Valuable Advice: How to Enjoy Your Summer Vacation (Part 1)

A reader asks....
Haven't seen any free advice lately. How about some advice on traveling out west? Do I need to say out west or is just plain west O.K? And do you have a must see and must avoid list? I am sure many of your readers are planning trips this summer and could use your help.  Thanks. Love, Dad.
"Dad" poses an excellent question, and I applaud him on being the first reader to help me make the long-awaited leap from purveyor of complimentary and unsolicited advice to purveyor of solicited advice. I am happy to be of service.

"Dad's" question is a complicated one, and I can anticipate providing unlimited advice on this topic, so I've already narrowed this down to installments, the first of which, obviously, addresses what I think many of you have been lacking in the tour guides and promotional literature that is currently available.  I've tentatively drafted these installments as follows, and am open to suggestions for additional topics on which my sage advice could prove useful:

Part 1: Getting started: Suggested Ground rules for your Roadtrip
Part 2: An Illustrated Guide to the Grand and Historic Restrooms of the American West
Part 3: So You Plan to Motor West? What you must see, and what you must avoid, made easy.
Part 4: Essential Travel Lies to Tell Your Children - Roadtrip Edition!
Part 5: Take Only Pictures, Leave Only Footprints
Part 6: How to Tell if You Should Have Paid a Little More for that Motel/Hotel/Cabin
Part 7: How Not to Get Killed in Yellowstone
Part 8: Kevin Costner's Black Hills (tm): An Illustrated Guide to the "Real" America
(+ more, I'm sure, tba)
That's a lot to look forward to. For now, please enjoy...

The 5th Most Valuable Advice You'll Ever Receive, Guaranteed, or Your Money Back: 
How to Enjoy Your Summer Vacation, Even if You Travel With Others
Part 1: Getting started: 10 Time-Tested Ground Rules for a Fun & Death-free Roadtrip
In the summer of 2010, my husband and I, with our two kids - then five and three - enjoyed a two-week roadtrip from Wisconsin to Yellowstone and back via a double-dose of Black Hills. Oh, and we did it with my parents, and my sister and her 9-year-old son. And we all rode together. In one minivan. With 8 people. And it was the Best Vacation Ever. No one died, and we had fun all day, every day, with minimal grouchiness and squabbling and only one (if I recall) episode of barfing.  This information, I believe, demonstrates my credentials in providing advice on the topic of How to Enjoy Your Summer Vacation, Even if You Travel With Others, as it is not particularly easy to enjoy 2 weeks of being in a minivan with eight people unless you are committed to having the Best Vacation Ever and have established a few ground rules for making sure things work out ok and no one gets hurt.

Here are some 10 basic groundrules to ensure fighting is restricted to the minimum, living to the maximum, and no one ends up hating anyone else on the trip:

1. Bring a map, or have GPS.  Going unscripted is great for newlyweds and ne'er do wells, but if you're on a roadtrip with your husband and your kids and your parents and your sister and her kid, you need to know exactly where you are in relation to the place where you'll be able to get out of the car and find a few minutes of peace.  Also, maps tell you what points of historic interest you should stop at, and are generally useful in marking out the distances between restrooms, which leads me to my next point:

2. Designate someone to be the bathroom police, or just be that person yourself. This person's job, for the duration of the trip, is to make sure that every single person uses the restroom every single time you stop the car, whether they "don't have to" or not. Adults included.  At first, this person will seem bossy and rude, and over time, that person will seem domineering and detestable. But no one will be begging to go to the bathroom as soon as you get on the highway again, and for this you will thank that person one day, I promise.

3. If someone feels like barfing, pull the car over immediately and let that person out. The amount of fun you will have on your vacation is directly proportionate to the degree to which your vehicle does not smell like vomit. Do not fool around with this rule.  Pull the car over. Now.

