Thursday, June 26, 2014

Road Trip = Culture Shock

In 1960 John Steinbeck embarked on a trip across the United States in search of America.  As an American writer, writing about America, he felt he was only writing from memory and he know longer was familiar with the people of his country.  His adventure is chronicled in his 1962 book Travels with Charlie in Search of America.  With his beautiful use of language he describes a plastic wrapped nation, fed by homogeneous mediocracy, populated by political cowards, and a country side that is so defined by the drive for the next best model of X that the country side itself is invisible.
He noted one exception: Montana.  "It seemed to me that the frantic bustles of America was not in Montana....  that the towns were places to live in rather than nervous hives.  People had time to pause in their occupations to undertake the passing art of neighborliness."  
Fifty some years after Steinbeck's journey I wonder what he would see today.  What would he think of the interstate highway that allows you to see nothing, the ubiquitous chain stores and fast food restaurants, and the attention of individuals anchored to small screens held in the palms of their hands?  What would he say if he exited the interstate system in favor for old state highways and found nothing but empty shells of gas stations and houses as we did?
But, his description of Montana still holds true. In spite of that, this trip 'home' has brought an unexpected homesickness - a want to be close to family - but it has also been accompanied by an equal and perhaps greater amount of culture shock. 

  1. Lack of Public Land - True. This isn't really a shock, I have looked at the maps...  but, just as soon as we turned east, away from the Rocky Mountains our camping options became limited. 
  2. Fast Food Advertising - We crossed the Kansas state border and - BAMM - MacDonald. Arbys. ONE. AFTER. THE OTHER. Pizza Hut. Papa Johns. MacDonald.
  3. The size of American's back sides increases with the fast food advertising.  Really.
  4. Houses SPRAWL and are mostly roof.  The highway is lined by whole developments of black roofs that are identical to developments everywhere in middle America.  I watch the scenery roll by and wonder about the effects of all that black on micro climates, weather patterns and energy bills.
  5. The number of televisions in homes increases exponentially.  AND the televisions are on.  They have cable.  The last time we wanted to watch something on a television (the Olympics) it took us days to remember that we indeed did know someone with a television and more importantly, a television that received the proper channels.
  6. The number of books, children's books especially, read at bed time decreases.  I would be willing to bet it decreases equal to the amount of increase of previously mentioned television time.
  7. The perversion of dairy products.  I have coined this term to describe: a) NON-DAIRY COFFEE CREAMER.  Non-dairy coffee creamer is treated like a real food a gas stations, restaurants and in homes.  I quickly learned to look for or ask if the illusive half and half is available before pouring a cup of coffee. b) YOGURT.  It is hard to find a WHOLE MILK yogurt at the grocery store. Just a reminder: low fat milk is linked to weight gain in children.
  8. SODA.  people drink soda.  a lot of soda.
  9. no one walks.  ANYWHERE. 
  10. Driver's tailgate.  For all the space and sprawl of middle America, it's drivers are convinced that they are in the congested traffic of New York City.  They speed up behind you, swerve suddenly, swerve back in front of you and passing in the right lane is rampant.  Having driven through New York City numerous times, I much prefer the city traffic, because at last all that bumper to bumper, weaving out in and out of traffic mess is happening at less than 70 miles per hour. 

I wonder about the landscape and people.  The cycles of boom and bust that are at the very heart of its settlement.  The land runs.  The oil. The dust bowl. The housing bubbles. The natural gas.  The corn and wheat that grew fence row to fence row until there were no more fences left.  The giant corporate hog farms, chicken farms, commodity is everywhere. One giant cross road; a way through to somewhere else: North, South, East, West. The landscape is devoid of the agricultural communities that should be rooted in the deep, fertile top soil. 
John Steinbeck and I are traveling in opposite directions.  As I read the pages he is moving west and I am moving east.  As he reaches the shores of the Pacific I reach into the thicket of brambles and pick black berries in the dense shade of the eastern deciduous forest. 

What America will I find here?

Monday, June 23, 2014

Many More Miles to Go

My best guess is that we have covered upwards of 2595 miles.  We drove from Missoula, through Billings, across Wyoming, cut across a corner of Colorado and covered almost all of Kansas before we ended up at our destination:  Middle America.  We have been crisscrossing the cross timbers for the past three weeks.

