of silence.

- Capture it. The camcorder can help in the memento-making and boredom-breaking. How else would we have recalled that blissful but brief stop along Lake Michigan, where, right off the highway, we could wade in cool, clean water for nearly 100 yards out?
We learned not to dwell on any subject matter; otherwise, what is laughable, precious, or extraordinary becomes just plain tedious. We didn't film with music video speed, but after reviewing five minutes of panoramic Badlands scenery (Buy a postcard for crying out loud!) or boys kicking a ball back and forth, we learned to self-edit.
A camcorder with a screen is great for playing back what's been recorded. In fact, "playing the movie" became a daily ritual.
A Polaroid camera is a good substitute. But if neither apparatus is your thing, keep a journal. I found myself writing down the children's choice phrases. Beau always checked out the cheesy pictures in the motel rooms. "Mom," he would say, "they're the same as the last ones." When we treated ourselves to a fancy hotel in Minneapolis, he exclaimed, "The pictures here are definitely not the same!" We wrote down amusing signposts: On Interstate 75 in Michigan: "Prison Area. Do No Pick Up Hitchhikers." At exit after exit off Interstate 94 in Montana: "No Services" or "Ranch Access." A billboard in Minnesota: "FUR . . . Some Women Never Fake It."

- Pay attention to your surroundings. There's wildlife out there!
Hawks seem to love hanging out around highways. Also seen: fox, deer, antelope, and even a wild turkey strolling the shoulder in northern Michigan.
The trip will make a lot more sense to little travelers who observe. Look at license plates and match them with the states on the map. Soon, those you rarely saw will be commonplace and seeing one from your home state will be more special.

We announced each time we traveled through a time zone or crossed a major river. "Kids, this river goes all the way from here to Louisiana." (OK, so maybe they weren't floored by that snippet of information.) Some rivers, like the Yellowstone in Montana, we crossed again and again. In North Dakota, the scenery could be dull but the clouds seemed bigger, better, and more easily made into creatures than anywhere else on our trip.

- When all else fails . . .. There will be some dreadful times when everyone is sapped of humor and there's still an hour to go. Baby is cranky. The boys are at each others' throats. The driver's patience was left at the last rest stop. Have a goofy, barely bearable cassette ready to play. Play it nice and loud for a minute or two. Dance in your seat and remember . . . things aren't that bad.
Hey, there's someone from Massachusetts. Wave!

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