The Tale of the Sixteen Hour Road Trip

We did it! We all survived sixteen hours in the car with Nate and Sam! No speeding tickets! No car accidents! No mechanical breakdowns! I mean, Sam resents us a bit more than usual, but he can get over that with the right therapists and some time away at boarding school, right?


There were some hairy moments, sure, but we’re all alive and here to tell the tale. Even Wally. But because his paws are so massive and his typing skills are limited, I’ll be the one to tell the tale.  


We left at 4AM. Four. A. M. Several road trip veterans we know who have traveled with small children before, all agreed that this was the way to go. Get up early while it’s still dark, the wisdom advised. The kids will fall right back asleep and by the time they start stirring again, you’ll be ready to stop for breakfast, it will be light out, and you’ll have completed 150 miles or so without traffic.


So we tried that. No such luck on returning to sleep. They stayed awake. Sam was amused at our Von Trapp Family-style departure in the wee morning hours. Nate was really excited to be traveling with Sam on an adventure. And Wally was super stoked not to be left behind. So no one slept. They giggled and chatted and inquired about the moon and the stars.


Eventually, at 5:09 AM, the novelty of waking up and slipping into the car in our pajamas had worn off, and they started to get restless. So we watched “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” for four hours straight. Four. Hours. Straight. Nate was having the time of his life, watching reptiles practice martial arts and eat pizza, and he narrated enthusiastically to us from the backseat. Meanwhile, next to him, Sam scowled angrily at us. He dropped his chin to his chest, jutted out his jaw, furrowed his brows downward, and glared upward, as if to say, “You interrupted my REM cycle, denied me breakfast, and strapped me in the car for this?”


We stopped for a bit to use the bathroom and stretch our legs at Wal-Mart, deliberately leaving our wallets in the car so as to not buy anything that Nate or Sam requested. We recognized our weakened, weary states were no match for their wills, which somehow had only been strengthened by being tethered in the car. They sprinted in a zig-zag pattern up and down the aisles, enlivened by the sight of the five dollar DVD bin, the rows of pool toys, and the candy displays. Sam tried putting his mouth on every single Minion water bottle and tumbler while Nate hovered around the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle toys, telling us how he hoped to get one for his birthday – which is eight months away.


Every turn we took in that massive store was another trap, a chance to spend money and to hear Nate talk about his need for another item. Or better, Sam, unable to verbally express his need for toys, would throw the toy at us, and when denied, thrusted his head back in fury and let out an angry grunt.


We were too tired to care. And too tired to surrender and drag our bodies to the car to fetch our wallets. I think we even would have been too tired to stop them if they had had the audacity to shoplift. I also don’t think they recognized that as an option. But soon. Soon they will. Those little assholes will soon be tainted with mischievous ideas by their peers. Or by TV. Nate already believes that cops are the bad guys. We’re from Baltimore.


After an incredibly filling lunch – who could know if we’d ever eat again? – both Nate and Sam fell asleep, and we were careful to keep the music at a reasonably low volume, talk in hushed whispers, and exhale quietly, fearful of disturbing them. When Nate sleeps, he is OUT, and even an exploding bomb can’t stir him. But Sam – oh, Sam – wakes when the dog wags his tail too loudly.


Finally, after over an hour of sitting in the car like Anne Frank hiding in the attic, we broke the noiselessness, though not intentionally. Tighe finished his last sip of water and crushed the empty bottle against his thigh, the crinkling plastic shattering the silence.


Sam let out a squawk, and the peace was over. He spent the remainder of that day manipulating me, conning me into doing whatever he wanted for his entertainment. “Sure, Sam, your wish is my command, Your Highness. Just please, no shrieking!”


I fed him every treat imaginable – well, within the realm of snacks that I had packed in the car, of course – Goldfish, pretzels, peanut butter crackers, letter cookies from Trader Joe’s, granola bars, bananas, and even fruit snacks. When he’d grow full or bored with the snack, he’d deposit it methodically, one crumb at a time, on the other side of his car seat, out of my reach. Then, he’d wink at me and smirk, flashing his big buck teeth.


