From the forthcoming book, "Dave Barry's Only Travel Guide You'll Ever Need," by Dave Barry. To be published by Ballantine Books in October 1991. Copyright 1991 by Dave Barry. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted by permission of Ballantine Books, A Division of Random House Inc. Excerpts distributed by Tribune Media Services Inc.
Family travel has been an American tradition ever since the days when hardy pioneer families crossed the Great Plains in oxen-drawn covered wagons, braving harsh weather, hostile Native Americans, unforgiving terrain, scarce food, and -- worst of all -- the constant whining coming from the back seat:
"Are we there yet?"
"Hey! These plains aren't so great!"
"Mom, Ezra is making hostile gestures at those Native Americans!"
"Are we almost there?"
"Mom! Rebecca dumped some unforgiving terrain into my scarce food!"
"Please can we stop here and settle Kansas please please Please??"
"Yuck! We're eating bison again?"
"When are we going to be there?"
"Mom! Little Ben put oxen poop in his hair!"
Yes, it was brutally hard, but those brave pioneers kept going, day after day, month after month, never stopping, and do you know why? Because Dad was driving, that's why. When Dad is driving, he never stops for anything. This is part of the Guy Code of Conduct. A lot of those early pioneer dads, when they got to California, drove their wagons directly into the Pacific Ocean and would probably have continued to Japan if it weren't for shark damage to the oxen.
Another part of the Guy Code of Conduct still in effect is that only Dad can drive. If necessary, Dad will permanently bond his hands to the steering wheel with Crazy Glue to prevent Mom from driving, because he knows that if she had the wheel, she might suffer a lapse of judgment and decide to actually stop for something, such as food or sleep or medical care for little Jennifer whose appendix has apparently burst. No, Dad will not allow minor distractions such as these to interfere with his vacation schedule, which looks like this:
6:00-6:15 a.m: See Yellowstone National Park
6:15-6:25 a.m: See Grand Canyon
6:25-7:00 a.m: See Latin America
What Dad means by "see," of course, is "drive past at 67 miles per hour." Dad feels it is a foolish waste of valuable vacation time to get out of the car and actually go look at an attraction such as the White House, Niagara Falls, the Louvre, etc.
I myself have been guilty of this behavior. Once we were driving across the country, and we got to South Dakota, a dirt-intensive state so sparsely populated that merely by entering it you automatically become a member of the legislature. A major tourist attraction in South Dakota is something called "Wall Drug," which is basically a group of stores advertised by a string of billboards that begins somewhere outside of the solar system. My wife, Beth, wanted to stop. Her reasoning was that we had driven hundreds of miles that day with absolutely no activity to relieve our boredom except eating Stuckey's miniature pecan pies at the rate of approximately three pies per person per hour. And so as we drew closer to Wall Drug, passing billboard after billboard -- 157 miles to go, 153 miles to go, 146 miles to go, etc. -- her anticipation mounted, until finally we were there, and Beth's excitement reached a fever pitch because this was the only point of interest for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of miles, and of course I elected to whiz right past it, as though I had an important appointment elsewhere in South Dakota to pick up an urgent load of manure.
You know how certain incidents become permanent sore points in a marriage? Like for example a husband will never let his wife forget the time she left a $2,000 video camera where the baby could get hold of it and drop it into the toilet? That's the status that the Wall Drug Incident has achieved in our marriage. My wife feels that we're the only people in the history of interstate travel who failed to stop there, and, 15 years later, she is still bitter. If she ever files for a divorce, this is the first incident she'll mention to the lawyer.
And that's the wonderful thing about family travel: It provides you with experiences that will remain locked forever in the scar tissue of your mind. Especially if you travel with children. We traveled extensively with our son, Robert, when he was very young, and I have many, many vivid memories of that period, all of which involve public restrooms.
As you parents know, a small child can go for weeks without going to the bathroom at home, but once you hit the road, it becomes pretty much a full-time occupation. During my son Robert's early years, he and I visited just about every men's room on the East Coast. And if it was a really disgusting men's room, a men's room that contained the skeletons of Board of Health workers who died trying to inspect it, Robert would inevitably announce that he had to do: Number Two.
