30 Days, 20 States, 10 Amazing Lessons From the Road
In the dead of summer, my husband Lucky and I packed three guitars, two coolers, and one activity bag for a cross-country tour of 25 shows with our band, Lucky Diaz and the Family Jam Band. Our nine-year-old daughter also joined us and I saw the USA—and my family—from a whole new light. Here are some lessons I learned.
1. Plans go out the window.
I am an incredibly organized, Type A optimist. My checklists have checklists with bullet points. I organize times, dates, wheres, whys, how much, and how comes. I love crossing things off and crumpling up accomplished lists, and then making new ones. Before setting out on our epic adventure, I had laid out maps, lists of major Americana roadside attractions, equations figuring out miles per gallon, and how many hours it would take from Show A to Hotel B. (Did I mention I am a closeted nerd that adores math?) I had graphed our eating plan and spending budget, allotted for daily fun time and organized sleeping arrangements, all while planning 25 shows. We were going to NAIL THIS TRIP! I was a superstar of domestic goodness and practical delegation management!
However, life has different plans. Hotels don’t have your reservation on file, shows that we were contracted to play don’t have the sound system needed, flash floods occur in the middle of Las Vegas, your husband can’t drive 18 hours straight like you had planned, tornadoes whip through the heartland, your kid gets carsick. When these things occurred, I had several panic attacks that we were off-course and off our timetable. My husband and I only had one disagreement on the road—he wanted to stop at the Famous Mad Greek and I didn’t see it necessary to set ourselves back for a gyro. Fortunately, he won. And he was right. It was weird and packed and delicious and funny and delightful. From that point on, I tried to let the good stuff and the not-so-good stuff alter our itinerary, but not alter my outlook and sunny disposition.
2. Always, always pack an activity bag.
I learned this from my mother on our annual road trips from Indiana to Florida for spring break. You always have to pack something for the little ones to do. A sack filled with crayons, books, activity sheets, trinkets and gadgets can go a long way after you have been traversing across the Great Plains for 10 hours (the Great Plains tend to look… plain). My dad’s trick made everything a contest. He would announce, "Whoever sees a snow-capped mountain wins fifty cents." I found myself doing this exact same thing: "Shout if you see a RV park with over 100 campers and get all the pennies in my purse." This led to heaps of competitive enjoyment and kept us searching for new sights.
3. Pump up the volume.
Spontaneous sing-a-longs, car seat dance parties and just plain silliness are an essential! Everyone needs to roll down the window and belt out "Jack and Diane" while the wind hits your face and the cars that whizz by stare—wishing they were doing that weird hand-wave dance out their own vehicle. Maybe now they will….
4. Take time to unplug.
Unwind, undo, un-everything. So many cars are now equipped with all the latest tech to keep us busy, keep us doing, keep us… isolated from each other. DVD players for the kids, wi-fi access even in the Sierras, iPods, iPads, Droids, doozits, whatsits, thingamajigs abundant! Turn it off. Turn it all off, and don’t be afraid. Let the silence settle in. Let it feel awkward, let it feel weird… and then re-connect—to each other. You would be amazed where silence can lead. During a particularly long stretch in Texas, we learned that our little meek one is obsessed with ghosts. This led us to stop off at the creepiest of creepy ghost towns in the middle of absolutely nowhere. Once we arrived, she refused to get out of the car (too much ghostly reality), but it was pretty awesome to tell weird haunted tales and scary stories. Plus, we always ended up cracking each other up.
Kids really do say the darndest things when they are allowed to. Our car at home has no radio (no working driver’s or passenger side door either—but that is a different story), and we have to talk and to deal with each other. And let me tell you: within that stillness is an abundance of joy.
5. Eat like a local.
When are you ever going to be back in Mammoth Springs, Arkansas? (Unless you live there or nearby…) If you see a sign that proclaims, "Best gizzards in America"—daggonit, you go in and order those gizzards! Talk to the waitress. She has a story. Listen. (See #6). Ask her what is best and ALWAYS take her suggestion. (Of course I took my own suggestion and ordered those gizzards, and let me tell you, after my Great Gramma Reed’s, they just might be the best in America!)
One thing I have seen from the road is that people have great pride in their communities, in their identities, in themselves. From small towns to thriving metropolitans, artisans are crafting out creations that they BELIEVE in. And you can taste it, smell it and experience it. We ate the most decadently delicious egg, cheese, bacon and biscuit sandwich coined the "Reggie Deluxe" at Pine Street Biscuits in Portland. Every ounce oozed with perfection. And the pride within the restaurant was palpable. They stood by every bite, and we were more than willing to indulge in it.
