Whatever happened to the great American family road trip?

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It’s 11 p.m. on a Sunday night in Panama City. The air conditioner in the cheap hotel we’re in reads 68. The kids are sleeping off three days of sun, sand and water.

There is a commercial on television featuring a dating site for farmers, ranchers and good, ol’ country folk. And there is a plate of grilled Gulf shrimp on the bed and another with discarded shells.

The kids filled their bellies before crashing to sleep drained and content.

Cheryl and I wash ours down with a bottle of cold sauvignon blanc procured at a Winn Dixie on the way back to the hotel.

We’re all sunburned and fun fatigued, which, in spite of the negative connotations, are the best things to be at the end of a great vacation.

Many years ago, Cheryl and I packed a car and took our first child on a road trip to Southern California. We didn’t know where we were going, just that we wanted sunshine and warm weather for a week during the Oregon spring.

We drove as far south as we could go and found a cheap hotel on sand in Imperial Beach. We walked in, because there was no such thing as Internet reservations then.

We stayed at that same hotel every year for four years while I was in college. The owners gave us a week every year for $300, and when they decided to renovate the place after four years, they gave us vouchers to come back and stay in the new, more expensive place.

We never did.

There was something magical about the cheap, old, sand-infested place.

The owners always gave us a room right next to the pool, so we could leave Cole and eventually Carson sleep in the room while we swam or sat in the hot tub.

It was there, the year after September 11, 2001, that we met a bunch of Saudi Arabian men who were studying at a Southern California university.

We sat in the hot tub with them and discussed how different life was for them after 9/11. It was a perspective Cheryl and I had never considered.

Those were tough road trips. The kids were in diapers and had to be fed at regular intervals. I remember thinking how nice it would be to take road trips with them when they were older and could hold their bladders until the next rest area.

Then, suddenly, almost overnight, they became teenagers, and they stopped wanting to hang out with us.

Or maybe we became old, and our ideas of fun didn’t translate to their ideas of fun.

Either way, the great American family road trips I had always dreamed of started to die away little by little, and soon it was just Cheryl and I and our daughter Gabrielle, who is not yet old enough to decide that we’re not cool.

Last summer a friend offered up their cabin on a lake in Wisconsin, so I worked for weeks to convince the kids to make the short three-hour drive with me.

They agreed and had the time of their lives. But Cheryl had to work, so it was both a blessing and a bummer for me.

We were going to do the same trip this summer, but when the cabin suddenly fell through, it was either cancel our vacation or find an alternative.

I shopped around for other cabins for about a week. There wasn’t a town in Michigan or rural Wisconsin that I didn’t check out on the Internet.

The kids were losing interest fast, and to top it all off, we had just spent an entire month worth of weekends moving into a new home and cleaning the old one.

I started looking at vacation areas like the Ozarks and some of our favorite places in Kentucky. But nothing had that relaxing feeling of being at a cabin or just sitting near the water and letting the wind and waves wash all the stress away.

I googled the driving distance between Chicago and Florida’s panhandle, randomly selecting Panama City.

Fourteen hours seemed doable, even if it took the better parts of two days to accomplish.

I stored up all the useful information and presented it to my wife.

The big catch was the cost, as it always is with vacations.

But I had an ace in the hole.

August has three paychecks. Yeah, you know, that whole 52 weeks a year thing, and I get paid every two weeks. There’s bound to be an extra week in those 12 months if you do the math.

Well, I’m terrible at math, but when I know I get paid on the 1st of the month, I know there’s a good chance there will be two more paychecks.

One of those paychecks is a freebie, of sorts.

Yes, you have to pay the bills, but there is always a little extra in one of those  extra paychecks if you juggle everything right.

Just enough extra, in fact, to book a cheap hotel room the day after the summer busy season winds up in Panama City.

My plan was to make the run in two 7-hour hops. We’d leave at 3:30 p.m., about a half hour after Cheryl got off work at Starbucks, and we’d stop in Nashville for the night.

But we didn’t hit the road until 7 p.m., which meant we’d have to drive until 2 a.m. to even hope to hit the halfway mark.

At the halfway mark, I just wanted to keep going. Cheryl drove for a couple of hours, but she had been up for the last 22 hours straight, so I kept driving.

I subsist on sunflower seeds when I drive. They keep me awake. By 4 a.m., I had gone through three-quarters of a bag of Trader Joe’s sunflower seeds, and my mouth was raw.

It took me almost two days to get the feelings back or to taste anything.

By 8 a.m., I was within spitting distance of the Gulf of Mexico, so I kept driving. Completely bleary with blood-shot eyes and dead reflexes.

But we rolled up to the hotel by 11 a.m. and went off in search of breakfast and the beach.

Steak and eggs with grits at a dirty little roadside diner did the trick of reviving all of us.

We found the water by 1 p.m.

After three days with the kids on a trip I nearly had to drag them on, I can honestly say this is one of the best times I’ve ever had traveling with them.

We’ve had so much fun as a family, just connecting over shared good times, good food and new vistas.

I watch other young families on the beach, and I think back to when our kids were that small. The inability to relax for fear of the child eating sand, wondering into the water or pooping in it.

We’ve been joking around for the last few days that we finally found our San Diego, our new Imperial Beach.

My hope is that the kids will soak up more than the sun. My hope is that they’ll treasure these moments we’ve shared, especially when I bring up the next road trip idea.


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