Road Trips and Music, Ultimate Relationship Builders

Summer: The Perfect Time to Test Your Relationship with a Road Trip.

I write a lot about road trips and travel because they’re two of my favorite activities. Fortunately, our family travels really well together. Over the years, I’ve found creative ways to enjoy long road trips with our boys, even when they were tiny. I’m the Queen of Road Trip Snacks, and thanks to one of my sisters-in-law for sharing some of her fantastic ideas, I’m really good at providing entertainment at minimum expense for traveling with kids.

There were family road trips where we took long, accidental detours because we were all sucked into a book on CD, trips where we had emergency stops for gastric distress, trips with spontaneous stops for silly picture taking with odd geological shapes; we’ve had many memorable adventures over thousands of miles.

One road trip stands out for me

I was traveling alone with our two boys from Montana to Colorado, about a 10 hour drive through some of the most boring and most beautiful miles in the country. They were 12 & 10 years old; I was driving them to a two-week camp outside of Denver and would have the return drive by myself. At the time, I was in a job I hated and had so much stress & tension built up that the thought of spending 10–11 hours by myself on the return trip was pure joy. I love to spend time like that, listening to music and clearing my head of anything but the road and the sounds of my car.

Our older son had the first turn as DJ for the trip. Each boy was given a budget for music to load onto my iPod before we loaded up the car, and Jacob was thrilled for the opportunity to share his choices with me and his brother. He selected each song as the previous one was playing, picking one out at a time, rather than create a full playlist. We were driving east of Billings and heading toward the border of Wyoming, the plains and buttes opening ahead of us, the blue sky clearly demonstrating the reason for Montana’s designation of Big Sky Country. To our left were rocky cliffs, to the right the dry valley of the Crow Indian Reservation. It was the perfect mile for Jacob’s next song selection, Astronaut by Simple Plan:

Can anybody hear me?
Or am I talking to myself?
My mind is running empty
In the search for someone else

Who doesn’t look right through me.
It’s all just static in my head
Can anybody tell me why I’m lonely like a satellite?

I like to think I’m a person who is generally present, especially when it comes to time with my children. Unfortunately, I’m also human and flawed. At that time in my life, my mind was full of discomfort and self-consciousness. I’ve written a lot about the effect that job had on me, one thing I might not have expressed is the effect it had on my family. It was difficult on all of us; our boys had less of me, less of my attention, and less of what they knew their mother to be. So when that song came on, I wasn’t on full alert — yet. But as I came back to the moment, toward the end of the song, I heard these lyrics:

…tonight I’m feeling like an astronaut 
 Sending SOS from this tiny box
 To the lonely people that the world forgot
 Are you out there?
 ’Cause you’re all I’ve got!
 Can I please come down?
 ’Cause I’m tired of drifting round and round
Can I please come down.

I was filled with sadness when I made the request for Jacob to play that one again. And then again. I asked my son why he picked that song; we talked about middle school and how lonely it could feel there. We talked about being alone versus being lonely. He told me his feelings about the song, that he sometimes listened to it because he really related to it. Our discussion was light, not too intense, but real and loving. I reminded him that even though we were all on our own journeys, we can choose to have company by being good company to others, we can choose to be alone sometimes, which is fine and healthy, and we can ask for companionship when we need it.

The next song was a lot more fun, but no less emotionally charged. It was Take Over the World by Your Favorite Martian. I had never heard that one, either. We listened to it at least four times in a row. It felt empowering, given my emotional condition at work.

Workin’ every week at a job I can’t stand.
I always tell myself that one day I’ll be the man.
What’re we gonna do tonight, Brain?
We’re gonna take over the world.
Once I quit this job, then I’ll be free.
I’ve got greater plans. Wait and see.
I’m gonna rise to the top, take over everything.

Some day my boss will work for me,
and one day I’ll be king.

We arrived at my brother’s place that night for a short visit, and I delivered the boys to camp the next day. After a couple of fun evenings alone with my brother, I began the long drive back to Montana by myself.

Astronaut came on through my iPod about an hour into the drive, as I pulled into a gas station in Cheyenne, Wyoming. I was filled with emotion for two reasons; I missed my boys, and I remembered, vividly, how lonely life could be as a teenager. As a matter of fact, I was feeling pretty lonely at that time in my life as well.

For one of very few times in my life, I had regret in being absent from their lives because I was so focused on my own unhappiness in my job. I walked out of the gas station with a post card for each boy. Sitting in my car, I wrote a note to Jacob:

Dear Jacob,
I just dropped you off a couple of days ago and I already miss you. The song Astronaut came on as I was leaving Denver and I realized how important it was for you to share that song with me on our drive. It’s a really good song! You make me smile, Jacob, and I’m proud of your sense of self, your generosity, and your curious spirit. Please remember how important you are to me, and never stop sharing your music, it’s a great way to help me understand and relate to what you’re thinking and feeling.
Love, Mom

It has been a few years and the boys continue to share their music with me, pointing out lyrics they think have value, sharing their thoughts about the rhythm, and their ideas about the personalities of artists. Music is a huge part of our family’s experience together. Between attending live music events, performing, and listening to music together, we have created a unique dynamic in our family with inside jokes, memories, and lyrics to match moods and help to understand each other.

Sometimes playing a song for someone offers much deeper insight than we can offer with our own words.

Want to spend quality time with people? Ask them to pick the soundtrack for a drive or a walk. You can learn a lot about a person by listening to their music selection. Here’s one of my favorites, the theme song for my amazing husband: You & Me by the Dave Matthews Band.

*Warning* Music selected by your teens & pre-teens may not be your taste… you may be tempted to tell your child your thoughts about their choices — don’t. Just listen and ask why they like it. Dig in a little. And if you still can’t stand it, tell them what, specifically, you don’t like about it (that crazy bass-drop in the beginning, the rhythm is too pounding & gives me a headache, the lyrics are so youthful and naive and that bothers me, etc.) and then ask them to either select a different song or put on headphones. Never criticize the music choices of another human being.

This post was inspired by a post by Kristina Evans, a talented writer I met through LinkedIn, with her article Seven Ways to Brand Yourself…

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Sarah Elkins is a professional coach and consultant, helping people and businesses improve their communication through the art of storytelling. She’s also the President of Elkins Consulting, the company making a splash with small, face-to-face, affordable interactive conferences called No Longer Virtual.

A skilled teacher and entertaining speaker, I offer storytelling and customer service trainings and workshops and one-to-one coaching. I teach people how to find their stories, organize them, and share them across platforms. When you learn more about your own story, your communication with others improves, guaranteed.

Learning to tell your story is the key to your success. Visit my website to learn more.

Originally published at on March 14, 2016.