The kids can spy only so many bridges, or search for a Hawaiian license plate only so long before it’s time to move on to another game during those long summer road trips. Many families will test the strength of their relationships this summer by spending hours, maybe even days, seated next to each other in the tight quarters of a car or plane. If the kids aren’t bonded already, they’ll come out of it either bonded or deliberately divided.
My mom grew up in Indiana. She and Dad met while he was going to college there. They fell in love, married, and moved back to Utah. (Extremely condensed love story version.) Like most women, Mom occasionally wanted to return home to visit her parents and friends. And she wanted her family to go with her. This meant nine people squished into a station wagon traveling from Logan, Utah, to Lafayette, Indiana, a distance of 1,496 miles, or nearly 23 hours.
Dad drove the entire way. Mom wrangled the herd. So Dad had the easier task. But Dad was also an iron-man driver. If he’d had it his way, we would have traveled from Logan to Lafayette without any stops. Were it not for the necessity of bathroom breaks and sleeping for his passengers, I believe he could have and would have done it.
Bathroom stops were done by committee. At least three of us had to go before he’d pull off the freeway. Come to think of it, I don’t ever recall him getting out of the car once until the end of the day when he helped Mom haul luggage and kids into a hotel room — the other thing Dad didn’t want to waste time on. This is why we traveled those nearly 1,500 miles with just one night’s stay. (He actually was an amazing driver when I think about it.)
So to let Dad focus, and to keep our minds off the monotony of a 12-hour car drive scrunched shoulder to shoulder, Mom came up with games. Clever games. Games designed to be time consuming and diverting. Travel Bingo couldn’t hold a candle to Mom’s games. How many flag poles can seven kids search for before they’re over it?
Mom’s favorite was to see who could hold their breath the longest. What happens when you hold your breath? You can’t talk, complain, whine or fight. You’re just a pile of young kids with their faces all scrunched up and turning blue, determined to take the last gasp. That game played out for a while, but finished soon enough. It was either that or pass out.
So Mom countered with the “Who Can Stay Quiet the Longest” game. That one was so blatantly obvious that she usually gave a prize for it. Some of us were much better at staying quiet than others. Those who weren’t — the chatty ones who failed early — took it upon themselves to persuade those of us still silent to say something. This game could actually play out for a long time. But it also ran the risk of spawning more fights than most games.
Counting the most cows or silos or tractors (Kansas and Nebraska are l-o-o-ong, agrarian states) was another Mom game. We believed it was a contest of the sharpest spotting skills. Looking back I realize it was actually a game of luck: whichever team sat on the side of the car with the most cows or silos or tractors won. The bottom line was it kept us entertained.
Yeah, the license plate game was always on Mom’s list. But she put us all on the same team. So when/if we collectively found all 50 states (Hawaiian and Alaskan folks rarely traveled in Kansas or Nebraska), we got a prize. Clever Mom, making us work together like that.
As we grew older, Mom paired us older kids with a younger kid to keep him or her entertained and in line. I didn’t like that because if your assigned kid acted up, it came down on your shoulders. There were different ways to handle that: threaten them like my older brother did, or play with them like my older sister did. Or go to sleep and ignore them, like I did.
Some folks travel today with the luxury of a movie screen. Their trips are measured in movie lengths — seven movies and they’ll be at the beach. But best of luck to you movie-free travelers. Nothing brings the family together quite like bringing the family together inside a vehicle for an extended journey. You learn a lot about each other — and yourself.
If all else fails, bring out the crossing the plains stories, particularly effective if one of the characters is an ancestor. Nothing quiets kids down quite like looking out on the endless, passing plains while they learn that a distant relative is buried somewhere out there.
Invite them to spy for that …