The flights were already purchased and we were ready to make our annual pilgrimage to visit my parents in Indiana. Typically we can get from Austin, Texas to Chicago in a few hours by air and drive over to Elkhart–the RV capital of the world and my hometown–in one day. Then we changed our mind and decided to drive.
Last year, all bets were off because of the pandemic and I didn’t want to take a chance on bringing the virus to my parents (or catching it ourselves) by boarding a plane. So we quarantined for two weeks at home and then climbed into a Chrysler Pacifica test vehicle to make the 1300-mile trip from the Lone Star State to the Hoosier State. My now-11-year-old son and I enjoyed road-tripping so much that we opted to do it again this summer, this time in a Nissan Rogue. It’s become a bonding experience that makes it worth the long hours in the car.
We started spending two weeks, then three, then a month, and now it’s a full five weeks in Indiana (the benefits of working remotely!), soaking up the beautiful Midwest weather, mowing through several ears of freshly harvested corn, and watching the fireworks light up the sky over Simonton Lake. My parents have lived in the same house on a half-acre of plush, green grass for 47 years. I grew up there, and coming home for the summer seems to pause time for just a moment.
When I was a kid, my parents would hand me the Rand McNally atlas and encouraged me to follow along as we journeyed from Indiana to New Jersey to visit our extended family or to Florida to spend Christmas with my hilarious Sicilian grandmother. I was fascinated by the map, tracing the route with my fingers and spotting towns as we rolled by. While most everything is mapped out digitally today (unless you’re the Gentry sisters in the all-analog Great Race or Rachelle Croft competing with the Lexus J201 in the Rebelle Rally) I still keep a paper atlas and gave it to my son to learn the fine art of finding your way without help from a GPS.
And while we’re driving, we’re talking. I’m keenly aware that my son is about to enter his teenage years, and (hopefully) having a solid communication platform is a good start for any rocky times. I find he’s likely to open up when we’re driving or walking versus sitting down at the table, and an article at The Guardian I read a few years ago on that topic has stuck with me.
“Children need opportunities to talk solo to their parents,” wrote author Joan McFadden. “The best moments happen in ‘sideways listening’–when out running, walking, driving, baking, or making.”
And so I listen sideways, my hands on the wheel and my eyes on the road. Two things that make the long trip better are the Rogue’s adaptive cruise control (Nissan calls theirs ProPilot Assist) and Zero Gravity seats, so my body doesn’t register driving fatigue. I let my son DJ the Bose audio system with (mostly) free rein. Sometimes we belt out Duran Duran’s “Rio,” singing in-car karaoke, sometimes we accompany Buddy Holly singing “That’ll Be the Day” and sometimes it’s Lil Nas X’s “Call Me By Your Name.” In between, he tells me about his Minecraft builds, his ideas, and his fears. He also asks me tons of questions and gives me time to think and answer them as the miles flow by.
Last summer, we packed his bike and what seemed like 100 stuffed animals in the Pacifica, and we still had plenty of room to spare. The Rogue may have less wide-open space but it had plenty for just the two of us with 36.5 cubic feet, including the secret cargo panels to hide valuables. Plus, we didn’t need to pack his bike this year; he’s already grown out of it and can ride my mom’s bike now. They’re the same height now, to her amazement.
I usually love to fly, and there’s something to be said for arriving in a day instead of two. Taking a road trip instead means it takes much longer but the drive itself becomes part of the vacation. If we feel like stopping at Dinosaur World in Kentucky, we can. If we’re craving a root beer float and come across a 50s-style drive-in restaurant, we pull over. When we want to take a different route home, we can map it in any way we want. Meanwhile, we’re criss-crossing Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan visiting friends and the Great Lakes.
We’ll be making the trip back to Texas in a few weeks, and while I’m in no hurry to speed through the summer I can look forward to a leisurely ride home with my tween. In a few years, I can even share the driving with him.
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