cross country family road trip lessons

The ride at least was impeccably smooth.

Thanks to Kia and their supple Sedona for that.

Everything else about and during our cross country family road trip? Well, that’s a wee bit more complicated.

It took our two-week, one-way summertime drive from the Carnival Cruise port of Seattle to the driveway of our suburban Philly home to realize what we probably already knew, deep down, but didn’t want to admit:

Long, sprawling, exhausting family road trips aren’t our thing anymore.

This summer’s cross country trip proved an awfully expensive and nearly treacherous lesson.

But isn’t that the way it works? The lessons we need to learn the most are often the ones we need taught to us with a unforgiving harshness that stings in the moment. That’s how and why they stick, sink in, and change us for the better.

Cross country family road trip lessons

This summer we drove and drove and drove, as one does on a road trip, but what made this particular family journey unbearable and for me, more miserable than enjoyable, was the constant focus on what’s next. These kinds of questions about what’s next were nonstop:

What time do we need to leave tomorrow?

What time does that grocery store in town open?

Do they sell what we need?

Can we stop for me to photograph that, that or that?

If it is hazy in the morning do we have time to linger so that I might make a photograph of this place I’ve wanted to be for my entire life?

How long can we afford to spend there, there and there and still get to the next place before the front desk shuts down for the night?

Are there any decent restaurants on the way? In that place?

Do we have time to stop for a meal or do we have to snack all day again while we drive?

Which route should we take?

Which is more scenic?

Is the scenery worth the extra miles and time?

I wanted to scream. I want to stand still for just a moment. I wanted to do something without planning it first.

Cross country family road trip lessons

It got to feeling that the entire trip was focused not on the right now but on the what’s next, that the future was deemed a more valuable asset than the present.

The result, in the end, was a cross country family road trip vacation I kept on planning but rarely had the chance to experience.

With some distance now, I can look at my photographs and think about how beautiful Glacier National Park is, how grand the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone was, and how epic the Badlands looked in person, but I barely remember being in any of those places. I barely was.

Cross country family road trip lessons

I grew increasingly tired, physically and mentally. I grew angry at not feeling any sense of connection to the places I’d just been, at feeling no purpose to what we were doing greater than checking boxes. I began to take  my frustrations, weariness and anger out on my family and by the time we reached Ohio, I wasn’t sure my family would stay together when we got back home.

Wounds were mended, thankfully, but we’ve now learned and have come to accept that long, sprawling, exhausting trips are a thing of the past for us. In the future we will pick a place — a single city or a national park for example — and spend 5-7 days exploring just that place in the present tense.

In doing so, we will set down some roots in that place.

We will have more than a lone chance to make memories under a clear blue sky in that place.

We will be able to try both of the restaurants that look and sound incredible in that place.

We will have time to not think about what’s next because that place will be both right now and next.

Cross country family road trip lessons

Instead of passing through many places, we will have the privilege of feeling a sense of place. And hopefully, my family will find the joy in traveling together once again.