I was convinced my children would fall into the Grand Canyon.
That must-see American destination, along with other spots in the West, has long been on the family bucket list. But there was a time when our two sons were so rambunctious that my husband, Jeff, and I were exhausted by the idea of keeping them in check on the edge of a mile-deep abyss. I had good reason to worry: When Isaac was 6, he walked away unscathed after plunging from a 15-foot tree branch. At 7, Joe dropped off a 20-foot cliff at William O’Brien State Park, only to trudge, Wile E. Coyote-like, from the ledge 5 feet below that had broken his fall.
So we put off the trip for a year. And then another.
Suddenly, those little boys are teenagers. Shaving. Driving. Brooding. Jeff and I worried that we had missed our window.
Nope. Over two weeks at the end of last summer, we accomplished a successful Epic Family Road Trip, putting more than 4,500 miles on the car, passing through 12 states and visiting four national parks.
It is possible to have a memorable family vacation with these prickliest of relations — and we learned most of what we needed to know when they were in preschool. Back then, there was a formula to successful driving vacations. The key was preventing meltdowns by providing predictability, flexibility and stimulation, snacks and running-around time.
Teenagers need exactly the same things — plus reliable wireless service.
The payoff came during those moments when we caught the boys contemplating the vastness of the Grand Canyon, or inspecting a chunk of petrified wood, or stopping to grab a time-lapse video of a bubbling paint pot.
Planning reduces stress. Like preschoolers, teenagers soak up tension like sponges. It’s best to prevent it.
With the exception of a couple of nights on the road, we booked our lodging — motels, a camper cabin and a remarkably rustic lodge in an old resort — months in advance. That meant that there was no scrambling as we passed “No Vacancy” sign after “No Vacancy” sign in West Yellowstone, Mont., on our way to our reserved cabin at the KOA (also, no vacancy). It also meant that everyone knew it was pointless to moan about the lack of television, Wi-Fi and phone service at the Kaibab Lodge near the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. That acceptance enabled us to better appreciate evening birdsong and an incredible misty sunrise over the valley.
We shared daily and weekly schedules. This helped all of us know that even if we were less than thrilled with the current landscape, we were usually on our way to something awesome. We accomplished two long days on the road en route to Yellowstone, for example, in anticipation of a three-hour white-water rafting trip in Big Sky, Mont.
We would have missed great experiences if we had always stuck to the plan. When the opportunity arose, we stopped for ice cream or pizza.
My son Joe hurt his leg before we left, so he and I cut short a hike at the Grand Canyon’s North Rim and let Jeff and Isaac go on to the overlook without us. We also didn’t worry too much if the boys sometimes wanted to opt out of the program. When we arrived at the Grand Canyon’s South Rim, Jeff and I left the boys in the car. As they dozed, the two of us checked out the Desert View Watchtower and took in the awe-inspiring panorama of a thunderstorm raging on the North Rim.
It was fine that everyone wasn’t always down for a family selfie. In the end, we had plenty of family photos — and time.
When the boys were little, I packed activity bags with Matchbox cars, new Lego sets and games to keep them distracted during long hours in the car. They still need stimulation, but it’s easier now.
Before we left home, I told the boys that they were responsible for their own entertainment. Joe had summer reading for school. Isaac spent hours on the laptop uploading and editing the photos and video he shot along the way.
Although I had grand dreams of discovering a new classic family audiobook, we ended up listening to the entirety of “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.” Again. It was great, and the story was an effective carrot for Joe, who took a while to become absorbed in his assigned reading.
There’s nothing worse than “hangry” (hungry plus angry) teenagers, except maybe hangry adults. To keep hunger at bay, we borrowed an electric cooler from friends, which we filled with sandwich ingredients, veggies and dip, milk and more. My mom did some baking for us: biscotti and nana banana bread. We supplemented with salads and chips from grocery delis and enjoyed picnic lunches on town squares, in churchyards and at rural waysides.
We had decent cellular coverage for most of the trip, and the boys studied coverage maps so they would know when we were headed for the dark zones. All things considered, they didn’t complain much. But there was a lot of sharing and a little competition over how many bars everyone had.
I can imagine some people frowning on teens whose eyes are glued to their electronic devices during a family trip. Back in the day, my parents used to joke that I read through some of the most beautiful landscapes on the continent. But just as my parents had done, we caught the boys’ attentions when there was a sight we wanted them to see. With the exception of two days of zero coverage at the Grand Canyon, they could keep in touch with their friends and share their experiences, which eased the pain of being separated during the last couple of weeks of summer vacation.
Humor can bring you together. I got a T-shirt printed with “Richaca Family Vacation” — using a combo of our family names — and a picture of a loaded station wagon. I wore it as often as possible. It cracked me up every time. Someday Isaac will find it funny, too. Fortunately, something else made us laugh together. Isaac and I made time-lapse videos of him running across Great Salt Lake flats and down an ash pile at Craters of the Moon National Monument. They still crack us up.
Don’t forget to offer an outlet for complaints. One of my fears was that kvetching about little inconveniences would ruin the trip for everyone. I found an empty journal in a stack of old notebooks, and proclaimed it the “Complaint Journal.” It seemed to go unused, which pleased me.
A few weeks after we got home, I grabbed it to take notes in a meeting. It turns out Isaac had found a reason to write on its pages. His note reads:
“Joe wouldn’t stop poking me.
“Jeff was snoring too loud.
“Maria wore the ‘Richaca Family Vacation’ shirt three days in a row.”
It was a small price to finally see the country together.
Minnetonka writer and parent Maria Elena Baca is planning a family adventure to Toronto and Niagara Falls this summer.