Family Vacations Aren't a Race; Enjoy Your Time on the Road

In the 1996 film Michael the title character, played by John Travolta, insists on making the cross-country trek by car. His refusal to fly is partially fueled by his desire to see things like the “World’s Largest Ball of Twine” and other tourist-trap oddities. On the road, Michael gives the picture of undiluted enjoyment and fresh optimism as he experiences the sights and sounds of roadside Americana. While not an angel on vacation from heaven, my approach to road trips is similar to that of Travolta’s Michael. I, too, enjoy the time spent traveling to and from my destination. Taking the time to stop so that my family and I can spend some time skipping stones in a river spotted from the interstate, I sacrifice speed for substance. This, I guess, makes me an oddity among dads.

My own father didn’t have time for such nonsense while traveling. Neither did my wife’s dad. Both my wife and I remember our fathers doggedly pursuing their schedules, and then later bragging to their friends about how they got from point A to point B with minimal stops. Their friends, in turn, would often rejoinder that they had made the same trip with even fewer stops. That back-and-forth bragging ensured that our next vacation would be even more hurried and less bladder friendly. My main memories of family vacations involve staring forlornly out the back window of my family’s station wagon as we barreled down the road, passing signs, for example, that signaled the exit for Fort Mims State Historic Site. I didn’t know what made Fort Mims a historic site, but my eleven-year-old self wished that he could find out. As an adult and father, I have come to the lonely realization that the approach to travel of both my dad and father-in-law is the norm. This, I believe, is a mistake. The stress induced by the single-minded desire to stick to a preordained itinerary is not conducive to creating fun memories and building strong relationships.

As many parents can attest, family vacations are often an exercise in balancing the desires of sleep-deprived, stressed, and demanding people, and that’s before even considering the wishes of the children. Deciding what to do with the valuable vacation time can be stressful. Choose incorrectly and your family’s time meant for recharging and refreshing can fall victim to large crowds, bad smells, and underperforming destinations. One way to combat this is to unchain your family from the itinerary and become willing to change your route and schedule for the sake of seeing “The World’s Largest Ball of Twine.”

My family has learned to love our time traveling to our vacation spot, in large part because I haven’t put any pressure on the time. Yes, we have end points and scheduled activities, but those things are spread apart in order for us to relax and take advantage of being in a part of the country we rarely get to enjoy. No amount of research can fully prepare you for the wealth of wonderful, weird, and possibly useless (yet fun) attractions that any given part of the country has to offer. And besides, why research and plan every moment and ruin the surprise of finding that the “World’s Largest Buffalo” is off of the next exit?

Our now five-year-old son doesn’t remember much of that trip, but he does remember seeing the “World’s Largest Buffalo.” Driving down I-90 in North Dakota, we saw the signs advertising the tourist trap miles before the exit, and my wife and I knew that we had to stop. We didn’t overthink it by considering time lost or money spent; we simply allowed ourselves to become excited at the chance to see the “World’s Largest Buffalo.” It’s true that excitement is catching, but our kids, like every other kid in America, didn’t need any inducement to become excited at the possibility of seeing the “World’s Largest Buffalo.”

The attraction proved to be as wonderfully cheesy, overpriced, and underwhelming as the most devoted skeptic reading this article is imagining. And that includes the tiny Louis L’Amour exhibit in the complex. And my family loved every single minute of the experience. As stated above, two years later, our five-year-old still remembers that buffalo, and he still excitedly talks about it. I hope that he’s still talking about that buffalo when he’s my age. If not, I’m sure that when he’s forty, he’ll be talking about whatever stupid, silly, and overpriced roadside attraction that we unexpectedly pull off to see this summer.

Many of my family’s favorite memories involve unplanned stops during family vacations, including an incredibly inappropriate circus in Wolf Point, Montana. A circus that my wife and I still laugh about, and a circus that we would have never seen if I was the type of dad who insists on seeing how quickly I can drive from point A to point B.

More important than memories, although not necessarily divisible from memories, is the role that family vacations play in building relationships. In Michael, besides fulfilling his wish to enjoy seeing roadside attractions, the title character’s desire to drive to Chicago has as one of its goals to see Frank (William Hurt) and Dorothy (Andie MacDowell) fall in love. Michael understood that time and shared experience is an important ingredient in the recipe that produces relationships. Likewise, family vacations can be a time that tears at the fabric of families or strengthens families. Vacations that are chained to itineraries and time crunches are vacations that are more likely to create stress and tension within families than to foster and strengthen relationships.

By no means is my family perfect, but I can’t remember a single moment of tension during unplanned stops on the road. I can, however, remember arguments and hurt feelings (my hurt feelings, to be clear) whenever we’ve allowed ourselves to become chained to a carefully planned itinerary. For example, taking the time to allow our kids to pose with the statues of presidents dotting downtown Rapid City, S.D., was a time when our two children bonded over a shared experience. We really didn’t have time to spend in Rapid City taking pictures of our kids standing beside statues of presidents. And keep in mind, we live in the D.C. area, where statues of presidents are a dime a dozen. But watching our kids enjoy themselves posing beside statues was a balm for my soul that no amount of “saved time” could ever be. It reinforced my belief that family vacations are best when freed from a tight schedule.

I’m not sure if it’s social pressure or a biological urge that compels fathers to get to where they’re going as quickly as possible. Regardless of the reason, I encourage fathers during this upcoming vacation season to take the time and allow your family to enjoy the trip. Creating memories and helping develop stronger family relationships are worth more than the bragging rights about how few stops you made on the trip.