Hit the Road

A family trip can impart many memorable life lessons.

By JB Hager, Photo by Rudy Arocha

Another school year is winding down and the conversation again turned to, “What are we going to do for a summer vacation?” I chimed in immediately, “Road trip!” The look my wife and daughter gave me was one of the most frightening things I have ever seen. And did I mention I was going to ban any smartphone use and laptops on this trip? I’m not talking about a quick jaunt to the Texas coast. I’m talking about at least two full days of driving as far east or west as we can go.

I insisted that we do it old school: with no digital navigation, literally just folding maps and on a tight budget, the way I remember road trips as a kid. I was serious and stated my case. I argued such an excursion teaches kids the life skills they are lacking today and serves as a great reminder for my wife and I on what it really means to communicate and be engaged. I made a list of the benefits of an unplugged road trip. Yes, this became my “This is how it was when I was growing up” speech.

We’ll need to map our trip in advance. We are certainly not going to eat fast food along our two- to three-day journey, so we’ll pack sandwiches, fruit and other snacks. Yeah, we’re those people who paid way too much for a Yeti Cooler, and in this scenario, we’re not stopping for ice. You know those little roadside picnic tables? We’re using them. Have you ever been to a Six Flags theme park and seen the picnic areas by the parking lot? My family used those when I was a kid. We would plan, get the stamp on our hands midday and meet outside for lunch, probably nosh a PB&J, an orange and a Little Debbie snack as a special treat, and no one complained.

I have three sisters, and cars didn’t have third rows back in the day. That meant the four of us had to learn to spend several days shoulder to shoulder without killing each other. There was a lot of smack talk, like, “If you cross that line, I’m going to stab you,” but if it did turn to violence, my mother—without even turning her head around—could smack us all upside our heads with one swipe and not spill the coffee in her other hand. We were all incredibly different but had to learn to cohabitate. If one kid had a farting problem, gosh darn it, we were all going to have a farting problem.

Anything less than getting along and working together was unacceptable. If one of us was causing trouble, we were all in trouble. It was the same type of group discipline you see in the military: We are all going to succeed or fail together. We had to decide if we were all going to play the license-plate game, I Spy or agree on a radio station. It was a democracy. We voted and we all accepted the outcome.

We weren’t just going to cross our arms, blink like a genie and arrive at our destination. There was a buildup and a great sense of accomplishment and gratitude when we got to the beach, the mountains or a theme park. It made the destination all that more glorious. We learned to delay gratification by putting forth effort to get the reward.

Expect the Unexpected
Back then, there was no Yelp or Zagat. You learned you might be pleasantly surprised or severely disappointed. Your roadside hotel might have filled the pool with dirt or you might have eaten an entire 60-ounce steak only to find out the restaurant was out of free T-shirts. You either met wonderful people along the way or you learned to deal with difficult people. 

Although there are a lot of daunting and challenging moments as described above, there were and can be many moments when everything aligns, no one is fighting, everyone is in sync, enjoying the moment and moving forward—together. Everyone is laughing, smiling and sharing a wonderful memory that can’t be erased.
Now go back and reread this list of skill sets, apply them to a relationship or the workplace as an adult and tell me a family road trip doesn’t prepare you for life.