92 Days of Summer

7 lessons learned on a 26-day road trip with 2 teen boys

7 lessons learned on a 26-day road trip with 2 teen boys

The boys, 13 and 16, enjoying the view of the Grand Canyon between complaints of why they couldn't get closer to the edge and climb around. Photo by Dawn McMullan
The boys, then 4 and 7, playing at a ranch in Colorado. Photo by Dawn McMullan
The boys this summer, enjoying the pool at Balmorhea State Park in West Texas. Photo by Dawn McMullan
The boys nine years ago, playing in a Colorado river. Photo by Dawn McMullan
Reluctantly posing for a picture this year at Zion National Park. Photo by Dawn McMullan
Happily posing for a photo on our first road trip, somewhere in New Mexico. Photo by Dawn McMullan

This summer, my two teen boys and I traveled 6,725 miles through 14 states and Washington D.C. over 26 days on two road trips. Some of that with my husband, some of it without.

Although more extended than usual because of a wedding we attended in D.C., we often spend much of our summer road tripping through America in our Mazda 5. We took our first two-week trip with them, through New Mexico and Colorado, when they were 4 and 7.

That trip was magical. My older son read to my younger son. We watched bats fly out of Carlsbad Caverns at dusk and got back up at dawn to see them fly back out. We got out of the car in our flip flops when we saw a few patches of snow near Vail. Highlights were lizards scampering through the desert by day and drinking hot chocolate in hot tubs at night.

Their eyes were wide at every new sight and adventure. They sat in our laps, fell into bed exhausted every night and never questioned where we ate, why I was taking their picture or who was in charge.

This year was quite different. This year, I was traveling with two teenagers. The teen thing is not new to us, but this year we had double the fun.

Don’t get me wrong. The boys loves these trips and count down the days until we leave. But this year had a very different vibe. Not bad, just different. Here are a few things I learned along the miles:

1. It’s us against them. And that’s okay.
I noticed this after the first few days on the road without my husband early in the summer. New Teen had found his teenage stride. And Driving Teen suddenly realized it. I told my husband when we returned from that trip that they had formed a gang. It was them against me, as often in fun as it was in mischief. This trend continued on the next trip, turning to them against us.

The upside? In all of our 26 days, there were about three hours of true sibling bickering. Although they drove us crazy much of the time — Driving Teen trying to insert his opinion on whether New Teen was old enough to see a certain movie, or New Teen rolling his eyes at the idea that his standing with his heels off the edge of the Grand Canyon wasn’t a stellar idea — much of the trip was enveloped in family bonding. Some with us, but most with each other.

2. Gas stations have the best snacks.
Each time we stopped for gas or a bathroom break, one or both kids asked: “Will there be snacks?” And they don’t mean the Whole Foods cheese sticks or grapes you have in the cooler. Should you, however, be in BFE Utah on a 1.5-hour road detour at 2 pm with no real civilization in sight, suggesting lunch at a gas station is met with disdain. Plan to up your food budget accordingly.

3. TV time can be bonding time.
Down time is a good thing when on an extended trip. Although I fought this when the kids were younger (except for Shark Week; I’ve been a sucker for Shark Week since long before I had kids), I’ve given in. They love it. I can relax with a glass of wine while everyone is happy and entertained. We create inside jokes — what if they really did combine Naked and Afraid with Shark Week? — and reenergize for the next day.

4. Photos are not appreciated.
This began for my kids at about age 12. Generally, the phrase “price of admission” works in our family, but not always. There is, however, a teen workaround: bribery. Want to go to the gas station when we leave for snacks? Want to drive the next leg of the trip? Want me to dig up that photo of you dressed like Mary Poppins at age 3 and Facebook that instead?

Then smile, trained monkeys, smile.

5. If you can separate the young from the herd, you have a chance.
Our first night in the Grand Canyon, Driving Teen just wanted to chill with the TV after a long drive from Zion. My husband went out exploring a bit with us, then headed to the store and back to the room for a shower. That left New Teen and me at a park ranger discussion about the stars.

As the temps dropped, he cuddled up with me like that 4-year-old I traveled with so many years ago. He was fascinated by the ranger’s impressive light-saber-like pointer that seemed to reach all the way to the stars. No eye rolling. No texting. No games or music. Just the two of us (it seemed) and the biggest sky either of us has seen in a long time.

6. If somebody else can entertain them, let them.
While the boys took a 90-minute surfing lesson, my husband and I had lunch down the boardwalk in Pacific Beach. While they saw Grown Ups 2 (questionable parenting in the name of family harmony), we went to a wine bar down the block in downtown San Diego. My 13-year-old would not have spent an hour with me, looking at the stars at the Grand Canyon. But a ranger-lead talk? No problem.

Finding times when we weren’t leading the show created some much-needed space and sanity.

7. Wowing your kids with sights is no longer the point.
Travel is a priority in our family. We’ve taken our kids to Greece and Mexico. Driving Teen has traveled to El Salvador with our church twice. New Teen has traveled to 40 states; Driving Teen has seen 42.

Sure, on this trip they momentarily appreciated the beauty of Zion National Park and the Grand Canyon. (Sadly, New Teen thought the lights of Vegas were just as impressive.) And surfing in San Diego was a definite highlight.

But along the way, I found myself saying, “Look at the gorgeous view around us, boys” more than once. They would look up from their book/iPod/iPhone/card game/fantasy football draft and take it in oh-so briefly. Then, more often than not, their heads would rejoin in the center of the car to get back to whatever they were doing.

Which was being together (see point No. 1).

The first two days we were back from our final trip of the summer, the brotherly magic continued. Two peas in a pod, whether they were watching football together on the couch, going out to lunch or playing their beloved Xbox.

Then New Teen started making plans with his posse and going to football practice. Driving Teen retreated back to watching TV until past midnight, sleeping until almost noon and reconnecting with his high school buddies.

Once, when my husband was arguing with his brother back when they both lived under the same roof, my mother-in-law (an only child) told him all she’d wanted her life was a brother or sister. And someday, when she and their dad were gone, all they would have was each other.

To which my husband responded, with eyes no doubt rolling at full throttle: “God help me if someday he’s all I have.”

Today, they are the best of friends. This summer, I think my kids got a glimpse of what that’s like. Sure, it was often at our expense, but it won’t always be. Maybe that is the great lesson of these 26 days.