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Columnist Valerie Schultz

Summer road trips may have changed over the years, but they still have a place in American childhood. I can report this because I just hit the road with my sister and my two nephews, ages 10 and 7, for 11 days through five states.

When I was growing up in the last century, our family road trips were fraught with danger, as the baby slept in a car bed tethered to nothing, and my siblings and I roamed free as we played in the back of the station wagon. When I was the parent, my children were secured into seatbelts and car seats. On this trip, the boys still sat in booster seats complete with cup holders. Vehicular safety, obviously, has come a long way.

As has entertainment. Toys have been replaced by personal electronic devices, as witnessed by my sister’s brave struggle to limit the boys’ screen time and instead encourage them to look out the car windows.

“Look at that river/mountain/bridge/train/old barn/herd of sheep!” my sister would call.

“Yeah,” the boys would reply, looking up briefly.

Being the ancient aunt, I welcomed the boys into the world of gigantic accordion-folded paper maps instead of the tiny, perhaps-more-accurate ones on our phones. I resuscitated the time-honored license plate game, wherein we kept a list of the different states spotted on license plates as we drove the interstates. As of today, we’ve noted 44 states. (The quest did not end with our arrival home: My older nephew recently spotted Vermont. I find myself looking for those elusive last few.)

My nephews are much younger than my adult children, because their mother is my much-younger sister. My youngest sibling was born when I was in high school, indicating the wide age range among the six of us. I’m always amused to watch the kids whose diapers I once changed act like parents. Well, they are the parents, so I have to smother my laughter when they transform into disciplinarians with their children.

We hit the road to visit two of our siblings, one in Boise and one in Battle Ground, Wash., as well as my daughter and daughter-in-law in Portland. Along the way, we stopped in Sacramento for a tour of Sutter’s Fort and Old Sacramento. We drove through the spectacular Columbia Gorge. We cruised more slowly through Wildlife Safari in Winston, Ore., where the boys leaned out of the car windows and fed some sort of antelopes. We visited the chilly Pacific off the Oregon Coast. On the way home, we zipped through Gilroy Gardens, where many of the rides are garlic-themed.

So many moments along the way reminded me of long-ago road trips with my girls. Like when my nephew took a very long time to decide which Kit Kat bar he wanted at a gas station stop, reminding me of losing patience with my indecisive daughter, who always agonized over that final painful candy choice. Or when the four of us, two supposedly mature sisters and two young brothers sharing one hotel room after a long day of driving, couldn’t stop laughing in the dark at things made more hilarious by our lack of sleep. Or when the TV in each hotel room was immediately flipped on, leading to arguments over what to watch. Such togetherness!

Of course, as soon as we arrived at a home full of cousins, the boys disappeared to do kid things. This gave us adults time to talk about grownup things without using code. This was rare and precious togetherness.

Our trip was not without misadventures. In Boise, we got trapped in an elevator while touring the Idaho Capitol. “This is my worst nightmare!” wailed my 5-year-old nephew, whom we were visiting. Since the kids went fully into panic mode, we adults kicked into survival mode, especially when the lights went out. Our ordeal felt like hours of hopelessness, although it was probably about five minutes before help arrived to free us.

Then, in Battle Ground, as we explored the woods at the back of my brother’s property, one of the kids apparently disturbed a nest of yellow jackets. Suddenly a lot of people were shouting things like:

“Ow! Ow! OW!”

“Bees! Bees!”

“RUN!!”

Which we did. My nephew who lives there claimed the biggest number of bites: 12. Thanks to some strategic running, the rest of us had five or fewer. (I must be too old to taste good, because I was unscathed.) The rest of that day involved rest and Benadryl and ice cream. So much for nature walks.

I am so grateful to have shared this 11-day adventure. The road trips of childhood open our minds and cement our relationships at the same time. The enforced camaraderie of the car, the discovery of new people and places, the treasure of time with far-flung family, the delicious food and the terrible food, and the inevitable mishaps, are experiences that form us. We take those memories into adulthood, and if we’re lucky, make new memories with our children. The details of the road trip may change, but its blessings are all still just waiting in a full tank of gas.

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