The Family Road Trip: A Rite of Passage

road trip

The family road trip.  A rite of passage for all kids and parents for as long as we’ve had roads.

Road trips bring us together for mass quantities of family time as we marinate in our combined aromas.  Before getting in our van for a recent trip to Kentucky to see the fam, I made my kids wash their feet because the thought of being cooped up for eight hours with that stank made me dry heave in my brain.

So we set forth with happy feet all around and our car smelling of its usual crushed cereal and rancid banana.  I felt good, but apparently my family was not so lucky.

I took my sweatshirt off in the car and my son yelled “ARMPIT OF DOOM!”  Hippie natural deodorant, the gift that keeps on giving.  You’re welcome, family.  Let the good times roll.

Starting Out

At first, things feel fresh and exciting.  You’ve cleaned out the cupholders and established a grocery bag as the approved trash receptacle.  Your kids are happily snacking and enjoying a movie or some other mind-numbing activity.  All the devices are charged, your coffee cup is full, and everyone’s bladders are drained.  When they finish their snack, they yell, “TRASH!” and pass up their empty wrapper for the trash bag.  You are organized.  You have a system.

About two hours in to any road trip, you start to wonder why you left the house as the movie ends and your children turn on each other.

She’s on my side!

He’s touching me!

She licked my arm!

She stuck her finger in my ear!

“TRASH!”  (You realize they might be calling you TRASH! and now you’re conditioned to answer to TRASH!*)

So the kids are themselves, and you are also yourself.  Are you the driver or passenger?  Do you switch off every few hours or does one person drive the whole thing?  Alex likes to drive, because he’s a massive control freak, and I like to help him, because I’m a massive control freak.

Me: (sharp inhale) AHHH! (audible wince) EEK!

Alex: Are you gonna do that the whole time?

Me: Maybe.

Bathroom Breaks

I’m a big fan of filling the gas tank, dehydrating yourself, and driving until you reach your destination or run out of fuel, but with kids, apparently they need to stop once in awhile (except Elliott, who has always had a bladder like a camel.  He’s a fantabulous road-tripper and can go hours just staring out the window or playing a video game.).

And so, with five of us and five different needs going on at all times, we stop more frequently than I’d like, and I try to make the most of every stop.  I’m passing on my dad’s legacy of loudly announcing “Drain ’em if you’ve got ’em!” at every stop and you can find me in any rest stop in the American Southeast coaxing my daughters through the stall doors.

Ana: But I don’t have to go.

Me: Just try a little.

Evie: Nothing’s coming out.

Me: Squeeze.  We aren’t stopping again for forever.  This is your chance.

Both: I can’t!

Me: Relax everything and think about a river flowing.

Both: Nothing.


And there’s no privacy in public bathrooms.  You can’t let the kids roam the open road, so if you need a few minutes, your only option is to have them stand outside the stall while you finish up.  If I take too long, I have the girls checking in with me, deciphering whether or not I’ve switched from number 1 to number 2.  More than a couple minutes and they come a’knockin’.

Ana: Mom are you done? Are you pee?

Me: Can we not talk about this? Can I have privacy?

As we pile back in the car after each stop, I feel the need to rate them, also just like my dad did.  If we’ve all peed, filled the tank, and grabbed a quick bite through the drive thru in under thirty minutes, as we pull back onto the interstate, I’ll clap a couple times and say, “Good stop, team.  That was a good stop.”  If we made the cardinal mistake of getting off at an exit without clean bathrooms, without a gas station, or we’ve had to go to more than two places to fulfill our needs, Alex will have to talk me down for the next twenty miles.  Inefficiency on a road trip is a real mood-killer.

Cracker Barrel Buggy

Before our last trip, I promised Alex we could stop at Cracker Barrel, and he was very concerned that I deliver on that promise.

Alex: Mel, I want you to plan out the trip.  Make sure you know which exits have the Cracker Barrels.  Figure out where we’re going to stop.

Me: We’ll just see one and pull over.  It’ll be fine.

Alex: Please.  Just chart it out.  I want to know exactly where it is.

Me: I will not let you miss the Cracker Barrel.  I promise.

Alex: blah blah MAPS blah blah CHARTS blah blah DADDY WANTS HIS CRACKER BARREL!

I googled The Cracker Barrel and there were so many in the South that the map looked like the roads were actually made out of Cracker Barrel logos.  We were going to be okay.  Honestly, I promise this man a biscuit and some old timey candy and he’s like a horse to the barn.

Being the punk that I am, I decided to point out every single time we passed a Cracker Barrel, just to make sure he saw them.  I was of course doing this to comfort him that he’d get his biscuit whenever he wanted it.  Over the hours, it developed into a game.  Remember “slug buggy,” when you’d punch someone in the arm every time you passed a Volkswagon Beetle?**  Some people call it “punch buggy,” and it got especially painful back in the 90s when they released the new VW bug and the roads were flooded with them.  Well, we began a game of Cracker Barrel Buggy, and there was pretty much one at every exit.