So he'd go into a stall and close the door, and his little legs would disappear, and he'd remain there for as long as two days. God alone knows what he was doing in there. Meanwhile, of course, I'd stand guard outside the stall, because you can't leave a 3-year-old alone. Inevitably strangers would come in, and there I'd be, apparently just hanging out alone in a men's room, and they'd look at me suspiciously. So in an effort to reassure these strangers that I was a Father on Duty, as opposed to some kind of lurking men's-room pervert, I'd try to strike up a conversation with Robert through the stall door:
Me: So, Robert, my 3-year-old-son who is inside this stall that I'm guarding as a responsible parent! How's it going in there?
Stall door: (silence)
Me: Ha ha! Speak up, Robert!
Stall door: (silence)
And the strangers would turn and stride quickly out the door, because nobody wants to be in a public restroom with a person who's talking to a toilet stall.
Of course if there's anything more exciting than traveling with a child, it's traveling with several children. We ourselves have only one child, because after Beth experienced the Joy and Wonder of natural childbirth, she decided not to experience it again until modern science invents a method whereby the man has the contractions. But we have taken Robert's friends with us on numerous trips, and we have noted a phenomenon familiar to all parents, namely that you would have less conflict if you put the entire North and South Korean armed forces in your back seat than you get with just two children.
Children sitting in back seats are incapable of normal human conversation. Their conversational responses are all intended to raise the level of back-seat hostility to the point where one party has no viable option but to spit Hawaiian Punch into the other party's hair.
Statement of Child: "Hey! I saw a horse!"
Response of Normal Human: "Where?"
Response of Other Child in Back Seat: "So what?" (Or: "You did not.")
Statement of Child: "I like this song."
Response of Normal Human: "That's nice."
Response of Other Child in Back Seat: "So what?" (Or: "You do not.") (Or: "This song sucks.")
Statement of Child: "In a right triangle, the square of th hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides."
Response of Normal Human: "That is correct."
Response of Other Child in Back Seat: "You suck."
One way to try to reduce the hostility level is to keep the childre amused with Traditional Fun Car Games, such as to watch for other cars' license plates and see who can find the one from the most distant state. This exciting activity is sure to captivate the children and provide hours of enjoyment ("I see one from Iowa!" "No you don't!" "So what?" "You suck!").
Traveling with teen-agers is somewhat more difficult than traveling with members of the actual human race. It's very important for you to be sensitive to the fact that, during this difficult transition from child to adult, your teen-agers are undergoing intense emotional stresses that cause them, for solid psychological reasons, to regard you as the biggest geek ever to roam the planet. This is because a teen-ager's life is an extremely intense, impossibly complex drama, and you cannot possibly understand the plot. All you can do is blunder around like some kind of nearsighted elephant, making a mess of everything, including the seemingly simple act of asking a passing waitress for ketchup.
You: Waitress, could we please have some ketchup?
Your teen-age daughter: Oh Father! How could you?? (Crying, she rushes from the restaurant.)
You: What did I do? What did I do?
Your other daughter (In the tone of voice you might use to address an ax murderer): What did you do? Do you realize who you just asked for ketchup?
You: A waitress?
Your other daughter: That was Jennifer Wienerbunker! The captain of the cheerleading squad! You asked her for ketchup.
You (raising your voice slightly): But she's a waitress.
Your other daughter: Oh Father! (Crying, she rushes from the restaurant.)
Also, teen-agers are bored. By everything. Show a teen-ager an actual volcanic eruption, in progress, featuring giant billowing clouds of smoke, hot rocks raining from the sky, lava floes destroying entire villages, etc., and the teen-ager, eyebrows arched with sarcasm, will look at you and say, "Gee, this is swell," then return to the rental car, turn on his portable CD player, and listen to a band called Stomach Contents.
So as a parent, you may feel that your wisest choice is to postpone your family traveling until your teen-age child has reached a more reasonable age, such as 48. If this is not possible, you'll want to follow the:
TWO MAJOR RULES
1. Always remain outside of the embarrassment zone. If you get too close to your teen-ager in public, your teen-ager will become concerned that other teen-agers might think that your teen-ager was somehow connected with you, which of course would be hideously embarrassing. So while traveling you must always maintain the appropriate public distance.
2. Find activities that are interesting to teen-agers. If the teen-ager is bored with an activity that you have planned, simply select an activity that he or she might find more interesting. Here is a handy chart to help you do this:
ACTIVITY THAT WOULD
BE BORING FOR TEEN-AGER
Visiting the Louvre Museum
Seeing the Crown Jewels
Touring India by Elephant
THAT MIGHT BE
Leaving the Louvre Museum
Not seeing the Crown Jewels
Anyplace but India. Definitely
not on an elephant