Now that summer is almost over, it’s nice to reflect on how it went. The Stauffer Family started this summer with a bang! Rachel finished her A.A. in Dance from Pikes Peak Community College (woot!), we sold our house and moved to a new city, and we decided to take a road trip across the USA before getting settled in the new place.
We bought a car top carrier, filled our van to the brim with luggage, then loaded up our five kids and drove a few thousand miles weaving in and out of a good portion of the deep south. In all, we spent 15 days on the road, saw 15 states, drove 4,906 miles, got rear ended one time, and spent a total of 106 hours behind the wheel. Whew. We came home tired from that trip!
Here’s where we went: Colorado (where we started), New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, and Nebraska.
This was our first “real” family vacation, and our first road trip with the whole family: the most we’d done before was take the kids to Denver for an overnight “staycation.” This trip was no staycation, however. Rachel got to see the Atlantic ocean for the first time, and the kids got to see the beach for the first time. We felt bad that our oldest daughter is already 10 and had never seen a real lake or ocean, so we felt it was time to remedy that.
Of course, a road trip by yourself—which I’ve done many times—and a road trip with a van full of kids are two very different things. I learned many lessons along the way… observations on human nature, how otherwise friendly people change when confined in small spaces for long periods of time with other people, and much more.
Here are just a few simple takeaways from being on the road:
- Your kids will ask “are we there yet?” about 9,000 times… before you even reach the border of your own state. I’ve heard this line in movies, but I wasn’t expecting that the kids would actually say this out loud… and say it as often as they did.
- No matter how happily you start your drive in the morning, at some point in the afternoon, you’ll eventually end up losing control and screaming something like “get your toe out of her nose!” like a madman to someone in the back seat. (Yes, I actually uttered those unfortunate words).
- When you need to stop for a bathroom break, you’ll find that the state-funded rest stops and welcome centers were by given God in his mercy to traveling parents: everyone goes to the bathroom, runs around outside to burn off their energy, then gets back in the car. Gas stations, on the other hand, were sent by Satan to torture road-weary adults: they’re full of evil candy and toys, and serve no purpose besides tempting children and forcing you to spend lots of money. They will make your children cry. Avoid gas stations at all costs.
- You have to tell your kids things that you thought were obvious but you’d apparently forgotten. More than fifty times, I had to remind my sons of one of the most important rules of survival: “Never touch a urine-soaked toilet seat in a public bathroom.” This was news to them, apparently… and it was a new concept each time I said it.
- Still speaking of bathroom breaks, it’s important to know that your kids will magically transition from politely saying “No, I don’t need to go to the bathroom” to yelling “I’m going to wet my pants if we don’t stop, now!” while bobbing up and down in their seat—all in the span of about 20 minutes. There is no in-between. There’s a switch in their bodies, and it’s either off or on.
- People who see you out with your children will make comments about the number of children you have. These comments change based on where you are. In Colorado, some people told us “You have your hands full.” In Alabama, a man put his hand on my shoulder and said “They all look just like you! What a blessing!” One sympathetic father in New Orleans told me “Those are all your kids? Wow. Remember, suicide is painless.” No matter what they tell you, they can’t resist commenting. …they just have to say something. And, of course, they say it all, loudly, within earshot of the children.
As a rule, I like road trips, and vacations in general. I like to see new sights, meet new people, try the food, experience the local “things to do,” and take a lot of pictures. And I like to learn about the various places I go. On this trip, our whole family learned about the deep south, the Atlantic ocean, swamps, the Gulf of Mexico, humidity, mosquitoes, confederates, alligators, and more. It was an enlightening experience: in each state, we saw some things we expected, and some that we didn’t. Here’s a little summary of each state we visited, along some of the memories we made or quirks we noticed along the way.
Colorado: our home state. The fun begins.
We had no big surprises in Colorado, other than that it’s rare for us to go so far south in the state. You start to get the hint that New Mexico is coming soon when the signs for the streets, cities, and mountain ranges all turn into Spanish.
New Mexico: light green, rocky, and empty.
I’ve stopped at the same gas station in Raton probably 10 times over the last 20 years. I’m pretty sure it hasn’t changed a whit since then. When we saw signs for Capulin Volcano National Monument, I was excited to tell them what we would probably see a volcano—something they’d never seen before. Of course, when we actually drove past it, angry voices cried out from the back seat saying “We wanted to see a REAL volcano! Where is the lava? This isn’t fun!” Apparently, in a child’s mind, an “extinct” volcano is a pretend volcano and parents get no points here. No matter how many times I tried to explain, it was still a big let down.
Oklahoma: land of tumbleweeds and corn.
How do I describe driving through Oklahoma’s panhandle? It’s long, it’s flat, it’s straight, and completely desolate. There were stretches that we drove for so long that at one point I was sure I could put my 3-year-old son Austin on my lap and let him drive and nobody would even know. Plus I’d win the “Dad of the year award” in his mind anyway. I kid you not when I say it we drove four solid hours in the same direction on the same road. I was very glad the gas tank was full. I can’t speak for the whole state, but the panhandle is a deserted place littered with abandoned houses and farms. As we passed probably hundreds of farmhouse skeletons, I thought of “The Grapes of Wrath.” It’s a fictional tale, but Steinbeck clearly drew his inspiration from very real people who left these “Okie” homesteads for better opportunities elsewhere.