Car Activities

At a certain point in the trip, the kids have given up passing their trash to you and are either throwing it directly on the floor and grinding it into the industrial carpet or chucking it at the back of your head like a game.  You begin to worry that your spouse might collapse from sheer exhaustion and pull out the Couples’ Book of Questions to try to engage in a stimulating conversation.  When that doesn’t work, you settle for singing Motown at the top of your lungs and clapping loudly.  He might hate you, but he’ll thank you when you arrive still alive with all your parts intact.

Toward the end of our trip, the girls got a little batty from lack of activity.  (Elliott has inherited my ability to sit for long hours and enjoy not moving his body at all.  It’s a rare gift.)  Evie got more and more vocal and my nerves were in that special frying stage, when she grew silent and I didn’t hear from her (which is highly unusual from the girl who can repeat the same word 500 times without breaking rhythm).  I tentatively snuck a glance back to see what had captured her attention and found her smearing the window with boogers and tracing finger paintings through them.

She was engaged in an art project, and I was totally okay with it.

Scenic Points of Interest

In Louisville, we passed a giant replica of “The David,” and Elliott exclaimed, “Mom!  That guy’s wiener’s hanging out!” And from that point on, my kids were obsessed with the wiener and where the wiener was and if they’d get to see it again.  And this is why traveling with your kids is so important, because how else will they see huge, lifelike wieners dangling above the road?

The naked guy was their highlight of that trip, and it’s led to many random conversations like this one:

Ana: Remember the naked guy in Kentucky?

Me: Yep.

Elliott: Why was he naked?

Me: Well, the artist Michelangelo–

Elliott: Michelangelo is a ninja turtle!

Me: Right. The ninja turtle was named after the artist–

Elliott: That was the ninja turtle’s wiener?!?

Family road trips are so educational.  What’s your favorite road trip story or weird thing you do together in the car?  One time I read Tina Fey’s Bossypants to Alex for 8 hours straight.  Best road trip ever.


*God bless my mom, who answered to “TRASH!” for a couple decades’ worth of road trips.

**This may be an Ohio thing.  Is this an Ohio thing?  Pop.  Cedar Point.  Where are you at?  Slug buggy.

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  • Sarah Howlett

    We were on a road trip from Southeast Texas (near Houston) to Phoenix, AZ, up through the Grand Canyon, Southern Colorado, and then home again. My oldest daughter will never live down her infamous “Are those cows real?”, as we passed by the umpteenth hundred herd of cattle on our trip. To this day, we get the biggest kick out of asking if the cows are real every time we pass a herd of cattle.

  • Leah Heffner

    I’m from Ohio. Yes pop. Yes cedar point. And no slug buggy just slug bug. No slug backs. You’re welcome.

  • Krystale Bithoney

    You are amazing. I have been reading your blog for like an hour and a half and I follow you on Facebook, I have been cracking up the entire time! You are one of the most real and best bloggers I’ve ever read. Thank you for providing a fresh perspective for Moms and for women in general!

    • Melanie Dale

      Thanks, Krystale, SO MUCH, for your encouragement! I’m grateful for you.

  • Cindy Foles Bradley

    Humor, you use it so well. It keeps us from going off the ledge so many times. My generation did these trips without air conditioning in the car and not nearly the interstate development we have now. Try peeing in tall grass on the side of the road. Yes, I envied my brother.

    • Melanie Dale

      Ha, yikes, I do love the air conditioning! And the road-peeing…I will neither confirm nor deny that I have experienced this often.;)

  • Leslee

    My family drove from California to Hamilton, Ohio every couple of years when I was kid to see relatives. I have amazing memories of these trips together. So, after my son graduated from high school a couple of years ago we decided to take our kids on a roadtrip (they were roadtrip virgins). We drove from California to South Dakota to see Mt. Rushmore. (I had a binder with maps, itinerary, hotel confirmations, etc…) I’m a little type A and so is my husband (not enough to kill each other but just annoy from time to time). After we came back my son left for Marine Corps boot camp. He says to this day it was the best vacation we have ever taken (my daughter agrees). Makes this mom smile from ear to ear!!!

    • Melanie Dale

      We road-tripped to Mt. Rushmore, too! Ha, fun memories. I love hearing that your kids remember it fondly!

  • Deb

    I’m 53, so here’s how we napped: Me on the seat. Middle brother on the floor. Little sister in the back window.

    • Melanie Dale

      Ha, perfect! I remember road trips like that from my early years. Then seatbelts. Ah, the days of yore…

  • Becca Campbell

    This is hilarious! I’m completely inspired and will read aloud to my husband on every car journey from now on.

    I grew up on road trips from England to the South of France, but there wasn’t much more exciting than my Dad freaking out about heights through the Massif Central. We’ve promised ourselves that when the dog dies (hopefully at least ten years from now!) we’ll go to the US and drive really, really far. Not entirely sure where yet, but it’s probably going to revolve around food.