With other snacks, he’d yell, “catch!” and throw it in my direction, but it would usually just drop to the floor in between us. And sometimes he’d try to force-feed it to Wally – yes, remember Wally? He’s the well-behaved seven year-old Golden Doodle in the way back of the car. You know, the one with more energy than seven Sam’s combined, but who has the grace and maturity to contain it for ten hours. The poor dog who gets so anxious about being in the car that he declines food – so out of character for him, by the way. Yes, Wally – the best behaved creature in the car – including Tighe and me.


Ok, back to the drive: towards the end of our first leg that evening, snacks – failing. Movies? Also failing. Even TMNT. And Monsters, Inc. And the soothing voice of the late George Carlin, the narrator from Thomas the Tank Engine, couldn’t calm Sam. Even Elmo, usually his favorite, was making Sam angrier by the minute.


And so, with less than an hour to go, Sam had unbuckled his car seat and was screeching and squirming and kicking his legs and trying his very best to weasel his way out. What he had planned after that I have no idea. Was he going to avenge his confinement and attack us? Was he going to take ten hours of outrage out on Wally? Or Nate? Was he going to be helpful and pick up all the pretzels he had dropped next to the door? Did he have a list of grievances to submit to the front seat? Or a list of suggestions for Day 2? Perhaps he was ready to wrestle the steering wheel from Tighe – determined to steer the car somewhere more exotic than Columbus, Ohio.


I was truly starting to doubt that we’d make it to that Residence Inn by Marriott that night. Would I get my free apple at the check-in desk? What about that famed continental breakfast with a waffle bar? And yogurt sitting in piles of ice? And the Fruit Loops I promised to Nate? And black bottom muffins?! [sobbing now] They have chocolate chips in them!


We needed to do anything within our power to get to that damn hotel! Even Nate was getting tired of the second showing of thirteen episodes of the “smiley faced turtles.” Finally, we found a way to appease Sam. In one last desperate move, Tighe, with one hand still on the wheel, reached back with his other arm, and tickled the writhing toddler. Suddenly, his red, tear-stained face was showcasing a smile, and he was wiggling and giggling with delight instead of indignation. Yes, Tighe! Keep tickling that monster! Only forty-five minutes to go!


Just a brief note – this technique, though equally effective in consoling Sam, was a lot less welcome the next day, through the sharp curves and steep descents in West Virginia and Western Maryland. It was a little disconcerting to be racing trucks down a mountain while the driver of the car is lunging backward to tickle a passenger. Thank you, God, for keeping us safe there!


Finally, we arrived at the hotel! It wasn’t even four in the afternoon yet, but it felt like midnight. Nate and Sam were thrilled! Thrilled to jump up and down on the sport court. Thrilled to dip their toes in the pool. Thrilled to have three TV’s in our suite. Thrilled to gnaw on some fresh red apples. And thrilled to order some cheese pizza.  


In fact, they were so thrilled, they sprinted back and forth throughout the room, Nate spinning around like the hills were alive, saying “I can’t believe we live here now!” He couldn’t get over having three TV’s in such a small space. Sam, meanwhile, collected all three remotes and taunted us from the corner of the couch with his new toys, refreshed and enthused with his new power.


“I never want to go back to Kansas City!” Nate shouted, running back and forth between the rooms to see what shows Sam had inadvertently switched on in each room.


Getting Sam to sleep in the hotel later was another matter altogether. We hadn’t reserved a port-a-crib for him, hopeful that he’d fall asleep in the double bed he’d share with Nate that night. Instead, he was all over the place, climbing from one nightstand, across the bed, to the other nightstand, trying to figure out the lamps and pressing all the buttons on the alarm clock and the phone. Eventually, we had to call the front desk and plead for them to send a crib, which they didn’t even charge us for. After a few minutes of sobbing, probably apologizing for his restlessness and begging to be allowed to sleep in the bed, Sam fell asleep. A few hours later we discovered that he had set the alarm clock in our room for 1AM that night, long after we had fallen into a deep sleep. Revenge, I guess. What a clever kid.