We drive it all in one day. Twelve hours west through Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois around Chicago, and north, into Wisconsin. The 12 hours includes four stops (or more) with our girls, ages two and five. Our mantra is “keep moving,” but we know we’ll stop to refuel, and unexpectedly, when someone has to go, or already did. In Madison, we rest a night, and then we hop in the car for the final stretch to Minnesota.

The shorter drive is more difficult. You wish it were two hours. But it’s over four. That’s longer than a kids’ movie + books + drawing + music. You’re extremely tired of sitting with things piled at your feet. In the end, it takes over 16 hours of travel to reach our Christmas away. I used to dream of doing the drive without my kids, but now, I can’t imagine road tripping without them – because it’s actually fun.

Last year, the journey worked better than I had hoped. When we returned, my five-year-old seemed miffed. “Actually, I didn’t want to come home,” she said, which is the sign of a good trip.

To road trip (epically) in this manner is to do what is uncomfortable with your children. It is to entertain disaster on a small scale at a terrifying rate. It is to test the limit of how long you can share a very tiny space.

There’s always a moment at the beginning of the trip when I think, this is torture. I want to scream, “We won’t make it!” Because it’s 6 a.m., and my two-year-old has eaten four bowls of Cheerios and washed it down with half a bottle of water. What could possibly go wrong?

One hour into the drive, the five-year-old has already asked for her candy six times. Pencils are dumped, stickers are fought over, the stylus to the “tlabet” is lost, the kids’ choice of music is horrible, and no one wants to listen to “Stuart Little.”

And yet, despite horrors, we reach our destination. To travel into this unknown is to discover that the disasters certainly will and do happen, and they are handled – deftly, messily, best you can in a moving vehicle – and the car rolls on. You all move on.

Last year, aside from requests to sit in mommy’s lap, now, and continuous pleas for more candy, there were no tears. Our older child has grown into the routine, aided by an endless appetite for iPad games (and perhaps the unfettered access given in a car). This was the first trip she was not terrified by every single automatic toilet, or thrown into fits by the rest stop toys that we never purchase. They’re finally old hat.

My younger daughter colors, sings, and plays as well as she can. She may still conk out for an hour or two, during which we relish small periods of near silence. Last holiday, there was enough silence that my husband and I needed something to do, so we listened to the first Harry Potter book I’d checked out for the girls, and my daughter looked up from her game – briefly – to ask about Hermione.

While hanging out with some friends over the holiday, one parent remarked that they’d never spent more than four hours in a car with their child, and even then they nearly missed the wedding they’d set out to attend. I felt a small rush of pride because we’ve done the holiday road trip for four years running. 

The road trip is one way in which I feel that I am giving my children a gift from my own childhood. When so many other things are different about how we raise them, the road trip is tradition. My strongest, oldest memories are of car trips, and it’s the same for my husband. We decided it has something to do with the time and boredom involved; a car is the best place for dreaming.

The sensory weirdness of moving through entire states in one day can be invigorating. And going somewhere, new or old, creates anticipation and excitement. When we leave the house in the dark, I always think about the McDonald’s drive-through where my parents started every trip, and of hot coffee in the cold, dark morning.

Traveling slowly is one way we relish our holiday and seal its memory, by seeking our home away from home, by looking forward to the holiday, and taking time to get there. Someday, I think my kids will agree. 

If you’re considering an epic trip, here’s what we do to minimize the torture:

  • Leave early, when the kids are barely aware they’re awake. If they don’t fall back asleep, they usually nap by mid-afternoon. It gives us time to take breaks later in the drive.
  • Eat in the car. It seems like the kids spend half of every hour snacking. Good snacks are a must.
  • Stop if people need to walk or move. A 10-15 minute stop makes everyone feel better.
  • One person drives while the other interfaces with the back seat. This has resulted in missed exits, but oh well.
  • The children have access to iPad games and/or videos. We control the treats. For young children, sometimes sticker books are more engaging than videos.
  • The car is a mess. We try to stick to dry foods and water, but some adult always spills the coffee. Warning: Do not give your child milk in the car, ever.
  • Encourage a lot of speculative dreaming about what’s next down the road, and what we’re excited to do when we “get there.”