4. If there are children in your vehicle, be sure they have plenty of things to do while you're driving. Assuming they will simply enjoy the scenery like the rest of us is foolish and dangerous, as is evidenced in my nephew's famous response to entering the majestic Yellowstone National Park: "This is Yellowstone? A bunch of trees?"  The most popular thing for kids to do in the car is eat snacks, so bring as many as you possibly can, but be mindful of tip #2 as you make your selections.

5. If someone in the car says "I'm getting hungry," this is your cue to start looking for a nice spot to have a picnic.  This is not your cue to say "Really? We just ate a few hours ago. Let's stop when we hit the state line."  Remember: part of being on vacation is having a good time. And no one's having a good time when one person is trying to make good time and the other people are thinking about how, when they finally stop to eat, they are going to drop that person's sandwich on the ground "by accident."

6. Plan ahead, and be spontaneous!  If you have 8 people in your van, you need to know where you're spending the night. Because driving around some rinkydink town at midnight with hungry, whiny kids in the back isn't the funnest way to spend your time. So make reservations, or at least know your options ahead of time. Then you can spend your days idling about at Balls of Twine and World's Largest (I assume) Jolly Green Giants and so on.

7. Don't forget your camera, or anything else.  You are going to forget a lot of things on this trip, and the tragedy of this is that you will learn, of necessity, that you can find a megastore in the unlikliest of places, whereever you go in the United States, and that they are all, tragically, the same.  You will be forced to patronize Wal-Marts and Targets because there are no other choices, which will make you start to question your unrealistic preconceptions of the Grand American West. The more you travel, in fact, the more you will start to understand what they mean when they say this world is small, and you will start to feel a little melancholy.  So make sure you pack everything you can think of so that you have to make this sort of stop as infrequently as possible as you travel.
Corn Palace isn't the only claim to fame of Mitchell, SD

8. Stop at every single place that has the words "Greatest" or "Only" or "First" or "Birthplace" or "Historic" in its title or on its sign.  To avoid the melancholy anguish of #6, I suggest you find out what makes each place you visit unique.  We must have seen 15 birthplaces and childhood homes of Laura Ingalls Wilder on one of our trips, each one more rustic and charming than the last. And don't even get me started on the World's Largest Walnut.  You have to find it for yourself.

9. Warning: That place has a gift shop.  Unless you plan to buy, or let your children waste their own money buying, a souvenir at every place you stop, you are advised that every single place you will stop has a gift shop. The home where Laura Ingalls Wilder spent her twilight years has a gift shop. Many of the opulent roadside rest areas in South Dakota have gift shops.  Wall Drug is a gift shop. So either set a budget and stick with it, or get ready to do some clever lying (see Part 4: Essential Travel Lies to Tell Your Children - Roadtrip Edition!). You cannot avoid the gift shops. So get used to that right now. You're going to have to come up with some fun ways to make the most out of walking through these shops. One option: setting unrealistic souvenir goals ("I collect hand-painted portraits of locals from each place I've visited") will give you something to do while the others are milling about for hours deciding which bumper sticker to get. Or you could just get a coffee while you're waiting. As long as you don't wait in the car. You could wait in the car at home. And you're on vacation.

If bears are going to kill my kids, they'll die holding my hand.
10. Bottom line: safety first.  If yours is a Wild West Adventure, you are going to visit many places at which you or your child could easily die of your own folly or be killed by outside sources.  We had a code word for danger zones on our trip - I can't remember what it was! Sprinkles? Funyuns? Combination Unicorn and Pegasus? - and if we said that word it meant the kids had to hold our hands from the time we got out of the van until we re-entered it. It was very effective, as none of us died, or even got gored or anything, which I am happy I lived to report so I could pass on this valuable advice to you. If you don't want to hold hands with anyone, you might consider harnessing, or otherwise restraining, young children, or perhaps leaving them at home with a dear friend or family member. But plan to spend a good deal of time concerned for the mortal safety of your children. But look around you: this view was totally worth it. Just don't look down.

25 June 2011. Update:
Code word: Mango. 
Thanks, Mom!

This has been The 5th Best Unsolicited Advice You'll Ever Receive, Guaranteed, or Your Money Back.   Want more? Click away:
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