Thursday, December 23, 2004

Why Do We Travel at Christmas?

Melissa and I are very much at peace with the idea of throwing our kids in the car, stuffing the cooler full of deli meat, carrot sticks, milk, bread, and juice, carefully arranging all our gear in our car's quite limited space, and hitting the road. Of course, we travel by plane when we can, but we often can't afford that, and even if we could, the endless expenses and hassles of planning excursions around airports and rental cars and long-term parking rarely seems worth it to us, especially if you want to cover a lot of ground at your destination. So, mostly we drive. We've hauled our kids back and forth across the country and beyond; we've taken them to New Orleans and Boston, Seattle and Chicago, St. Louis and Toronto. We've become experts on roadside excursions and rest stops; familiarized ourselves with turnpikes and less-traveled highways; taught our kids all sorts of tricks and games to help pass the time. We were both raised this way, by parents who threw us in the car at a young age, and drove the family to Niagara Falls and Yellowstone, Disneyland and Omaha, Cape Cod and the California coast; as difficult as those trips often were, we remember them fondly, and feel they offer something worth passing on to our own kids. Traveling as a family hundreds of miles down the highway, starting early and stopping late, pulling into at this park for lunch and this motel for the night, teaches you a lot about what you can do, what you can see, and what you can experience, with just some mechanical know-how, some creative budgeting, some patience for each other (and some openness towards those persons you meet along the way), and a little bit of luck.

It's that last one that regularly fails us at Christmastime.

I sit here, in my in-law's house in Ypsilanti, MI, slowly recovering from the ordeal of the last two days, and I'm tallying up our record. What have the holidays given us over the years? Begin with flying, just to cover all the bases. Stuck on a plane for hours in Spokane, WA, waiting for a de-icer to arrive. Delayed and missed flights at Baltimore, Chicago, Minneapolis. Stranded in the Atlanta airport (by a snowstorm) for most of the night, and then trying to get the kids to sleep in the lobby of a Sheraton Hotel (every place in town was booked solid once the airport closed) at 3am. After that last one, we swore: we'd never again fly anywhere at Christmas. So, driving you ask? Admittedly, our luck was slightly better there: there's been bad weather-related hang-ups in Tennessee, Maryland, Michigan, Pennsylvania (twice, I think) and elsewhere, but nothing we couldn't handle--or so we thought. But then . . . this year. We departed Arkansas at 5:30am on December 22, trying to get north before the rain turned to freezing rain. We failed. Slow going up through Missouri and over the Mississippi, as the ice turned to snow, then complete paralysis on I-57 in southern Illinois, where we waited for about 1 1/2 hours for an accident to be cleared away. We tried to make up for lost time up I-57 and onto I-70 into Indiana, but we heard more snow was coming from the north. Michigan was already looking bad; which way should we go? Foolishly, we decided to head into Ohio before turning north . . . and promptly plunged directly into the blizzard. More paralysis about 40 miles from the Ohio border, this time lasting more than 2 hours (by which time it was after 9pm, all five of us having been in the car for about 15 hours altogether). There were rumors (when you're stuck in traffic for a long time, even when it's only 20 degrees out, you tend to get out, wander up and down the line, and beg people with cell phones or truckers with radios to tell you want they've heard) that the Ohio border was closed; we finally managed to pull into Richmond, IN, and grab one of the last rooms in town. Blessed sleep. Then: up around 5am, digging the car out (the drifts were over Caitlyn's head in some places), slowing inching our way back to Indianapolis, then turning north to Fort Wayne (on--heaven be praised--a plowed interstate!) and Michigan, and finally arriving at Grandma and Grandpa Madsen's house at just before 3pm. Total time on the road driving: 22 hours in a 33 hour period.

The kids were troopers; they napped and played and whined a little but basically endured. Alison, our one-year-old, of course was miserable, but she seems to have emerged psychologically unscarred, though we don't want to show her the car seat at all for a few days, for fear she'll have a screaming fit. As for Melissa and I . . . well, there's always this point, when your luck is poor and your choices are turning out even worse, that you all of a sudden stop being angry and frustrated--at delays, the weather gods, other people's driving--and you start being scared. That point hit me at about 8:30pm last night. This is bad, I thought. We could be stuck here all night. And even when we can finally move again, we could be snowed in--maybe they won't open the freeway. Maybe we'll be celebrating Christmas in a Super 8 Motel. Tell me again--why the hell are we traveling at Christmastime? I mean, didn't we seen Melissa's brother's wife just last March?

So that's when Melissa and I made a pact: we're never going anywhere for Christmas again, ever. Believe me, we like traveling. We're pretty good at it. We want to take the family on big road trips to the Great Lakes, the Grand Canyon, Quebec and the Gaspe Peninsula, Key West. That doesn't intimidate us, because we're pretty resourceful, and our track record is pretty good. But it sucks when it comes to traveling at Christmas. Sure, it's the weather that has got us every time, but really it's more than that--it's how we deal with the weather. We're always choosing the routes with the delays. We're always getting slowed down just when we need some speed. Most importantly, we're always making crappy weather-related decisions. We could both have National Weather Service satellite implants directly feeding data to our brains, and we'd still blow it. ("Which way is the storm going? South! No, wait, west!") So no, far better to just to take the option off the table entirely. This is it. Maybe are standards our too high, but we've too much pride in our long-haul vacations to continue to allow Christmas catastrophes like these weaken our resolve. (And our kids' endurance: how many good trips will it take for them to live the memory of this terrible drive down?) No more traveling at Christmas. I love my in-laws, and I'm glad the kids will have a chance to play in the snow, but this one, yes, this one was definitely enough.

I'm off to bed. I'll try to post something appropriate to the holiday tomorrow. For the moment, those of you who have (perhaps once again!) safely traveled to your Christmas destination, to celebrate with friends and family both old and new, as I know millions do every year, I salute you. I envy you. And I'm going to stop trying to be you. From now on, folks can visit us for Christmas. I mean, why tempt fate when you can be fairly confident that you'll come out the worse for it?


Anonymous said...

You just described our Christmas travel history, 1996-2002. That's the year we decided we were never going anywhere at Christmas again--after trying to escape from the results of an ice storm in Arkansas before the next one locked us in for the next three weeks.

Drive safe! 

Posted by Jonathan Green

Anonymous said...

We went through the same storm and I was asking myself the same questions. it took about 12 hours to get across Arkansas. I know you live there, but for me, that is way too long to be in that state. 

Posted by Sean Andrews