The goal for the first day of our trip across the country with kids was to make it to Phoenix. My fiancée, Amber, and I wanted to enjoy a one-night stay in a four-star resort for around 65 bucks. This is typically the going rate in Phoenix during the summer because it’s Phoenix in the summer. We also figured the kids could easily handle the five-hour drive: an hour or so of napping, maybe two hours of hypnosis via electronic devices, a bit of crying alleviated by threats and sugar bribes, and we’d be there in no time. Yeah, right.
Less than two hours into the trip the uprising began. All three boys were crying and yelling—relentlessly. We can usually calm them with a toy or a teat, but they weren’t interested in the former and Mom couldn’t flip the latter over the headrest and into the second and third row child seats. Our only option, as voiced by our almost three-year-old, the group’s default leader due to age and linguistic ability, was to respond to his shouts of “I wanna get out!” and pull over.
After a short stop to stretch and eat at a fly-ridden In-N-Out, we got back on the road. Our two oldest boys, seemingly satisfied by our peace offering—a rare delicacy called “french fries”—expressed nonverbal agreement to cooperate for the last three hours of the drive. And I know they tried. They’re nice boys, and I’m not just saying that because of the tax credits they provide. Though I suppose all parents think their children are sweet, even as they grow older and get “involved with the wrong crowd,” or, more specifically, become the wrong crowd. Just 15 minutes later the contract was broken.
We were five people in a 6 x 15 Mazda minivan filled with luggage and hysteria. The boys’ manic screaming drove me crazy. Tension grabbed the back of my neck and traveled down my spine. I felt helpless. I looked at Amber and said, “Think we should just turn around?” Neither of us had the courage to answer. There was nothing I could do or say to calm the situation. We just needed to get there, but “there” was three hours away. And that became my focus: Just get to Phoenix…just get Phoenix. I was in the zone…until a cop’s flashing lights appeared in my rearview mirror.
As an eight-year-old, I was locked in a police car for riding on the back of a friend’s moped. Four years later, the cops forced me to my knees for being black while walking home from a school dance. At 17, I was falsely accused of theft in a Walmart and thrown against a cop car. The officer told me, “If you run, I’ll beat the shit out of you,” before calling the local Foot Locker to see if my Air Jordans were stolen. Upon release from holding, he complimented my ability to “speak good.” Surely at 34 I was due for a reminder of my place in the criminal justice system.
I assumed the black-man-being-pulled-over-in-the-middle-of-nowhere-while-with-a-white-woman position: hands on the steering wheel, eyes forward, lick lips to prepare to code-switch from African American Vernacular English to Standard American English, and of course, the fake smile. The officer poked his flashlight into the van and requested my papers.
“Why are you driving so fast?” he asked.
“How fast was I going, sir?”
He looked at me with suspicion. “87.”
I peeked over at Amber, trying not to look scared, as the cop returned to his car with my driver’s license. “How fast did he say?” she asked, unable to hear over the still frantic kids.
“Well, he said 87, but I doubt I was going that fast…” The hell I wasn’t. I started calculating the price of the ticket as he returned to his car to run my license. Damn, that might easily be $400, I thought.
“Where are you going?” he asked.
“Ohio, but just Phoenix tonight, sir.”
He looked at the riot going on in the back seats. Not even The Law could quiet these protesters. “I’m just gonna give you a fix-it ticket. Update your driver’s license to your current address within 30 days.”
With strict adherence to the speed limit, we arrived in Phoenix four hours later, around midnight. The kids were knocked out limp. We carried them and far too much luggage to the suite’s back room. Feeling relieved, and having bonded through our bad decision, Amber and I raided the minibar. One drink turned to two drinks and two drinks turned to “grown folk thangs.” A day of stress was nearly relieved, at least on my end, when our three-year-old walked in on us with a confused smile. Amber jumped away in a split second, like one of Maury’s out of control teens being busted by a drill sergeant. I just sat there butt-ass naked and smiled back at him. Happy parents, happy children.
As we made our way through Arizona and New Mexico, we refined a system that made the trip somewhat bearable. I drove most of the time. In the seat next to me we stored the important items: a baby toilet and a cooler. Amber sat in the second row, twisting her back and stretching her right arm to the third row to caress the oldest boys when crying, while her left arm rocked the newborn’s car seat.
Our goal was to avoid small towns and make it to a major city each day. We stopped at least every two hours at malls and random playgrounds so the kids could run around, or better yet take a dump, because shitting yourself while bound in a seat has to be one of the few things worse than just plain shitting yourself. From Phoenix we arrived in a surprisingly sleepy Albuquerque, where out-of-session University of New Mexico students were replaced by a disgusting number of grasshoppers. We checked into the hotel around 11 p.m., made the joint much more lively with tantrums and bed jumping, and ended the night with greasy but damn good takeout.
