By Kristen Manieri

Five Things I Learned from Our 101-Day Summer Road Trip

On May 11th, a hot and humid Orlando, FL (a.k.a. home) faded in our rearview mirror as we headed on the road for a 101-day summer journey. Marc had the wheel, Elizabeth (9) and Aly (7) tore into their backpacks filled with new workbooks and activity books (stealthily kept hidden until this moment), and I took my position as navigator, audiobook player, and snack server. It took a lot of planning and saving to get this trip underway, but we were off. 

This wasn’t the first time we had left Orlando for a summer sojourn. Since 2012, we’ve quit the City Beautiful for four to ten weeks, always to Asheville, NC. I move all my work to Mondays and Marc moves all of his clients to Tuesday – Friday. We work remotely, cramming stuff into odd hours, saying no to a lot of things, and just making it work.  

While Asheville, a quirky mountain town tucked into the Blue Ridge Mountains, is and always will be one of my favorite places on the planet, our budding explorers were beyond bored with it. They craved a change of scenery. With mommy in charge of travel, they should be careful what they wish for (tee hee). 

Lake Tahoe, CA
Lake Tahoe, CA

So, this year we changed direction entirely, with a trajectory that headed west with stops in New Orleans, Austin, San Antonio, Phoenix, Flagstaff, the Grand Canyon, Sedona, Vegas, Lake Tahoe, San Francisco and the Redwoods with lots of stops in between and a final descent into Portland, OR. Our itinerary evolved from a mix of a desire to see certain places and the practicality of a path that didn’t have us spending more time in the car than was necessary. As it stands, we’ll have journeyed more than three thousand miles and spent nearly 70 hours in the car by the time we board our plane back to Orlando and wave goodbye to Marc’s car as it drives away on a flatbed… fingers crossed we’ll see it again sometime soon. 

It’s an odd thing to leave ‘life as usual’ behind for a few months. It involves lots of adventure, new places, strategic packing, and a suuuuuuper high concentration of family time that we both love and need to learn to navigate all over again each year. Along the way, Marc and I lose each other and find each other again. And we learn a lot, about life, about each other, and about ourselves. Friends and family have followed this summer’s adventures, often commenting on photos or texting that it makes them so happy to see our escapades. So, for them (and for you, whoever you are), I thought I might capture what this summer has meant and the little nuggets of wisdom it has gifted me.  

1. Kids don’t really care about views… but mine are really good at faking it

About two weeks after we left the Grand Canyon, an epic, bucket list experience that left us with unreal photos and memories that will literally stay with me forever, Aly offered a confession. “I didn’t really care about the Grand Canyon,” she said with a shrug. “I mean, it was just a view. Who cares? But I knew you did so I didn’t say anything.” My love for her doubled in that moment. 

This admission didn’t change our future plans one bit. In the coming weeks, we still took the kids to places with epic views, often involving an arduous hike and, sometimes, an early morning departure. Knowing that they truly didn’t care didn’t change our excursions in the least. You know why? Because appreciating beauty, whether it’s a breathtaking panorama in the wild or a piece of art in a museum, is a skill we learn and hone. And the more I stand in front of something and say “wow!” (even while they’re thinking “yawn”) the more they will learn to see the WOW in life. My mom calls it wonderment. I truly believe the ability to feel wonderment is something that is essential to a good life, like empathy and delight. If we don’t model these moments, show our kids how to squeeze the WOW out of life, how will they ever learn? 

Plus, they taught me to see and feel a lot of WOWs, too. Aly has the uncanny ability to see the tiniest things while we’re hiking. “Look Mom, a caterpillar.” We all stop and stare at this minuscule little thing camouflaged in the bark of the tree. How the heck does she see these things? It’s because she’s present. Utterly in the moment. She’s my mentor. 

Who is she kidding? She's totally digging this view!
Who is she kidding? She’s totally digging this view!

2. Bribery is a-okay

Bribery is at the bottom of our parenting toolbox, but heck ya, it’s in there. We use it sparingly, mostly when we want our kids to do something that REALLY pushes them outside of their comfort zone. Like in Oregon when we took the kids on a 2.7 mile hike that basically went straight up a mountain and straight down through a forest with only a <pretty awesome> waterfall to captivate them along the way. It was a hard hike, even for us grown-ups, but my kids did it without complaint. Not because they’re angels, but because a carrot had been dangled in front of them from the beginning: get through this hike without complaint and we’ll go out for brunch AND you can order whatever you want. It worked, thank goodness. It would have been a hell of a lot harder and completely miserable if we’d had a soundtrack of moaning and groaning the entire way. 

