Written on August 5, 2014 at 12:18 pm , by Christina Tynan-Wood
“We could pull a Thelma and Louise right here, Mom.” Ava (15) was pointing to the precipice falling away into oblivion before our car.
“I was about to say that!” I answered.
We were climbing into the mountains on our way out of Death Valley, six days into our own epic, life-changing road trip, and relocating from North Carolina to California. Everyone—well, mostly my teenagers—had expressed no small amount of anxiety about our ability to get along in a car for that long. When informed that we planned to drive cross-country with two quarrelsome teens and 60 pounds of stubborn canine anxiety, a few people had suggested that our chances of ending in mayhem and bloodshed were high.
At least one of the trip’s detractors was in the car with us. “I’m dreading this,” Cole (17) had said the night before our departure. “Ten days in a car with my family. What could be worse?”
I didn’t voice my fears but I certainly had them. My kids are so skilled at bickering they could have coached Liz Taylor and Richard Burton for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. My husband, Dan, and I had just packed all our earthly belongings into a moving container, a herculean effort that had left us teetering close to Taylor-and-Burton territory ourselves. I’m aware that moving has a stress quotient that’s right up there with divorce. Was I crazy to think that throwing this road trip on top of the move wouldn’t cause one to lead to the other?
“Maybe we’ll have fun,” the Pollyanna voice in my head ventured.
So I overprepared. I made sure everyone had a working smartphone with data, a tablet and headphones. I made sure the kids downloaded books, movies and music to those devices before we left in case we found ourselves without cell service or Wi-Fi. GM had loaned me a Buick Enclave for the journey as part of its Buick Bucket List campaign. It sports plenty of charging ports, video monitors and space as well as some serious creature comforts, such as heated and cooled seats. The dog would have the third row and each teen a monitor. We were not planning on suffering. Since this particular car does not sport a Wi-Fi connection (though most cars with OnStar will in the future), we packed a NetGear Mingle so that everyone could get online with their laptops and tablets. When another famously quarrelsome couple (Sir Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke) went searching for the source of the Nile, preparation was essential. I told myself the same was true for us. Preparation didn’t guarantee success—certainly not for Burton and Speke—but the lack of it could mean certain failure.
And here we were, six days later, staring into a (stunningly beautiful) abyss.
We’d had to make a few compromises for the dog, but not many. We were able to find beds, TV and free Wi-Fi in places that let our pet stay with us at every stop. It was pretty easy. We simply limited ourselves to two hotel chains and used the Hotels Tonight app, when possible, to secure rooms at a bargain price. La Quinta hotels are always pet-friendly but, from afar and with only a smartphone, it’s hard to tell the difference between the nice properties and the sketchy ones. Best Westerns usually accept pets and are sometimes (I’m talking about you, Best Western near Zion) exceptionally pleasant. We also like KOA’s Deluxe cabins because they’re as nice as hotel rooms and often pet-friendly, plus they offer more space, including a kitchenette and a separate room for the kids. So, with almost no advance planning, we did fine on accommodations.
We also survived vast deserts that lacked not only water but cell service. We were traveling with our phones on an AT&T plan, a Nokia 2520 tablet with 4G on Verizon, and the Mingle on Sprint’s networks. I now know for certain that all claims by cell companies that they have connected the entire world do not include vast stretches of American mountains, plains and desert. But it didn’t matter. By the time we got past Oklahoma, the need to always be connected had drifted away, along with most of the worries that we wouldn’t get along.
When we got to the New Mexico desert, Cole grabbed the Bluetooth connection to the Enclave’s sound system so that we could all enjoy that landscape to the sound tracks to Sergio Leone spaghetti Westerns like A Fistful of Dollars. “Is that atmospheric or what?” he asked as we drove over a bridge with desert as far as the eye could see while a train passed beneath us, Ennio Morricone’s music playing full blast.
We survived my husband’s disastrous attempts at hula hoop in Santa Fe, blistering (115 degrees!) heat in Death Valley, our own bad singing and some terrible food. As a family, we are stronger for it.
It turns out this crazy road trip was an excellent idea. My bickering kids got into only a few scrapes. My husband and I have a blast together when we aren’t working so hard. Our post-move aches and pains were soothed by repeatedly alternating the car’s seats between heated and chilled. We saw a dozen places—Monument Valley, Zion National Park, Death Valley and Memphis among them—that were on my bucket list. And we witnessed a few things that none of us expected or really hoped to see, including the Area 51 Alien Brothel (or the gas station portion of it, anyway) and the Continental Divide fireworks and souvenir store.
As we crested that hill with Death Valley below and only my sane driving decisions keeping us from Thelma-and-Louise oblivion, Ava was not suggesting that we end it all in an apocalyptic blaze. She was demonstrating that we were enjoying each other’s company.
“See,” she answered. “I can read your mind. Love you, Mom!” She smiled at me in the rearview. “Who knows you better than anyone?”