Martorella: What a country

This summer, I took off time from my column to take on a 21-day challenge.

No, not the “weight loss/fitness/change your life” type challenge. On the contrary, this one involved a lot of sitting and terrible eating habits, though it made quite an impact on my life.

This challenge was a 21-day family vacation driving across the country. Ok, so the last seven days were on a cruise, but that reward was the only way I would agree to the first fourteen.

Our original summer vacation plan was not so insane — a bucket list Alaskan cruise booked eight months out. But as the cruise started to get closer and we had to figure out how to get to the embarkation point, the kids started to balk.

One doesn’t like airports, the other doesn’t like the flight. The biggest kid (my husband) started to dream wistfully about spending weeks bonding as a family, convening with nature through all the National parks.  I had nightmares about the packing, sibling fighting, and the driving – oh all the driving. Could we make it through the parks without throwing each other to the bears?

But I agreed on two conditions: 1) we rent a big car, and 2) I had an unlimited budget for wash and fold laundry along the way.  

The morning of our trip began like a normal Sunday.  I woke up, stretched, and groggily thought, “what should I do today?…..” Then I bolted upright with a gasp, thinking “OH!NO!”  Rather than letting my anxious thoughts take over, I forced myself into the shower, quietly humming the “Wallyworld” theme, and started moving one small step at a time towards our “exciting” Vacation.

We prepared the house for our three-week absence, and gathered our bags. Half of a duffel bag for my husband, eight and a half bags for the rest of us. (How does he do that?) The backseat sibling bickering began en route to pick up the rental car. It wasn’t looking good -- both the kids and I threatened to sign off this trip before we even left town!

Once we really got on our way, the kids settled in. Two weeks of driving would wear on anyone, but I have to say they were troopers, and we built in fun breaks (read, “Pokémon Go”) and a few multi-night stay overs so we weren’t in the car every day.

I know they should have spent the ride playing license plate games and “car bingo,” doing copious summer reading and math practice, and journaling about their adventures, but the truth is our car was like a mobile tech center, charger cords and earphone wires criss-crossed between the seats and over the headrests. It’s a wonder the car battery didn’t wear down.

I have to believe that despite the technological interference, my kids absorbed something about the vastness of our country, the amazing variations in landscape, the importance of conservation efforts, and the diverse people and industry that keep it all going.

We planned for time in Chicago and Seattle, with stops in and around Mt. Rushmore, Yellowstone, and Glacier National Parks along the way, and we enjoyed all of these. But it was the sights in between, the ones we didn’t plan for, that offered some of the unexpected highlights. We drove through four states’ worth of corn fields, marveling at the extensive irrigation systems on wheels and hundreds of giant white windmills with blades close to 150 feet long (fun fact, over 35% of electricity in Iowa is generated by wind).  

We shared the road with dozens of motorcyclists heading to their annual gathering in Sturgis, South Dakota. We saw a coal train made up of over 100 cars that appeared to extend on forever. We marveled at the Badlands in South Dakota, an unplanned National Park visit, which turned us into the stereotype of annoying parents, repeating “Look, kids! Do you see that? This is amazing!” so many times that they begged us to stop, or at least just leave the Badlands. And Bighorn National Forest in Wyoming – with hairpin turns and gaping views which my husband and I also gawked at, this time while the kids slept.

We saw a rodeo, where young kids fell off buckin’ broncos and rather than running to their assistance, the adults cheered them on until their breath returned and they got back up. (“Look, kids, did you see that?!”)

We traversed 14 states, crossed the Continental Divide four times, lunched at the World’s Largest Truck Stop, and even found Paradise (Montana, population 184. Hmm, it may be harder get in than I thought.)

After two weeks on the go, unpacking in a cruise cabin for a week was a welcome rest, and we enjoyed the scenery and activities in Alaska as well (Glaciers! Eagles! Waterfalls! Whales!). But I think we all appreciated the journey even more than the destination.

And nobody got fed to the bears.

Rebecca Martorella, LMFT welcomes ideas and comments and can be reached at