The first time we took a family vacation, we didn’t really know what we were doing. There was the general idea that taking a road trip with four little kids was going to be challenging as most things with four little kids under the age of six can be. We knew a tent would be involved because it was the more frugal way to travel. And it’s how my parents did it when they towed four little dark haired girls around the country. How hard could it be?
It turns out, very hard indeed.
Our first mistake was not having an actual destination to point our truck toward. Actual as in specific and easily located on a map as opposed to a general radius and the word ‘Chicago.’
Not that you can’t find Chicago on a map. You can. But it’s an area. It’s not a specific place to end up in where you plan to bed down four little kids, one just recently out of diapers. It’s not like we had a restaurant identified for dinner or a deadline by which we’d plan to feed our little brood.
If you don’t have those things identified and you’re about to travel with even one small child, I’d recommend you postpone the trip for just a little longer. Grab your GPS, punch in the area you want to go to and then narrow things down from there. If you like to eat certain food, find a restaurant, enter the address. Work with the rest of your traveling party to decide on a stopping time. Then follow through with that plan. Do not, I repeat, do not plan a camping trip and enter the destination of Chicago.
That was also a mistake, neatly intertwined with the first mistake of not having selected a more specific destination in which to travel to.
Camping in Chicago.
In our defense, we’d only been married almost two years. It was our first family vacation. Prior to that I hadn’t vacationed since the one actual family trip my parents took my sisters and me on when I was seventeen years old. My husband had only ever camped at the lake behind his grandpa’s house.
The lake behind Grandpa’s house…now that would have made for a simple and probably more successful camping trip for our first family vacation. Good ole’ hindsight. Always twenty twenty.
As we made our way away from our beautiful, newly built by my husband’s own hands, home with our rather large family, things started out okay. Pointing the truck in a northerly direction wasn’t that hard. Gas was cheap back then and we had high hopes for this trip. Our children were mostly well behaved in the car, so there wasn’t much ruckus out of them.
We turned the radio up, put on the cruise control, and ventured out. Two naïve adults still working our way into the comfortable place that marriage can take you after several years of marriage and four little kids. Conundrums saw us coming. We were quite an easy target.
I don’t remember much of the drive. It was a good five plus hours and I tend to fall asleep on car trips. It’s possible all the cross country driving my folks did when I was little taught me how to sleep. After I managed to overcome the wretched motion sickness that used to plague me when we drove from one side of town to the other.
I’m not sure if the kids slept the whole way or if our youngest cried a lot. I don’t recall any real bickering between our older daughter and our two boys, though I’m sure there must have been some. We’d only blended our two young families less than two years ago. It’s safe to say we were all still adapting.
My memory starts to kick in as dusk fell.
I remember we got all turned around and had ended up in a rather ritzy neighborhood somewhere. There was a kind of block party for the rich going on. We oohed and ahhhed at the fancy houses and the elegant party atmosphere. It was a far cry from the drunken staggering we’d witnessed in the sleepy college town we were from.
I remember some sharp words being said as my new husband drove around trying like mad to find a place for us to spend the night. I know I asked him to stop and ask for directions. That was my newlywed bride mistake of the night. Ooops.
By the time he finally drove into a hotel driveway to inquire about vacancy, the kids were asleep sitting up in their booster seats. The baby was slumped over in her car seat, her hand tight around her favorite stuffed animal. I was delirious and frustrated and wishing we’d never decided to take a trip away from our cozy home with the comfortable bed in the master bedroom.
It felt like hubby was in the hotel a long time. Which made me happy. My rationale was that the longer he stood in there, must mean he was filling out the paperwork for a lovely, albeit cramped hotel room where in a matter of mere minutes we’d be hauling our little ones into for the remainder of the night.
No. It turned out there was just a really long line of other folks looking for rooms that night. By the time he came out, he was in an even more sour mood than when he’d gone in. There was no room in that inn.
As the wife of a pastor, I thought about Mary, the mother of Jesus. She must have been equally frustrated that night. If not more so, she’d been traveling on the back of a donkey whereas I sat in the air conditioned comfort of my husband’s new truck.
She must have been extremely grateful when they’d finally gotten to that semi vacant stable where she could lie down.
We kept driving.
We drove and drove and drove some more. As we neared middle of the night status, I did what no wife should do.
I told hubby to figure it out. Then, I propped my weary head against the passenger side door of that truck and fell into a trouble sleep.
It’s a wonder we stayed married and are now approaching our fifteenth wedding anniversary.
Somewhere around one in the morning, the truck rolled to a stop. Hubby gently shook me into a half wakeful state.
“Come on. We’re here.”
My sleepy brain interpreted that to mean we’d found a nice hotel with a room available.
Also a mistake.
When I asked him where we were, he explained shortly that we’d arrived at our destination. A campground…of sorts.
I stumbled out of the truck with him and together we put up the tent we’d purchased. The kids moaned in their sleep and the baby wailed a couple of times. I attempted to hush her; people were sleeping soundly around us and we’d likely already woken some of them with the bright lights of the truck that we used to guide our way around that tent.
Probably we wandered to the public restroom and made sure all the kids used the potty before getting them into the tent to lie down. Maybe we took the time to put them into pajamas, but I doubt it. It’s likely hubby and I snapped at each other out of exhaustion and frustration; maybe even out of relief to finally be minutes away from getting sleep in a lying down position.
I doubt that we snuggled in close with each other, all kisses and I love you’s. We were still newlyweds somewhat, but we were tired and cranky.
The next morning dawned way too early. And somehow, little kids have this way of getting all the sleep they need packed into only a few hours before they’re up with the birds raring to go another day.
When we got up, we surveyed our surroundings.
Somehow, in the middle of all the middle of the night driving around, my hubby had found us a place to stop for the night. It was a large field with rows of cornfields standing nearby. There was the public bathroom/shower facility standing off to the far side. Other tents dotted the area.
There was no name of the campground that I recall. It was some kind of small, family run operation. The showers were lukewarm and required quarters dropped into a slot to keep the water streaming down on you. I remember juggling the coins while holding a slippery baby and helping our five year old daughter wash her curly hair. It’s possible I then deposited quarters into the same slot while handing showering supplies to the two boys and keeping an eye on the five year old who was babysitting her sister. Hubby was still sleeping in the tent.
Other mistakes that happen when a young family decides to take a camping trip in the city?
Forgetting to bring towels. We improvised with the queen sized sheet we’d used to cover up with in the night.
Bickering amongst the adults and treating things as if it was every man for himself. Anytime you’re outnumbered by small children and miles of endless highway, you always use the buddy system. It’s more fun that way and the guarantee that everyone makes it out in love in the end is higher that way.
Not having an actual destination with reserved rooms next to a family restaurant waiting for you on the other end of your family’s vacation plan.
We managed that night. On caffeine, gasoline, and snarky comments. In fact, we managed so well, we’ve gone on countless vacations since then. Many of them have even been camping trips. And we’ve learned a lot over the years.
About planning ahead. Bringing towels. How to set up a tent in the glow of a large battery operated flashlight. We never have conquered getting to the campground before dark. But that’s how we do it…by making a grand entrance. While being shushed by the other campers.
The most important lesson by far? Don’t camp in the city. Unless it’s in a five star hotel.