Here’s why I don’t regret this strategy: because had they been allowed to complain, all they would have focused on was what was wrong… how hard it was, how hot it was, how far it was, the bugs, the dirt, blah, blah, blah. With the complaints off the table, we focused on what was good: the view, the path, the birds, the flowers, etc., etc. Everything is better when we focus on what’s good… even if it culminates in chocolate chip pancakes with whip cream on top. 

Hiking DL Bliss State Park
Hiking DL Bliss State Park

3. Just when you think you know your kids, turns out there’s more to discover

This expanse of time together revealed new sides to my kids I didn’t know were there and the space we created allowed them to emerge. At home, we’re totally wrapped up in our schedule. Get up, go to school, come home, eat dinner, go to bed. Sure, we have some quality time in there, but mostly we’re moving from A to B. There isn’t a lot of space to just be with each other. Take a 101-day road trip and you’ll find this space. 

In these moments, I could see how Elizabeth, almost 10, is teetering on the line of wanting to stay young and so excited to grow up. She’ll start 4th grade in a few weeks and I can sense an equal measure of eagerness and apprehension about this great big world around and ahead of her. She asks me questions from the back seat about driving, tells me how watching me drive has taught her the ropes, and declares her intention to get her learner’s permit the moment she turns 15. On the same day, she tells me she never wants to grow up, wonders out loud if I will move in with her when she goes to college, and wishes she could to stay a little girl forever. 

Life has slowed down on this trip, sometimes to a snail’s pace, and so I am in these moments with her as a noticer, a confidant, a friend. At home, these little glimpses into her world may have gone unnoticed. 

This place was AWESOME!
This place was AWESOME!

4. Good snacks are everything 

Long drive? Have a snack. Long line? No problem. Anyone want some granola? Traffic jam? Here’s a Nutella Go. Disappointing change of plans? I have apples, cherries, grapes, and Kind bars. I should have been a Boy Scout. This mama comes prepared. Food, I have learned, makes every topsy turvy moment okay. Armed with a small cooler, snack pack or purse, I can turn almost any sour scenario around with my arsenal of snacks. 

My friend Amber gave me a diamond of a tip several years ago: anytime you go on a road trip (long or short), give every member of your clan their own snack pack filled with their favorite foods. I leave Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s armed with enough food to feed a small army—olives, nuts, meat sticks, pickles, granola bars, veggies, fruit, kale chips, potato chips, chocolate, cookies, cheese, crackers… the list goes on and on. I spend a small fortune but it’s worth every penny because along the way these provisions supply delight, nourishment and distraction plus mitigate stops at shitty fast food restaurants, expensive Starbucks refuels, and an immeasurable number of hangry breakdowns. These snacks are my secret weapon. 

5. Audiobooks are everything, too

One of the most unexpected and absolutely awe-inspiring elements of this trip has been the ever-changing landscape we’ve watched emerge outside our car’s windows as we clock mile after mile. From the rolling knolls of Texas Hill Country to the deserts of Death Valley, from the vineyards of Napa to the towering forests of the Redwood National State Parks, I’ve lost count of our gasps as each new scenery unfolded around us. We’ve seen mountains, oceans, forests, desserts, and endless plains of nothing. We’ve spotted elk, forest fires, dust devils, incredible architecture, and vibrant murals. Honestly, the time we’ve spent driving has been surprisingly wonderful. And I have one invention to thank: audiobooks. 

Of course, the kids have had access to their iPad filled with movies plus a ton of workbooks, stickers books and coloring books. But we have spent more than half of our time in the car listening to captivating stories and epic sagas while gazing out the window as the world changes around us. With our faces turned to the outside landscape, instead of locked on a screen, we have seen so much that we would have missed otherwise. 

Here’s what we’ve listened to this summer:

And in previous years:

We listen via these two apps: Hoopla and AudioBooks. 

Squaw Valley, CA
Squaw Valley, CA

Just do it

I know that for most, a trip like this is logistically and professionally impossible. I am very clear that we are blessed, maybe even charmed. I’m grateful beyond words.

And… this didn’t happen by accident. This was designed. 

It all started as a thought, a whispered wondering, way back in 2012: what if? What if we could leave home for an extended period of time and just be a family? What if we could leave all of our obligations and commitments and schedules and ‘to do’ lists behind for a few weeks or months? What if we lived our lives like work was part of what we did but not all of what we did? And so we started, with four weeks away at first, an experiment just to see if we actually could leave ‘life as usual’ behind for a while. 

Turns out we can. And so can you. Maybe it won’t be four or ten weeks (or 101 days), but it could be something. You could start somewhere. And then maybe the next year, a little more, a little further, a little longer. But you just have to start. Ask “what if” and then go see. I promise you won’t regret it. 

P.S. I’m so excited to launch Season 2 of The Synced Life podcast in September. Hope you’ll give it a listen! 

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