10 Insights from Two Months on the Road with Three Kids

My wife and I had the great experience of taking our friendly neighborhood folk band,  The Falderals, on the road this year to celebrate the release of our new album Witness. And we brought our three kids along for the ride. Altogether, we traveled four thousand miles from Minnesota through Wisconsin and Ohio, all the way to the East Coast and Washington DC, and then down to Texas and back up the middle. It was the trip of a lifetime. We camped, we couch surfed at friends and relatives (thanks guys!), we tested out a range of low-end hotel accommodations (that’s a whole story in itself), we hit big sights like the Indiana Dunes, The US Capital, Memphis, The Blue Ridge Mountains, Awesome Austin TX, many great museums, and many gems and new friends along the way. We even managed to play some gigs! Mostly, we spent time as a family and learned a lot about each other. It’s long overdue, but here are our biggest insights from the road, which, we realized, completely carry over into everyday life, including the busy holiday season:

1. Don’t Fill Your Suitcase (or your car (or your life)) too full. We tried to pack one minivan to fit five people for two months of camping, urban touring, and gigging. It was tough. Everyone got one bag. Amplifiers and guitars took up a lot of space. At some point, the kids had to contort their little bodies into odd shapes to fit in their seats (usually a temporary issue, like when we had to drag firewood back to a campsite). Bottom line, we over packed, as everyone always does, not only in their suitcases, but their cars, their homes, and their lives. To modify Charles Dickens’ famous quote about money: try to fit 19 cubic feet of stuff in 20 cubic feet of space, the result is success. Try to fit 21 cubic feet of stuff in 20 cubic feet of space, the result is misery. Less is truly always more. Always leave space in your life, in your car, in your bag for the great finds along the way. If you pack the weekend too full, you might miss out on that spontaneous and awesome flag football game. Leave space in your bag and your life for surprises you pick up along the way.

2. Don’t Fill Your Day: try to fit twenty-five hours of activity in a twenty-four hour day, result misery. Try to fit twenty three hours of activity (including 9 for sleeping, 1-2 for quiet time, a few sitting by a fire, an ice cream break) in a twenty-four hour day, result peace. It’s hard in a place like Washington D.C. to  not try to overextend yourself and therefore make everyone miserable. You can’t, and you don’t have to, do everything on a trip or in life. Which brings me to my favorite item:

3. Don’t Feel Obligated to Re-live Other People’s Vacations! This is my personal pet-peeve: I’m heading out on a trip or to a new part of town and someone pulls me aside and says, “when you get to [insert destination]  you’ve gotta go to [insert recommendation]. It was the best [insert meal, tour, museum] ever. You just gotta! I’m gonna be pissed if you don’t check it out.” Now I don’t mind a good recommendation. We relied heavily on recommendations while on the road. What bugs me is when an acquaintance tells me that I  gotta see something, and then checks later to make sure I did; and if I didn’t, they somehow feel I failed them. Just because you really enjoyed the Gettysburg Battlefield Museum on that trip with your fiance, doesn’t mean it’s right for my family. Of course, people have good intentions, but you can get bogged down in all the recommended venues and museums and restaurants and forget you’re on vacation to enjoy what you want.

4. Let Everyone Own Their Feelings: When you’re in a car for two months with family, there will be ups and downs. There’s plenty of ups and downs at breakfast on a normal Tuesday. What I really learned on this trip was to let my kids own and have their feelings and moods. I was elated as we entered the Blue Ridge Mountains. My kids, not so much. They were bored and tired. At first I wanted to knock some bliss into them by insisting that this was an amazingly awesome and special moment. I actually got angry that they weren’t appreciating it. They wanted ice cream, not mountains. Fine. I reminded myself often that my kids had a right to their feelings. They weren’t throwing tantrums (or rocks at me) they were just not as amazed by the US Capital tour as I wanted them to be. (Actually, I wasn’t either.) This is a good lesson for all of life. We all have moods. People have a right to them. With kids especially, I think it is valuable to let them notice their feelings, accept them, and remind them that they will change. My son tripped at some point outside the Washington Monument and announced he hated all of DC. So we let him hate DC for a few minutes.

5. Notice When You’re Working too Hard at Having Fun: This is all about mindfulness. There were days on the road where my wife and I went through supreme efforts to make sure our kids were having fun. And nobody was. That’s when we realized we needed some ice cream, wine, and a pool.

6. Get lots of Ice Cream! I got this idea from Leo at Zenhabits. He says to always stop for ice cream (and maybe some wine for the parents) part way through a day of traveling or touring. It’s usually around two or three, when everyone is starting to melt down a little.  Of course, it can get a little pricey to buy ice cream every day at a tourist trap (four bucks a cone times five people times 50 days = 1000 dollars of ice cream!). Our little family road-trip hack was to keep cones stashed in the car and pick up a pint when necessary at a gas station or convenience store. We rotated who got to pick the flavor. It was fun to share and compare.

7. Know when to travel and when to vacation: Traveling is all about new experiences and seeing our beautiful world. Vacationing, at least for me, is all about rejuvenation and fun. It’s important to know when to do which. If you’re constantly on the go to the next destination, clicking off all the must-see’s, you’ll forget to rejuvenate a little with a long walk in the woods, a day at the beach, a quiet night by the fire. We were at our best when we found a good balance between traveling and vacationing. I think life at home is much the same, striking the balance between activities that inspire and grow us (concerts, art museums, sports) and activities that repair us (yoga/meditation, hammocking, reading, hanging out).

8. Remember that the hardest moments sometimes make the best stories so try to stay calm and appreciate them in the moment.  Getting lost in Ohio only to finally show up at a flooded campsite in the middle of nowhere was not fun at the time, but I get to brag about it right now.  And we survived!

9. Never, ever think that you can drive for 13 hours across Texas in one day, even when the kids say they’ll be fine! Texas is big.

10. In a pinch, a dollar store can solve a lot of problems. Treats, cheap toys, chocolate milk, buns and hot dogs: something for everyone. Might solve all your last minute Holiday needs, too. 

Happy holidays! If you need a last minute gift idea, The Falderals new album Witness is now available on iTunes.

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