Would You Drive Across the Country Without a Smartphone?
What Getting Lost Taught Us About Scarcity And Gratitude : Tales From 12 Years On The Road With 3 Kids
My stubborn pride about using only paper maps resulted in a nerve-racking detour through New York City towing a 30-foot trailer — with three children in the back seat.
We loaded the kids and suitcases into our Chevy 1-ton van and left Grandpa’s house in Asbury Park, New Jersey at 6 am towing our 30’ home (aka RV) behind us. We planned to arrive at the campground in New Hampshire by noon. Two years before that we sold our 3 bedroom ranch house and packed our family into a tow-behind travel trailer. We were at the front end of what would eventually become 12 years of living on the road.
My husband and I traded our daily grind to travel the country with three kids, ages 11, 9 and 4, while they were still young enough to be excited about the undertaking. We took seasonal jobs as campground managers to cover expenses, and between work stints we explored National Parks, toured museums and major cities, and hiked and camped our way across the states. 9-year-old Jake would ask when I kissed him good-night; “Mom, where will we be tomorrow?”
Two years in we felt like travel pros. The night before a long driving day we packed lunch, snacks, games and books on tape, ready for an early start. The route was plotted, paper maps and directions marked. No smartphone for us; this was the year 2000, and we would not submit to the unnecessary convenience or expense of a Garmin GPS. People had been traveling for decades without an automated voice telling them what roads to take; we wanted to do this on our own acumen, not by relying on gadgets.
I admit, my endeavor to avoid technology may have been a bit zealous.
We had no DVD or video players in our van for kid-entertainment. We borrowed books on cassette or CD from the library and mailed them back for return. We would eventually get the kids each a Nintendo Game Boy for Christmas, but I hadn’t yet caved. Christine, Jake, and Sam were reading maps and free travel guidebooks from AAA. That’s pronounced “triple A” for you Millennials.
Snacks and Scooters
Our travel snack bag in the car was packed with pretzels, apples, and on a good day, homemade cranberry banana bread. Candy was a rare event. When our three were toddlers I surmised that children and candy did not mix well. Sugar intake resulted in volatile energy spikes, misbehavior, and rotting teeth. I became more flexible on this point as the kids got better at controlling their impulses, attitudes, and brushing their teeth, but we weren’t there yet.
On that particular travel day we had planned our route from Asbury Park, New Jersey to Kingston, New Hampshire. We were returning for the second season to manage a family campground. Grandpa’s house in New Jersey was an ideal layover, just 6 hours from our final destination.
The kids were excited; Grandpa had bought them each a Razor scooter. In 2002, when the kids were ages 13, 11, and 7, Razors were supercool. We had to make a quick stop at Grandpa’s work in Mahwah, New Jersey since he’d had the scooters shipped there. Mahwah was on the way, right off highway I-287, on the border of New Jersey and New York State.
Ever wonder how people navigated without a smartphone and a mapping app? The expressways around New York City can be intimidating; we mapped our route in advance to avoid directing our 45-foot long trailer/van combo through potential pitfalls. Fortunately, the parking lot at the Mahwah stop was spacious enough to turn around with a 30-foot trailer in tow.
After profuse thank-yous and hugs for Grandpa, the kids buckled back in and we hit the road again. I preferred to navigate while Steve drove since I didn’t much care for towing the trailer on congested highways. I directed him back onto I-287 towards New York and drifted off to sleep. The problem was, we were heading south towards New York City, not north towards New York State, a major directional error.
“Honey, I think we are headed in the wrong direction,” Steve announced, as he woke me from my doze. Signs flew past announcing “Perth Amboy/Staten Island.” Uh oh! Pulling off the highway can be intimidating with a travel trailer in tow. Until you’ve tried maneuvering one of these contraptions through a city you never realize how many narrow roads are hiding around the bend, or big dips sit lurking at gas station entrances.
Go back the way you came? Not us.
Unwilling to pull over prematurely, we crossed the Outerbridge and sped through Staten Island. The navigator was wide awake now, desperately calculating route options. Was it better to find a place to turn around, go back the way we had just come, or proceed forward through Brooklynn, Queens, and the Bronx? Retracing our steps seemed like the longer option; by default or lack of decision, we headed into New York City.
The air was tense in the van as we drove. Steve skillfully navigated the city streets, as I peered through the windshield at the overhead signs, trying to give him as much advance notice as possible for upcoming turns and highway changes. In hindsight, I wonder how we ever managed without Google Maps telling us which lane to be in, or whether the upcoming turn onto the highway would be a right or a left. The kids watched the city change as the boroughs whizzed past. They could feel our stress and stayed quiet.
Scarcity & Gratitude
Three long hours after saying good-bye to Grandpa in Mahwah we cleared the congestion and pulled into a gas station in Stamford, Connecticut, unscathed and grateful that we hadn’t had to stop for gas at one of the tiny corner filling stations in the city. I whispered an idea to Steve, who agreed that an exception to our “no candy” policy was in order.
The cooperation during that detour was remarkable. We tried never to make bargains with our kids to extort good behavior; behaving was expected. Our children were nonetheless energetic, imaginative kids who pushed the limits and teased each other expertly. But not that day. They evidently recognized that this drive was unfamiliar and challenging, and required all of our concentration.
The dip and bump of the van as we pulled into the gas station was a sharp reminder that everyone had needed to pee for the last hour; the kids unbuckled and we headed into the gas station. After the bathroom break, I surprised them by announcing they could each choose a candy bar. They looked confused. “What? A whole one? We don’t have to share? Can we eat it all now, or do we need to save it?” “You can eat it all at once,” I said, “or save some, whatever you like.”
Scarcity promotes gratitude. We still had several hours to travel that day. Christine, Jake, and Sam were delightedly munching on chocolate and sugar when Jake piped up from the back of the van, “It’s okay, Mom. We can get lost anytime!” They don’t remember getting lost, or the extra hours we spent in the car. But they will never forget the experience of getting to choose a whole candy bar for themselves.
Needless to say, we bought a Garmin that year.