NO - we do not have a DVD player in the car.

I remember childhood car trips fondly: stopping at rest areas, state parks, singing, playing the road kill alphabet game (A is for Armadillo Soup,  B is for Broiled Beaver, C is for Crispy Coyote...  etc.), stopping at old graveyards to make rubbings of cool head stones, tents, campfires, fireflies...  I want that for my kids. I want them to know that a road trip is just as much about the journey as the destination. 

YES - I packed some books, markers, paper, a giant stack of CDs and a cooler full of food.

We purchased a luggage carrier and gave the kids room for their legs.  They are so much longer than when we embarked on our last 5000 mile road trip adventure. And we have the added luxury of competing this trip without a giant stack of cloth diapers.

Why this trip?  Well, to witness my beautiful sister getting married, to see family we never see otherwise and to check in with our ever growing family in Oklahoma. 

As we have traveled around the country I have paged through local papers and ran across an article on how to go on road trips with kids.  A two hour trip was used as an example and I put down the article.  Where we live a two hour drive gets us to the next big town and is hardly considered a road trip.  It took us three days to get from home to our first destination and upon reflection, there are a few things we try to do to make the journey more enjoyable.

1.  STOP FOR LUNCH - and no - I don't mean stop at a fast food joint, shovel food  in your face and keep driving.  Pack a cooler, take advantage of the rest areas and welcome centers that dot the American highway system.  Grapes, carrots, cucumbers, broccoli, cauliflower, hard boiled eggs and sandwich fixings and a few treats are easy enough to pack and unpack. The kids stretch their legs, climb around, fill their bellies and when we get back in the car there has been a noticeable reset in the overall mood.  We can go on.

2. Maintaining the KID'S SANITY - choose one or two things of the usual routine to maintain throughout the routine.  For us this is reading bedtime books.  It can be 11 o'clock at night.  We can have just watched a movie.  We can be at grandma's or in a tent.  There will be a bed time book and in reality there will probably be two or three.  And, really, is there anything better than being cuddled up under a blanket in a tent reading by flashlight?
  • Bed Time Reading for Kids: (among other books) Little House in the Big Woods, Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder
  • Bed Time Reading for Me:  Travels with Charlie in Search of America by John Steinbeck
  • Bed Time Reading for Adam:  which ever Game of Thrones book he is on now...  something with dragons in the title, I think.
 3. Maintaining the MY SANITY - let it go - (and yes, we have listened to both of the Frozen CD's on pretty much every drive longer than 3 hours) During long road trips we are perpetual guest in the homes of our friends and family and I have to let go of parenting ideals and routines that are true in our home.  So what if there is TV immediately after waking up, poptarts for breakfast (my kiddos both ate half of a tart before deciding they were too sweet), all the toys make noise, and they have watched a million movies???  We are not at home.

4. EXPLORE!!!!  There are things to see and do everywhere.  This is almost a comprehensive list of places we have explored during this trip.

It was drizzling slightly and I was afraid the kids would protest to walking...  but they loved this place:  they ran from sign to sign, from the first cave to the second and then the tepee.  That night, after our books, we told stories about the caves...


We arrived after dark, gathered firewood and ate a late dinner.  Sylvan was elated to sleep in our new tent. We awoke to more bird sounds than I have ever heard before.  

  • Public Library - a default location to entertain children in an air conditioned space.  There are books to read, toys to play with and often offer free story times.  The public library has served us well in Stillwater, Oklahoma, Aurora, Colorado and is a frequent destination to which I take out of town guests in Missoula. 
  • Never underestimate the fun that can be had in a back yard.  

  • Whenever possible - stick to the smaller highways - there is so much more to see.

5.  BREATHE!!!   Breathe deeply and practice patience.  The kids do get tired, overstimulated, under engaged and short fused...  and through it all I try to remember it is not my child's behavior that defines me as a parent, but rather how I respond to the current situation.  So I try to remember to respond with kindness and love and understanding and then we read bedtime books and go to bed.

Adam just finished the drive from Oklahoma and arrived at our house in Missoula.  The garden is lush - I told him to eat the radishes - and our chicks are almost full grown.  The kids and I will go on to our second leg of the journey by plane, further east, to visit more family.