92 Days of Summer

Even the worst day on a summer family road trip can be the best

Even the worst day on a summer family road trip can be the best

We’re on a two-week road trip right now: Dallas to San Diego, Las Vegas, Zion National Park, Grand Canyon, ending in Sedona.

Good times have included 70-degree temps in Southern California, surfing lessons, sushi (twice), the polar bears at the San Diego Zoo, leaving the back of my Mazda 5 open and discovering it several miles down the highway (all was recovered and intact back in the Yucca Motel parking lot), singing together, inside jokes, and in-room wrestling matches. (I sit those out.)

At about mile 1,570 — day seven — we lost it.

 At ages 13 and 16, the boys are a gang, more often looking like they’re going to cut us instead of each other.

It was the day we drove from San Diego to Vegas, or, as I will note it in the vacation photo album, the day we drove from 70 degrees to 102, trading beach for desert, family fun for can’t-stand-the-sight-of-you bickering.

My Mazda 5 was so incredibly small at this point.

My husband must play music while in the car. Always. Nonstop. No silence. And he must sing along. Always. Nonstop. No silence. I am a fan of quiet. He sang Purple Rain. That should never be done by anyone but Prince.

He drives too slow. I drive too fast. I have all sorts of advice on his driving. And he on mine. All clearly offered with love yet, shockingly, heard with malice. He freaks out when I get out my iPhone to use as a GPS, offering — with malice, of course — to do it for me.

I stubbornly explain how easily I can do it. What does he think I do when he’s not in the car? When he does the same thing, I ask — with malice, of course — if he needs help navigating. The voice is sing-songy. I’m so helpful.

Then we have our dear offspring in the backseat. At ages 13 and 16, the boys are a gang, more often looking like they’re going to cut us instead of each other. This is new this year to the family road trip. They head butt each other to get a rise out of us instead of each other. The 16-year-old thinks he has no rules. The 13-year-old thinks he’s 16.

 Somewhere near Riverside, California, I begin to have apartment fantasies. Just me and a dog in a two-bedroom place with a whirlpool tub.

Somewhere along Highway 215 near Riverside, California, I begin to have apartment fantasies. No more Jets and Sharks feuding. Just me and a dog in a two-bedroom place with hardwoods and a whirlpool tub.

My bedroom is lavender, the dog sleeps with me, Harry Connick Jr. is always playing in the background, and the apartment looks exactly as it did when I left it every time I return. If the milk carton is still in the refrigerator, it has milk in it.

Fresh flowers, always. I answer only to the dog, who does not leave his towels on the floor, does not sing along with the radio, and most certainly does not head butt anyone in the room. We take long walks before dinner. And when we return, the house still looks the same. And when I vacation, I do so alone. In Paris.

Back in the shoebox on wheels, driving on Highway 15 along the Mojave Desert, south of Death Valley, those cursed red dashes showed up on our iPhone GPS. Traffic. Insane amounts of it. Apparently people in California like to go to Vegas on a Friday afternoon. I judge anyone who willingly leaves those temps for the desert, but whatevs.

My husband is a patient man and a rule follower. He would’ve been perfectly happy to sit through that traffic — singing, singing, singing — for as long as it took. I am ridiculously impatient and take rules as suggestions.

We took a husband-sanctioned detour and cruised along. “It sucks to be them,” I thought, as I looked over at the poor saps sitting on the highway. Then the cars on our detour started to turn around, spotting a “road closed” sign up ahead.

Encouraged by the boys, who are always up for an adventure, I turned toward a detour off our detour. Soon, the road was mere tire tracks in sand. But it was still on the GPS, so it must count. Husband was no longer singing. It was 101. But we had more than half a tank of gas, food and water. We press on.

Ten minutes of abandoned desert road later, we came to a dead end at the train tracks. No worries. Another detour. Hubby is in quiet panic mode. But hey, at least he’s quiet, I figure. The sandy tire tracks lead us to a paved road. And then another “road closed” sign.

 When we made it to Vegas — seven hours later, instead of the five it should’ve taken — the room they gave us had only one bed in the room instead of two.

The Mazda 5 has started to expand. At least three of us are enjoying the adventure.

“Go, Mom!” my 13-year-old says. “We never give up!”

We gave up. We backtracked, got on the highway, sat in some (but not all!) the traffic in our way. This 30-minute, off-road journey has us back on track. It was us against the world. Or at least the traffic and the desert.

We finally find a gas station. Gas is $4.95 a gallon. The line to the bathroom is at least 30 deep. We skip the gas, and I pee on the side of the desert. We press on.

When we made it to Vegas — seven hours later, instead of the five it should’ve taken — our ridiculously plush hotel pool closed at 7, two hours earlier. The room they gave us had only one bed in the room instead of two. (“I’ve stayed in Motel 6s that can keep my reservation for two beds” did not sway the front desk.)

Beaten down but not defeated, we headed to the strip, stopping at a Jack in the Box along the way. Sixteen tacos, one breakfast plate, a large order of curly fries and four large sodas later ($19.78, thank you very much), we happily drove down Las Vegas Boulevard. We laughed, told inside jokes, and had much togetherness in the king-sized bed (the 16-year-old quickly claimed the rollout bed) when we got back to the hotel.

I remember two similarly bad moments in two family vacations of my youth, both to this part of the world. When I was very young, we drove across Death Valley one summer. The air conditioning went out in my parents’ Vega. If memory serves, the seats were made out of black lava. On another, a trip to the Grand Canyon, my mom made me wear red plaid pants. And my toddler sister got pneumonia.

Every day, even every summer vacation day, can’t be the best. Some — maybe the most memorable — are the worst. And I would miss them all in my clean, quiet apartment with lavender walls. Most days.

Brothers on a beach
The day before the worst day (I hope) of our summer road trip, happily taking surfing lessons off Pacific Beach in San Diego. Photo by Dawn McMullan
Detour on summer family road trip
The detour off our detour to avoid a traffic jam landed us here, reevaluating our plan. Photo by Dawn McMullan
Unhappy kids on family road trip
This is what we're dealing with. Photo by Dawn McMullan