Last summer our family — me, my wife, and our two children — drove to Yellowstone National Park. Now, I have to admit I undertook this journey with a bit of trepidation. For some time I’d been reading about the degradation of our national parks, how the outdoor experience has been diminished by crowds, noise, and pollution. But after a week’s worth of first-hand study, I can say with utmost assuredness that there’s really only one problem at Yellowstone, and if that were to be eliminated the entire park experience would be immeasurably enhanced for everybody. The problem? Too many children. Or at least I’m certain there were too many in our camper.
There’s this famous Henry David Thoreau saying, "In wildness is the preservation of the world." Nice sentiment, but I’ve got to tell you, Henry, there was more wildness in our 8-by 15-foot camper than in any section of Yellowstone’s backcountry. And the only preservation at stake was that of our sanity. One night over the din of our children’s pillow fight we heard wolves howling, and I swear that as soon as our kids fell asleep, the wolves settled down too, as if our human wildlife had been keeping them up.
The trip got me to thinking about all the other car trips we’ve taken with our kids. One thing I’ve learned since starting a family is that, fundamentally, parenting is about making the same mistakes over and over, and then passing that same poor judgment on to your children by calling it a tradition.
Take Friday night dinnertime, and my insistence that the four of us gather together and say a few solemn Sabbath blessings before eating. They’re hungry, and I’m shouting as I try to create a moment of grace. Most Friday nights I’m lucky if at least one of the kids hasn’t been banished to his bedroom by the time I get to the final blessing, which is, ironically enough, over the children. But my parents fought with my sisters and me over Friday-night prayers, and their parents did with them, and now it’s my turn.
But I was talking about car trips. Our kids don’t particularly like the car, so naturally, when Ari was 1 1/2, we decided to drive across the country from our home in Oregon to visit family in Vermont.
You have no idea how large a country this is until you’ve driven it in 90-minute increments with a child who has confinement issues. Imagine the sound of a chain saw. Now imagine being locked inside a car with the sound of a chain saw.
Then there was the drive home from the beach at Manzanita last winter. We were cruising along the highway, trying to make good time because Ari had a birthday party to get to in an hour, when Francie dissolved into a Stage-Three meltdown. Stage Three is pretty serious stuff. (Not as bad as Stage Four, though, when actual physical morphing takes place and a parent may not be able to recognize his own offspring.)
So Francie is descending into a tantrum because she wants to go to a birthday party, too. Of course, a moving vehicle is the worst place on earth to be when a Stage Three hits. I read somewhere that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has guidelines for these situations — you’re supposed to remove all occupants from the vehicle, find a ditch or a shallow spot near the road that’s a reasonable distance from the car, place the child in a safe position, faceup in the ditch, and run like hell. But we’re not those kind of parents — we’re old and don’t run well.
Anyway, with Francie wailing for a party of her own, I did what any right-thinking parent would do. I immediately put together birthday festivities right in the car, playing front-seat clown and magician all the way into the city. I even produced a birthday cake — a stale chocolate-chip cookie that had been gathering dust on the car seat. We all sang "Happy Imaginary Birthday" to Francie before the kids split the cake. Soon, everybody in the car was contented, and we finished the trip home in relative peace and quiet. In fact, everybody was so happy we started talking about summer vacation. Maybe a driving trip to Yellowstone Park.
Peter Korn is a magazine writer and a commentator for Oregon Public Radio.