We tried to leave Albuquerque first thing in the morning but got delayed by the boys. There was something about waking up in a strange room, or just maybe waking up at all, that drove them crazy. They pulled hair and bit each other over toys, threw themselves on the hotel room floor because they were ready to leave, and threw themselves on the hotel lobby floor because we actually left. The solution: We allowed them to ride on the luggage cart as I pushed and looked at the hotel staff like “You better not say nothin’…”
After the delayed start we hit the highway. Our drive across the country with kids was now 30 hours long. Everything started to look the same. Blacktop was blacktop and the stain of Corporate America was evident in the monotony of side-of-the-highway chain restaurants. We were only a few hours into our daily drive and making it to that day’s destination, Oklahoma City, seemed unlikely.
We gave in and stopped in Amarillo, Texas, just in time for the annual Texas Longhorn Cattle Drive. A diverse group of people—skinny, fat, many different shades of white—sat in lawn chairs gathered along the streets and cheered for tens of gigantic but seemingly docile cows. This being Texas, I was hoping to witness freedom expressed by way of a pistol-packing kid lassoing a bull, but I had no such luck. Still, the kids enjoyed seeing something besides the back of a headrest. Well, at first, but then the oldest had a tantrum because I wouldn’t let him ride the cows. “They don’t like when people touch ’em,” I said. “Yes they do! Uhh Huh! Yes they do! I wanna ride the cow…ssss!” I peeled him off the sidewalk. We finished off the stop by dirtying up a previously clean and quiet Italian restaurant before getting back on I-40.
We arrived in Oklahoma City well after midnight and implemented our refined hotel check-in technique. I’d drop Amber off at the entrance and she’d get the room keys. Then she’d come back to the car and grab the infant. I’d turn on the van’s flashers and carry up the two toddlers, holding the napes of their necks with each hand so they didn’t wake up. I’d go back to the van and completely unpack the car of luggage, which we probably didn’t need but couldn’t afford to have stolen. Then I would crash on the bed, thinking of where to find beer while whispering to Amber in hopes of keeping her awake.
Amber conked out that night, but I did find a 7-Eleven that sold beer until 2 a.m. I bought two Mexican tall boys and drank myself silly in the dark. The stress and physical toll of the trip began to subside, as did my attitude. The useless yelling at the kids from the driver’s seat to the back row, the naiveté of thinking the week long drive would be less stressful than a six hour plane ride, the constant packing and unpacking, and Amber’s side-eye when I suggested we drive through the crying would be laughed at for years to come. And we were lucky. We had the time and money to take the trip, though much, much more of the former than the latter. “The good ol’ days are now,” I thought, or so I wanted to convince myself.
St. Louis was our next destination. It was an eight hour drive from Oklahoma City, plus an additional six hours with children. Making it to St. Louis pretty much meant we were in Cleveland. The cities are nine hours apart but related through the marriage of inner-city blight and de facto segregation. There are pockets of new development and of course eternal hope, but continual population loss means fewer taxpayers and fewer taxpayers means declining services and, for many, an un-American quality of life.
After driving through the hood and past the street beggars, we arrived at our hotel in Downtown St. Louis, right at the end of a Rod Stewart concert. Masses of drunk people walked with a post-show glow and filled the air with Ric Flair “wooo!” screams. I wanted to valet the van, but not at a third of the price of the hotel room. We found self-parking. And of course the kids woke up as soon as we got out of the car. The hotel was connected to a mall. Sounds cool, except when the mall closes so does the mall entrance to the hotel. Unless you have a key card. Thankfully a buzzed Rod Stewart fan let us in.
Once in the room, the little ones went wild, jumping all over the beds and standing on the giant window sill. Their enthusiasm made me think of a family trip I took with my parents. We were supposed to drive to Disney World but failed to make it past Atlanta. Or maybe we were never really going to Disney World. But just to be somewhere new, in that case a Red Roof Inn somewhere in Georgia, was all a kid could ask for. The room had beds we could cannonball on and cable channels we had only seen during free promotions. It was easily one of the most memorable moments of my childhood, ranking up there with the time I won a Clydesdale model horse in the Anheuser-Busch sponsored first grade Monopoly championship, and the year I had a crush on Lil’ Sandra in the Eastland boat shoes until Dad told me white girls with red hair have pink asses. Then it hit me: my kids wouldn’t even remember the trip.
We arrived in Ohio the next afternoon. Our first stop was the Southwest Ohio boonies to see Amber’s side of the family and various animals. We made it to Cleveland a few days later. The weather was surprisingly San Diego-like. Three generations of Gibsons sat on my parents’ front porch and participated in a favorite Midwestern pastime, talking about each other and passersby. The boys put on their best performance for their grandparents, who laughed and said, “Look at they asses!” Amber and I talked of moving back. Cleveland still felt like home. Or maybe we just didn’t feel like driving back across the country with three feral kids.