6. We are all guest stars in each other’s biopics.
Everyone has a story. A magnificent tale of triumph and hardship, of joy and success, invention and evolution. Everyone. Every age, every demographic—everyone. This was so amazing to experience firsthand on the road. Some of my favorites:
- We met a boy who was deaf and had major speech issues. The first song he ever sang aloud was one of ours.
- We met a family of triplets in Oklahoma who were beyond extraordinary. One of the boys was quiet, but so attentive. He stayed after the show to get extra hugs. We found out he has severe learning disabilities and music was the one way he felt he could communicate. (Since we met the family, his mother has emailed us regularly and her little boy had asked for a guitar for his birthday, because he knew he had a song to sing.)
- We chatted with a farmer in Missouri whose daughter wants to be pop star. She is three and chockfull of passion and spice. He was terrified and delighted.
- We hugged a single mom battling breast cancer who ran the local orphanage (most well-behaved and lovely kids ever).
- We tromped around the shop of a genius artist up in Woodstock who makes furniture, restores cars, writes books, and has more stories than can be told.
- We met teachers, from all over, spending all their excess income buying music and art supplies for their students because of budget cuts. (p.s. Teachers: we believe in you! If you contact us, we will send you free music for your classroom!)
- We met flocks of kids all over willing to move their bodies and sing and jump and dance with a reckless abandon that reminds you to LIVE life to its fullest extent.
Everyone has his or her story to share, from the loss of a loved one to the loss of a first tooth. The joys of extreme weight loss (a waitress in Arizona showed us a picture of herself 150 pounds heavier that she carries in her apron) to the joys of extreme collecting (we found out one of our friends who lovingly let us stay in his gorgeous home in St. Louis collects Wizard of Oz paraphernalia!). There is always a treasure to uncover, a lesson to be learned and a story to be heard. All you have to do is listen.
7. Let every day be a new day.
Because it is. Often, Lucky and I would wake up in a hotel room and have no idea what state we were in or what giant group of jump, jiving kids we would get to play for that day. Once, Lucky even fell out of the bed because he was so used to sleeping on the other side. Due to this cluster of time zone confusion, we were forced to live in the NOW. Each day was bustling with possibility and challenge, and this was extraordinary. Back home, I work towards translating this to the monotony of my everyday. Each day is new, each day is a blessing and each day is a different burst out of the bed.
8. Magic is everywhere.
Not going to lie to you guys, we didn’t always stay at four-star luxury hotels. We didn’t exactly choose roach coaches, but some places, to put lightly, were questionable. However, we all know you can’t let a child read your fear or disappointment. Our job is to make them feel safe, and excited. So that is exactly what we did.
Whatever sleeping establishment we rocked up to, our family would bust through the door and jump on the bed! We would fly between double bed to double bed and land on a pile of semi-fluffy pillows laughing and shedding the long stretches of sitting. Then, I would sneak to the bathroom, check to make sure the tub was acceptable, wipe it down just in case, and then fill it with one of those little shampoos that comes with the room (gotta love the freebies!). A magic bubble bath was made for our delighted little one. And the bubble bath bought my husband and I some alone time—to discuss the long hours, the weird red light that went on in the car, the tornado that was just 10 miles away in Oklahoma, and our lack of proper coffee. Most importantly, it was time for Lucky and I to hold hands and have our own magic within our family dynamic. And who can argue with a bubble bath?!
9. Follow the road most traveled—sometimes.
Yelp, Urbanspoon, and all those other user sites exist for a reason. Don’t try to go against the grain when you are completely uneducated about a situation. Don’t go to the hotel that has a continual rating of one star. Don’t eat at the restaurant that everyone says is dirty. Sometimes simplicity is key. Explore within the box of sanitation, safety and sanity. Life can be tricky so let yourself be helped.
10. Follow the road least traveled—all the other times.
When you see a weird sign for "Standing on the Corner of Winslow, Arizona," map it. Go there. Take your picture in front of the odd backdrop and buy a keychain from the gift shop. Heard someone mention Cadillac Ranch and realize it is on your path? Grab a spray can and leave your mark. Get suggestions. Follow them. One tip from a friend led us to Chuck Berry’s restaurant, Blueberry Hill, in St. Louis. Another tip led us catching catfish in the backwoods near Amish country. Turn down the road that looks intriguing. Stop at the shop that catches your eye. One of our favorite wrong-right turns led us to discover the real Radiator Springs from the movie Cars—Peach Springs, AZ. Lucky actually freaked out! Every wrong turn can lead you in the right direction, and every moment is a chance to discover.
I look at my little family and am so thankful that our journey was our ultimate destination. Maybe next year we should try Europe?...