Road Trips from Hell – Are they Always Worth it?


The plan sounded a little whacked the first time she shared it with me—but whacked in a charming, “oh, you crazy kids” kind of way.

A few months ago, my endlessly energetic, free-spirited hairstylist Alyssa told me how she and her husband planned to pack their four daughters—all under the age of nine (including a four-month-old nursing baby)—into a rented van for a quick 1800-mile road trip to her grandfather’s 100th birthday party. Six days after moving into a new house. I was inspired by her good-humored assurance that whatever happened, it would be memories made and an adventure had. Thank goodness she’s so chill. Because the actual trip was so much more juicy and trying and spectacularly horrid than it sounds like it would be.

First, two days before departure, Daughter Number Two broke her arm. Next, let’s remember: Packing for this adventure required unpacking moving boxes and trying to dig up all the various items a family of six might need for four days on the road. (Like enough diapers and wipes for both a newborn and a toddler.) Then, during the all-night drive, none of the iPads or DVD players worked and no one slept. To keep Daughter Number Three (the toddler) quiet, in desperate hopes that the others could sleep, she was given Alyssa’s phone. During the next four hours, Daughter Number Three somehow used an entire month’s worth of shared data, resulting in $450 in data overage charges.

Then, upon arrival in Denver, the rental van broke down. And getting a replacement vehicle required four hours on the phone with the rental company, eating up one of their two days in Denver. To top it off, on the second day, Daughter Number Two started throwing up. Followed by Daughter Number One. Followed by Alyssa. Causing Alyssa to miss her grandfather’s 100th birthday party. The one they had driven 14 hours to attend.

So the next morning, the still–slightly-nauseous family piled back into the van for the 14-hour drive back to their mostly-still-in-boxes new house.

I know. Right? Can you even.

It’s worse than my own road-trip-from-hell story—because Alyssa is the adult in this one. And let’s face it. Road trips are almost always more hell for the adults than the kids. Except in my case, of course. I admit, I sure didn’t think any adult had it worse than me while my own personal road trip from hell was happening.

When 11-year-old me and my 13-year-old cousin Amy were blindsided by full-on hotel-buffet food poisoning just as we slid into the back seat of her parent’s car for the drive home from New York City to Minneapolis, I wasn’t aware of anyone’s hell but my own. By the time Uncle Bob had wheeled his 70s-era sedan out of the Manhattan hotel parking garage, the fun had already begun. The back seat was filled with groans; plastic bags were being distributed to the groaners (and held near mouths); and every pothole, honk, and swerve required to escape New York City became a lesson in torture. Our much-anticipated stop at Niagara Falls involved my aunt basically dragging me out of the car and propping me into a semi-standing position to ensure I at least had a souvenir picture by the falls. I don’t remember even looking at the water before crawling back into a fetal position on their picnic blanket. After each day of driving, cousin Amy and I would stumble into our shared motel bed, too miserable for the usually irresistible treats of motel pools or motel food or even motel TV. (That takes some serious stomach aches, people.) Bob and Dorothy would escape to the nearest restaurant for an hour or two of respite before rejoining the sick ward. (Bless their ever-patient hearts.)

I felt terrible in every way. Even at 11, I felt pretty bad for ruining the trip. But I do sometimes wonder… Was it ruined? I mean, yes. It was bad. But… I have no doubt that during that endless drive home, while listening to the moans and disposing of those warmish plastic bags from the green-faced passengers in the back seat, it felt like some level of ruin for the poor adults up front. Then again…

Although I only remember a few highlights from our actual week in New York City, that drive is forever etched in my personal history. I vividly remember resting my head against the vinyl door panel, just high enough to watch the trees whir past the windows. I remember burrowing under blankets in the motel bed, savoring the feeling of not being in a moving vehicle. I remember wishing I was home, but wishing even more that I was having fun.

I also remember feeling taken care of by my aunt and uncle. And I remember a growing sense of sisterhood with my cousin, as we suffered together and occasionally found the strength to giggle about it.

Another friend was telling me recently how she accidentally ended up on the wrong bus in Mexico with her two young kids on a trip her husband agreed she could take without him. What they thought would be a 17-hour drive on a luxury bus turned into 15 hours racing down bumpy roads in a bus with no shocks, no speed governors, no one who spoke English, no cell phone, and a steady stream of honking, tailgating, and X-rated movies blaring from every seatback.

“It was horrible,” she says. “But it was also the adventure of a lifetime.” Yeah. That. Let’s be honest. All summer, my Facebook feed was filled with those packed-car selfies announcing the beginning of a trip to the cabin, the lake, the grandparents, the mountains, and every other corner of America reachable by car. I have no doubt there was plenty of road-trip hell along the way. Today I saw a post from one of those road-tripping families who mercifully discovered that the movie Sing was not just a magic tonic to their toddler, but also an inspiration to the rest of the family. It became the soundtrack for their vacation. Which might just be the reason we embark on these crazy family road trips at all? I mean, we know they will be part bliss and part hell. The only question is what the ratio will be. And—even when it’s more hell than bliss—we somehow come home with our personal vacation soundtrack. Our family legend. Our just-try-to-top-this survival story. And maybe it’s those very mementos that get almost all of us back out there on the road again. All except Alyssa. She’s never road-tripping again, she says. But let’s give her a minute. Or a year. She might come around. Oh, and for the record: I’M SO SORRY AND BLESS YOU AND THANK YOU, AUNT DOROTHY AND UNCLE BOB.

Top image / images 2, 3, 4 via Julie Rybarczyk.


Julie Rybarczyk is a freelance writer, fair-weather blogger, and well-intentioned mom who has almost never remembered to send lunch money to school. She’s perpetually the chilliest person living in Minneapolis—so most of the year you’ll find her under layers of wool, behind steaming cups of tea. Or at shortsandlongs.net.

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