At one point, the largest thunderstorm I’ve ever seen formed on the left side of the road and I watched it intensely to see if any funnel clouds were forming. I’d had a nightmare (yes, literally) the night before about a tornado sweeping us off the road, but alas, we made it safely through. We stayed in OKC for a night and passed by Bricktown on our way out and I wished there was time to take a tour, but we had to hit the road.
Texas: heat, mosquitos, BBQ, and mosquitos.
Texas was one of the highlights of our trip. We headed down to Austin to visit my sister and her husband (and their two cats). We all had much joy in reminding our son Austin, “You’re in Austin, Austin! This is your town!” We rented a house on AirBnB and stayed for two nights. We tried the BBQ, which was great, and spent some time swimming. Boy was it hot! Swimming was a relief.
Did I mention the mosquitoes? For some reason, there were more mosquitoes in Austin than anywhere else we visited, which really surprised me. Telling kids from Colorado to “Keep the door closed—you’re letting in the bugs!” seemed to confuse the heck out of them. We never have to close the door during summer, neither to keep the cold air in, nor to keep the bugs out. I still don’t think they understood what we meant by “bugs.”
Louisiana: they do things a li’l different down there.
After our stay in the Lone Star State, we headed east to the home of their French neighbors: Louisiana. Boy oh boy, if our kids hadn’t understood “humidity” before, they sure got it this time. Wow: over 90°F with 80% humidity. The weather app on my iPhone said: “Feels like 106°F.” Wasn’t that the truth! We rented a two bedroom loft on the second floor of a building right in the French Quarter and, like the good father I am, I walked the kids to Cafe du Monde the next day for beignets. I tried to spend some time in “Jackson Park,” but, as with the “volcano” in New Mexico, they argued that it wasn’t a “real” park since there wasn’t a playground. Plus, it was hot and humid. Spoilsports…
We went to an oyster house for dinner and tried crawfish, alligator, shrimp, and more. (Though most of the kids decided they’d rather have a cheeseburger instead). On our way out of the state, we took the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, just to say we’d driven across the “longest continuous bridge over water in the world.”
Mississippi: rest stops, rain, ivy, and music.
We didn’t know anybody in Mississippi and had no stops to make, so all we saw of this great state was a rest stop or two. And might I say, they were actually quite pretty with plantation-style architecture. You can learn a lot about a state and what the people value by seeing their rest stops. They’re a statement unto themselves and give you just a glimpse of what the rest of the state has in store. It was raining the whole time we were in the state, so we just kept right on driving. This was the state where we told the kids “remember reading about slavery in the USA? Where we are right now used to be a slave state.” This was surreal for them. (It still is to me too). On a side note: there was so much ivy covering the trees that in some places we couldn’t even see the trees… just the ivy the had completely enveloped them.
Alabama: finally, the Ocean!
We drove through Alabama twice. Once in the very southern part going from Louisiana to Florida, and again in the northern part while leaving Florida and headed towards Arkansas. It’s funny—we drove through six states before the kids actually saw “the ocean,” and that finally happened in Alabama. Up until then, all the water we saw or drove over was from lakes, rivers, and swamps. Of course, there were no beaches where we were, so on we drove. On a side note, I must say: the worst drivers we encountered were in Alabama. They drove extremely fast and they’d ride up almost touching our bumper if they wanted us out of the way, even if we were already in the fast lane trying to pass someone else. I’m not sure what that’s about, but it was definitely noticeable.
Florida: white sand, green water, and sunsets.
Finally! We saw not just the ocean, but the beach. A big, long, white beach with emerald water. In contrast to Oklahoma’s panhandle, the panhandle of Florida is magnificent. I had no idea what the kids would do when they finally saw it: would they jump in? Would they be afraid? Our little mountain-dwellers aren’t very good at swimming… so would they walk in and go too deep and drown? Fortunately, they all ran right in (in their clothes) and jumped and splashed around—safely—and had a great time.
We also went to my parents’ house near Orlando, which, to the surprise of many outsiders, is swampland. My family lives in Lake County which borders the county that Disneyland is in, and it has over 1,000 lakes in it. That certainly explains all the bugs, frogs, moss, and humidity! Rachel and I decided to spend some time without the kids and go to Cocoa Beach, and hit up Kennedy Space Center. That was fun.
Georgia: dixie land and home of rebels.
It was interesting to see Georgia—the state where my Dad was born. I’ve been to Florida a few times but never made it up that way before. Similar to Mississippi, we didn’t know anybody here and didn’t really have anywhere to go. We just drove through and stayed a night in Atlanta. Georgia is the first state where we saw a confederate battle flag: that was interesting. I guess I was expecting to see that in Alabama (you know, “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” and all that), but I was wrong.
