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  • Rebecca P. Cohen

Are we there yet? Surviving a 2000-mile road trip with family and the outdoors

Family Fun at the Reception

It started with an invitation to a family wedding in Iowa City, Iowa. Feeling scarred by unairconditioned summer road trips as a kid to the Midwest to see family (sorry mom and dad), my first option for years has been to take an airplane anywhere. This year, airline tickets to Iowa City from D.C. were out of the question, but going to the wedding of my dear cousin Kiera was always "absolutely yes" - there was no way I would miss it.

Pulling out the kid's U.S. map used two years prior to outline a cross-country RV trip with my friend Janelle and our five kids (and three-legged dog, but that's another story), I scanned the map with my boys, now six (just yesterday) and eight years old.

Maybe I just needed to think of a road trip as a fun adventure, I thought.

I asked the boys, "If we drove to Iowa, what would you want to see along the way?"

"Cousins!" they replied.

My sisters do not yet have kids, so my cousins' children are my sons' cousins: 10+ on both sides of the family, and our rare visits with them have been wonderful.

Listening to my children's heart-felt request for quality time with family was key to planning.

A rest stop garden

My mom offered to go on the adventure with me since my husband, Bret, didn't have time off from work to join us. We routed our trip by the gracious hospitality of family in Kentucky, Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Indiana, and then stayed solo in Ohio and Pennsylvania on the way back to Virginia.

We would take two days to get to Iowa for several days of family celebrations, wedding and otherwise, and then take four days to travel back. On my wish list was riding bikes, berry picking, and swim lakes.

What we received was so much more. I have a tradition of listing the "Top 10" at the conclusion of a vacation, and I thought I would share them with you:

  • Family. When we see our aunts, uncles, and cousins, there is a warmth about our time together, and the kids always have a blast. The park and Curiosity Cards with cousins in Kentucky, roasting s'mores in Illinois, soccer and hide 'n seek in Iowa and a backyard camp out in Wisconsin with my sister Lisa were wonderful treats.

  • The Indiana Dunes on the shores of Lake Michigan. We had a wonderful sunset picnic followed by a beach day and dune climbing on Mt. Baldy. All were brilliant suggestions from my Uncle Denny and Aunt Kieran.

  • Hunting through milkweed to find a monarch butterfly caterpillar and looking at thousands of fossils in Fossil Gorge at Coralville Lake, Iowa, a local trip suggested by my sister.

Monarch caterpillar on milkweed

  • Riding bikes through the University of Iowa campus and to breakfast in Madison,

Wisconsin. We passed beautiful community gardens on a bike path through town.

  • Picking blueberries in Plymouth, Indiana at the Pickin' Patch and a lakeview dinner and ice cream in Winona, thanks to ignoring the GPS and heading 30E instead of taking the major highways.

  • A game of football with my eight year-old at the Pro-Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. Not planned, we saw the sign and I knew it would be a highlight for my older son, which it was.

  • Bouncing on a pogo stick thanks to a gracious neighbor of my Uncle Rich's who saw me playing outside with my older son when he said he was bored. We also asked a neighboring family to pump up a flat soccer ball for us which they not only did, but also offered use of their basketball hoop.

  • My 'magic bag' that I carried with us everywhere, containing a bouncy ball, soccer ball, Aerobie Flyer, bubbles, Curiosity Cards, and a soft baseball bat and ball that provided fun anytime my kids or other's kids needed something to do.

  • Rest stops with open fields. Perfect for playing tag, when we needed a bathroom break we could stop and get out our wiggles at the same time. Races across open spaces are also a perfect game when you're on the go. My kids kept re-running their races and asking me to time them.

Sunset at Indiana Dunes

  • That we actually did it and had a good time! Indeed, the inevitable time in the car

was difficult. Frequent stops, Curiosity Cards, MadLibs (thanks to my mom), DVDs, and smaller highways with beautiful scenery got us through the long hours together in the car. Having my mom on the trip was a godsend. Her calming influence kept me sane when I wasn't sure if I could.

As you can see by the list, most of what we treasured were things that we did not plan, but occurred as a result of saying what was important to us in the beginning and planning only what we needed to have places to stay and people we wanted to see. As a mom, the 'magic bag' was key. But, we were also willing to take lots of risks along the way, with a looser schedule so we could stop during our days on the road.

Our trip highlights were things that you can do without having to travel far. So I invite you to ask yourself as I will, how can you make your next week an adventure close to home?

About Rebecca P. Cohen

Rebecca P. Cohen believes time outside transforms our lives for the better. PJ's Backyard Adventures is the latest project from Rebecca, author of the book 15 Minutes Outside: 365 Ways to Get Out of the House and Connect with Your Kids (Sourcebooks), and creator of Rebecca Plants Curiosity Cards. Rebecca’s work has been featured in countless media outlets, including USA Today, Parenting, Redbook, Working Mother, and Family Circle. In addition, Rebecca has appeared on live morning news shows around the country, and is also host of the video series, Get Out of the House, which shows fun ideas for time outside in every season. For Rebecca's inspiring blog and free downloads, visit