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Last summer, my kids -- Peter, 11; Henrik, 9; and Luisa, 6 -- announced they wanted to travel to a different country. My husband, Walter, and I did, too. But unlike our children, our enthusiasm was dampened by the fact that we couldn't swing five international plane tickets.
Our solution was to pull out our passports and hit the road -- to Canada. From our home in Minneapolis, we took a 10-day car trip to Toronto and Niagara Falls by way of a few spots on or near the Great Lakes. When done right, we discovered, a family road trip doesn't have to be a literal hell on wheels. In fact, sharing a minivan day in and day out with your kids can be a meaningful way to take in places you've long wanted to visit, especially those that don't necessarily warrant a trip by themselves.
When I say "done right," it goes without saying that we've done it wrong. Five summers ago, when the children were 7, 5 and 2, we decided at the last minute to visit my dad in Park City, Utah. We rocketed through Iowa and Nebraska, the kids strapped into their boosters and car seats, sobbing over who got to hold the lone malfunctioning DVD player. By the time we pulled into our garage two weeks later, having absorbed the glory of not only Utah's high desert but also Grand Teton National Park, Yellowstone and the Black Hills, at least one child was completely naked. I was so spent from yelling that I didn't care.
This time, we vowed, would be different. Instead of just jumping in the car, we came up with several strategies to make the journey more enjoyable for everyone.
Give the kids a say
Our first improvement was to realize that simply announcing "we're heading east!" doesn't work for our kids. We wanted them to be able to visualize where we were going, so we sat down together as a family and plotted our course using Google Maps. We'd get to Toronto by looping south around Lake Michigan, crossing the border into Ontario at Port Huron, Mich. On the way home, we'd follow the southern shore of Lake Erie on our way to stay three nights with friends in Chicago. We agreed that the kids could use the maps feature on my phone to check our progress and that each family member would choose at least one attraction they'd like to visit.
My commitment to that concept was almost immediately tested when, after enjoying 3-inch-high sandwiches at the funky Acoustic Cafe and a tour of the exquisite Victorian-era Mabel Tainter Memorial Theater, both in Menomonie, Wis., Henrik announced he wanted to stop in Wisconsin Dells to ride the Army Ducks.
While Walter takes the kids to the Dells every year to cement his status as Fun Dad, I have refused to visit the waterpark capital of the world since I hurt my neck inside a gigantic water funnel five years ago. I could tell by the way the kids were putting on the hard sell -- "We've never gone on them!" "The river is supposed to be awesome!" -- that they thought their odds for persuading me were slim. But reflexively saying no, a specialty of mine, would defeat our intention to empower the kids to help plan the trip.
"Sure?" I answered.
The van went silent as the kids looked at each other. Clearly, this was going to be a different kind of vacation. And not just for the kids.
The truth is that the Dells themselves, a gorge on the Wisconsin River, were a revelation. After our Duck harumphed into the river, we glided around striated sandstone cliffs that stand like gigantic elephant legs in the coffee-brown water. It was so relaxing that I almost forgot that we'd driven four hours to get there.
Stop. A lot.
Because we were spending four nights in Toronto and three in Chicago, we knew this trip would include plenty of time out of the car. But Walter and I were also more purposeful about breaking up the driving days with fun activities than we'd been on previous road trips. Our general rule of thumb was to split drive time and out-of-car time roughly 60/40, not counting breakfast or the hours after we stopped driving for the day. That ratio gave us time to do more than simply eat and provided opportunities to see a different side of America.
Since our kids seem to think everything is made in Asia, I decided it would be interesting to visit U.S. factories, which often offer tours. So on our second day we stopped at the Jelly Belly Center in Pleasant Prairie, Wis. The excursion turned out to be nothing more than a spin around a warehouse with stops at different tableaux depicting what happens in an actual factory. But the company store sold jelly beans in "barf," "booger" and "rotten egg" flavors, so the kids considered it a success.
Hit cities and small towns
Walter, Peter and I love cities. And our four nights in Toronto were the perfect introduction to that cosmopolitan yet friendly gem on Lake Ontario. We visited the vertigo-inducing observation deck of the CN Tower, gorged on poutine (French fries with gravy and cheese curds), strolled through artsy West Queen West, took the subway to High Park and hopped the ferry to the Toronto Islands beaches, where the water's chill rivaled Lake Superior. Unfortunately for Henrik and Luisa, cities also mean noise and lots of walking, which gets tiring when you're only 4 feet tall.
As a counterbalance, we spent time in more manageable towns, too, including Niagara-on-the-Lake, a Colonial-era Napa whose vineyards produce some of the world's best ice wines. With a main street that's just blocks long, it was easy for the kids to scope out their favorite bakery, which displayed faded photos of Queen Elizabeth's visit in 1973.
Best of all, the town is a tranquil 20-minute drive to the adrenaline rush of Niagara Falls, best viewed from the Canadian side. We skipped the whirlpool jet boat rides in favor of the classic Maid of the Mist, which noses its way toward the falls, drenching anyone standing on deck.
Dine beyond the interstate
From Niagara Falls, we crossed back into the United States, driving through New York and Pennsylvania to Conneaut, Ohio, where we got off the interstate for lunch at the White Turkey Drive-In. Plucked straight out of Mayberry, this summer-only soda fountain specializes in shredded turkey sandwiches and root beer floats made with vanilla soft-serve. The kids loved the individual jukeboxes set up on the counter. Walter and I enjoyed sitting in the open air, taking in the breeze of Lake Erie, a few miles to the north.
Consider the grownups, too
After lunch we headed to Cleveland to visit Walter's one request: The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. We pulled up just in time to board Johnny Cash's tour bus before it closed for the day. (It was Wednesday, so the main part of the museum remained open until 9 p.m.) Walking between Johnny's compartment (mahogany paneling illegally harvested from Cash's estate in Jamaica; black leather upholstery) and June's (baby blue velvet and lace curtains) felt extremely intimate and helped me see that at its heart, the music celebrity lifestyle is really about schlepping from place to place in very cramped quarters.
The kids seemed unmoved, and were also restless wandering galleries stocked with everything from the Beatles' original lyrics to David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust costumes. Walter could have spent an entire weekend poring over his favorite musician's knickknacks. But he made the most of his three hours and explained to the kids why music videos were such a breakthrough and told them about the birth of hip-hop.
Watching my husband of 13 years smile as he listened to Bo Diddley made me realize just how much road trips celebrate what's special about the places we don't always consider destinations in and of themselves. After this trip, I'd fly to Toronto for a vacation. But from the Ducks to the drive-in to Niagara Falls, our road trip was a series of almost magical encounters with places that need only a few hours to appreciate. If we'd stayed longer at any one, chances are they'd start to tarnish.
Fortunately, we had to keep moving. So we hit the road.
Elizabeth Foy Larsen is a Minneapolis writer. Her book "Unbored: The Essential Field Guide to Serious Fun" will be released in October.