Tennessee: maybe next time…
We drove through Memphis on our way to Arkansas, so we just barely saw enough to say we’ve been there. Alas, I was asleep, and so I took no pictures. I’d love to go back and see Memphis and Nashville someday, preferably without the kids. We’ll have to see.
Arkansas: surprisingly friendly and beautiful.
Arkansas was the biggest surprise of the whole trip. I had no idea what to expect from this little state; home of Bill Clinton, the Duggar family, Johnny Cash, and Wal-Mart. It’s a state I’ve driven close to a few times but had never stopped in before, and now I wish I had. Arkansas was a beautiful state. Beautiful. A shockingly gorgeous state: driving north from Little Rock to Missouri was some of the most amazing scenery I’ve seen anywhere. We “oohed and ahhed” while driving up Hwy 65, looking at the fields and trees that I had only seen in magazines before. When I was very young, I used to look at full-color panoramic spreads in “Country” magazines that my piano teacher kept on the coffee table in her lobby, and now I know where a lot of those photos were taken.
We got to spend time with our good friends, the Adairs, who have even more children than we do. (I wonder what kind of comments they’ve gotten!) They have enough kids that each of our kids had a playmate, which was fun since our kids had been in the back of a van for more than a week with no friends and they were wearing on each other. It was a nice reprieve for all of us.
On this trip, we had wanted to do one big special event for the kids. We had been right near Disney World and Legoland a few days before in Florida, but I wanted to find something a little more tame (and less expensive!) in case they didn’t appreciate the “magic.” So we went to Silver Dollar City in Branson, Missouri. It’s like a cross between an amusement park and a renaissance festival, but with an “Ozark” theme. I’m glad we did. It was a great choice.
Like Arkansas, Missouri was a pleasant surprise as well: I’d driven through it before, but much further north, close to Kansas City and St. Louis. I had no idea how different the north and south were. Southern Missouri is a fantastic place. It was warm, but not hot. Humid, but not unbearable. It had bugs, but instead of mosquitos, it had fireflies! We all smiled and stood in awe watching the lightning bugs fly around the trees in front of our rental home as we grilled steaks on Father’s Day in Missouri. That was time well spent, and a nice end to a long week.
Kansas: BBQ, but a different kind.
Since I can’t drive close to a state and not actually go there, as long as we had to drive through Kansas City, MO, I figured we’d pop into the Kansas side for a super-fast dinner. I searched online for the most popular KC BBQ joint, and found one that stood out above all the rest: a small joint inside a gas station, that was (ironically) called “Oklahoma Joe’s” until a few years ago. (Now it’s called “Joe’s Kansas City BBQ” for obvious reasons). When we showed up, there were three people in front of me in line. By the time we left, there were probably 50 or more. Apparently, this place gets enormous lines out the door. My assessment: it was good. Different that Texas, but not earth-shattering, and I wouldn’t stand in line for it.
Iowa: some other time, when I’m not asleep.
We drove through Iowa for a bit on our way up to Nebraska. There wasn’t much to see, and I was asleep for all of it, so… no photos from Iowa either.
Nebraska: yep, corn. Like all the other states.
You might think (like I did), that the home of the Cornhuskers would be so chock full of corn that you couldn’t stand it. But on the roads we drove through, there was corn growing, but no more than what we’d seen in Florida, Georgia, or Missouri. We came in late, left early, and didn’t spend much time in Omaha, other than to hit up a Krispy-Kreme, which the kids had never tried before.
Colorado: we made it back home!
I could tell when we were getting close to the Colorado border in Nebraska, because at one point there was a surprising change in the air, and I realized my lips were chapped. I instinctively reached for my chapstick but couldn’t find it. That’s because I hadn’t needed chapstick even once during the previous two weeks. It’s amazing how stark the difference in humidity is between the states. It hits you like a wall sometimes. We got to Colorado, crossed the border, and drove an unbearably long amount of time to finally get home. For some reason, that last final stretch was the hardest of the whole trip. We were home… but not quite, which was hard to be patient for. We did finally roll into the driveway late… about 10pm.
Conclusions: it’s a great big world out there.
It might sound obvious to say, but a road trip of that magnitude overwhelms you with a sense of just how big our land is. The USA is SO… BIG… it’s huge. Really. There’s not much to compare it to, but here is a thought for perspective: we started in Longmont, Colorado; made a stop in Austin, TX; and ended up in Cocoa Beach, Florida, then came back home. If you round it off a bit and take out extraneous stops, that’s 2,140 miles, driving in an “L” shape, south, then east. Let’s say we lived in Europe, and made this same trip. We could start in Paris, France, make a stop in Florence, Italy, and end up in Istanbul, Turkey, and STILL not even have driven as many miles (only 1,930) as we did. If you made this trip in Europe, you would cross at least 9 countries, with different cultures, races, languages, borders, and more. In America, we drove that far, and then drove back, a different way, and never left the country. Everywhere we went had the same language, the same currency, and we had total freedom to travel without passports or visas. …and we only saw 15 out of our 50 states, so there’s still 35 more to go. That’s huge. …and exhausting. I’m just tired thinking about what we’ll do next summer!