Notes from Nowhere PA: On a 12 hour road trip with teens

April 24, 2015 in North America, Travelogue, United States

car 1We are a combined  35 feet, 4 inches of body length, give or take.

As family length goes, that’s hovering somewhere above average. This morning, that 35 feet, 4 inches is folded, origami style, into pretty much every available inch of our Chevy Suburban. I awoke to the sun rising over the bow and the rolling hills of Pennsylvania arching their backs into the first light of day.

I don’t remember the last time we did a truly all night drive. Perhaps when the children were all under five. When they were tiny, and we lived over a thousand miles from Grammy, the path of least resistance was to pack the car in the late afternoon, feed everyone an early dinner that tasted like home, and shake everyone down into the toes of their footy pajamas, buckling their carseats just before bedtime and drive off into the sunset. The Man would drive until 2 a.m., just before Toronto, and then I’d do the last three hours, the home stretch, to the ferry dock. Grammy always had breakfast waiting.

It’s been a while. 

Teenagers do not favour footy pajamas.

They favour driving. Which, when one is staring down 12 to 14 hours, is a welcome thing. “I’ll drive!” Ez piped up from the cheap seats in the back of the truck. His siblings gave him the appropriate smack down before I could formulate a snappy comeback. Hannah arranged herself behind the wheel. Tony snagged my squishy pillow and accordion folded his long limbs into the back seat with Gabe as we girls prepared to take the first shift.

I thought I might work while Hannah drove. Nope. We talked.

This morning, over marginal coffee and dry rye toast in a nameless diner near the Roadside America attraction, Hannah commented, “Well, we talked over just about every single topic last night, didn’t we Mom?” I’m sure we missed a few.

Gabe stirred his cup of joe, “My earphones fell out and you were talking about condoms… again…”

“Oh good, at least you tuned in for a part that applies to you too!” I winked.

Gabe rolled his eyes, “Mom. I’ve heard the message. Enough times. I did not tune in. I jammed my earphone back in and turned the music up.”

Hannah laughed, “Don’t worry Gabe, this time we were talking about how to make balloon animals out of them!” She mimes twisting a giraffe. We were not.

Fair enough. I do tend to preach on this topic with some regularity. Kids are a captive audience in the car. I waste no time and leave no stone unturned.

We also discussed:

  • Religion
  • Politics
  • Abortion
  • Ethics
  • Strategies for succeeding at university and making the most of the experience
  • Possible life paths that one could choose, or not
  • The reality that to choose one life is not to choose a myriad of others
  • That all of life is negotiation and compromise
  • The difficulties of re-entry
  • The nuances of relationships
  • Why investing deeply with a very few people matters immensely
  • Friendship over the long haul
  • Marriage and it’s changing definition and function in society
  • The importance of chasing one’s dreams and not missing a moment of the one life you’ve been given.

Chocolate eggs were shared in the darkness, along with big ideas and little thoughts as we tried not to wake our boatload of boys.

I got no work done.

And yet, I got what may be the last of my most important work done. Who knows how many more six hour blocks of uninterrupted talk time I have left with my girl. Later, when she was passed out, asleep, with the bean bag kitty that my friend Beth gave her when she was 14 months old, positioned over her eyes like a mask, life came full circle for a moment. This is the same kitty that she’s clutched by the tail since the moment it was handed to her. It has traversed continents, and marked every day of her growth. Kitty, like me, remembers the footy pajamas. The ones with bunny ears on the toes and the hood.

Traveling with three teenage boys is stinky business.

People take their shoes off, and that’s not the worst of it. An unpleasant side effect of continental shift is the intestinal distress that inevitably ensues for a couple of weeks. Take children who have not put one bite of fast food into their mouths in six months, not because they don’t want to, simply because it isn’t available, and then feed them road food for a few days and see what happens.

You’ll love the six month experiment. You’ll hate what follows.

Trust me on that. If you have any sense whatsoever, you will not trap yourself in a vehicle with these methane machines for an extended period of time. It’s rather like being a frog slowly boiling, one doesn’t notice it as the stench sneaks up. But when we stopped to swap the pink team for the blue team in the front seat, doing an Indy style speed pit stop at a “Loves” truck stop, the smell hit me like a brick wall when I opened Gabe’s door.

Before I could stop myself I’d quoted my friend Gayle, “THIS CAR SMELLS LIKE ASS!” I announced, with no regard for the fact that every single person here speaks English and understood every nuance of the expression. The boys coughed and gagged their way back into their assigned seats. I turned on the fan and dreamt of the sweet smell of breastfed babies, newly bathed and snuggly in their carseats. What happened to THOSE little kids? Big kids stink.

My first conscious thought as we stumbled, like zombies, into the truck stop at Exit 23 this morning was, “Hey… is it groundhog day? This looks exactly like the last place I woke up.” Like, EXACTLY, down to the positioning and content of the flip-flop display nearest to the women’s bathroom. It was another “Loves” truck stop. Their branding and the content of their shops is eerily consistent, especially for someone who’s faded in and out of twilight sleep for twelve hours whilst hoping her spawn doesn’t kill her in her sleep at highway speeds.

car 2

The map on the placemat of the diner helped sort us out. Apparently we’re not the only patrons to stumble in wondering where in the heck we are. “Shartlesville, PA,” one of the boys informs us. There is silence. Then giggling. Teenagers.

“You know what Dad says…” Ezra philosophizes, and of course we all do know, because we’ve traveled with this child for quite some time now: NTAF… it’s because of Shartlesville.” He’s deadpan serious.

There’s snickering before the boy’s start to read off the names of neighbouring towns: “Intercourse… Blue Ball… Horny Town…. oh, wait, I read that wrong, it’s HONY Town.” Breakfast is a lost cause. I order a second cup of tea. Clearly it’s going to be THAT kind of morning.

And so, we roll further east. Gabe is behind the wheel again. The Man is passed out in the sunshine, trying to make up for his graveyard shift in the captain’s seat. Gabe’s owl, that Katie sent him from Germany, and Karl, our New Zealand Kiwi bird, are also passed out, drunk perhaps, next to the Hawaiian hula girl on the dashboard. The bell I bought for Tony, in Chichicastenango, years ago, hangs from the mirror.

The interior of the vehicle looks like a whale that has swallowed several rainbows, with everyone’s Guatemalan blankets draped and wadded over bags and books. Last night’s left over pizza box is jammed in next to Elisha’s head. A midnight snack, no doubt, that added to the scent scape of the journey.

Hannah and her kitty are writing. She perches him on her head or her shoulder and calls him her, “thinking cat.” The boys are, mercifully, not losing the plot in the far back seat. Instead, they’re looking out the window and folding drinking straws into interesting shapes. If there is on thing I can say about my children, it is that they are extraordinarily patient and they wait rather well. I suppose we have the deprivation therapy of lots of time in the third world to thank for that; it does make an all night marathon drive more pleasant.