My alarm goes off at 5, and we stumble into motion. I don’t even remember that today is my birthday until Kurt reminds all of us in the midst of rinsing breakfast dishes and filling water bottles. Well, that’s nice, I think happily. I think I’m 36 this year? Did I turn the porchlight on? Who has used the bathroom? A scramble of activity later, we pull out of our driveway. It’s 6:09. Two days ago, the stomach plague struck me and Sam, and though we are well, we are not quite right, so I start my day armed with saltines, Gatorade, and anti-nausea bands around my wrists. We’re off. Since I started yesterday barely able to move with not a thing packed, I can’t believe we did it.
We are 25 minutes down the road when a development in Oliver’s diaper situation necessitates a stop. This sort of early stop is against everything I stand for on road trips, but what can you do? I try to wave good-bye to my expectations. Haven’t I learned anything in 36 years? At least I’m not throwing up.
Are we almost to the causeway? -this is Elisabeth at 7:15. No, not for like nine more hours, we tell her. Maybe don’t ask again for awhile. Do you want a peppermint? She asks again 30 minutes later. I pass her some pumpernickel pretzels. Food works, friends.
Before we had kids or smartphones or even a CD player in our old truck, we would read aloud to each other on road trips. Specifically, we would read The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, age 13 3/4, and laugh until our ribs hurt and we became a road hazard. These days it’s audio books and music, mostly music since Oliver came along and made his preferences loudly known. Today we listen to Sandra Boynton, Garth Brooks, Jack Johnson, and Mat Kearney.
When our trip to Georgia took us through the Smoky Mountains, we’d count tunnels and mark our way through the magnificent views in Tennessee and the twists of the deep ravines in North Carolina. We’d sail out of the mountains after Ashland, feeling like we were on the downward slope of our trip, literally and metaphorically. Flat land all the way to the coast; it won’t be long now.
Now the bulk of our trip takes place on I-95, and we count South of the Border billboards. There’s nothing else to count. Every mile looks exactly like every other mile. Sam and Elisabeth have a dispute about whether or not Pedro’s hat counts as a billboard. PLEASE don’t count that as a billboard Lissie, because IT ISN’T, pleads Sam. Elisabeth refuses to agree. EIGHTEEN!! yells Jack.
At 11 a.m. we pull into the parking lot of the Chick-fil-A in Lumberton, North Carolina. This marks the halfway point of our journey. I haven’t thrown up yet. I even eat some salad. Salad! We take up two tables these days, with our sprawl of children and diaper bags and a high chair. But we’re fast. People are fed, escorted to the bathroom, and at 11:37 we’re back on the road.
By 12:30, we’ve stopped two more times. TWO MORE TIMES. Two people needed to use the bathroom (again) but not at the same time (because of course). Then someone thought maybe we should change the baby, and I said this was NOT how I liked to do things, but that someone was right because the baby was stinky (again) and I attempted to shed my fascist travel nature yet again. We are not stopping again, I said (calmly, peacefully). You can all hold it.
Is this what they’ll remember about family road trips?
At 1:30 I receive a text alert about a fraudulent charge on my credit card. I attempt to call but we’re in the middle of nothing in South Carolina, so I eventually give up. But I keep my earbuds in, pull up my podcast app, and spend the next couple of hours tuning out everything. It’s fantastic. I listen to the first episode of a new podcast that I knew I was going to love as soon as I listened to the preview a few weeks ago: The Mystery Show. I do. I love it. Kids chatter, music plays, Kurt sings, and I gaze out at the unending swath of billboards that make up I-95 and listen to podcasts.
At 4:18, our windows are down. We make a left turn onto the causeway that will take us onto St. Simons Island. As soon as the turn is complete, I press play on Jack Johnson’s album To the Sea. We listen to this every single time we make this turn. It is our we are here music. The volume is up, the wind tangles my hair, I have not thrown up, and I can see the ocean in that little crack in the horizon between St. Simons and Jekyll Island. We made it.
At 6, we are all in the swimming pool. The water is warm, the evening air is cool, and everyone is so happy. Later I sit in a rocking chair on the back porch, wrapped in a beach towel while Kurt manages the drying off and dressing of small people. I’m looking out at woods and marsh and sky, and everything here is quiet. I consider never moving again, but there’s cake. I think I want some cake.
I remember the dreams I dreamed at 26, at 16, and I’m so glad I don’t write my own story. I wouldn’t have made it enough.