In the darkest depths of COVID remote-school winter last year, one light on the horizon gave me hope: our plans for an epic summer cross-country road trip. We’ve now gotten back from what were 4 of the most amazing weeks I’ve spent with my family. Full stop.
The short story? It was a joy-filled lockdown detox adventure. Just as Teddy Roosevelt immersed himself in the nature of the Dakotas to heal a broken heart after his wife and mother died the same day, being out in wide-open indescribable places like Badlands, Yellowstone, and Zion did wonders for our souls. What began as a get-out-of-Dodge and escape COVID-hell plan turned into the start of what I now know will be a life-long fascination with the National Parks. As Conor Knighton writes in Leave Only Footprints: My Acadia-to-Zion Journey Through Every National Park, “the parks felt more like something I wanted to run toward.”
Want the longer story? Read on.
Trip Logistics: Where We Went, and How We Did It
Okay, here are the basics. Did we rent an RV for this trip? Nope. We traveled in our trusty 2019 Honda Odyssey minivan. We hadn’t put many miles on it during the pandemic, so it was still quite new. It helped that the car came with the ability to be its own WiFi hotspot. So the kids could use devices to entertain themselves. And we could answer some e-mails on long car driving days. The following also came in handy: (1) a power bank for devices (so we weren’t draining the car battery when re-charging); (2) Thermos water jugs in the trunk (so we could refill our water bottles at every rest stop); (3) cooling towels (for hiking on hot days); (4) kids chewable Dramamine (to avoid barf); and (5) water backpacks (also for hiking).
Here was our 20-state route from Washington, DC. We started outside of Pittsburgh, visiting family, then headed to Ohio. During COVID we became huge fans of the series Secrets of the Zoo, which takes place at the Columbus Zoo and the Wilds Conservation Park. So we went there, and even got to see some of the zookeeper celebs from the show!
Next, we went to Indiana Dunes National Park, about 45 minutes outside of Chicago on Lake Michigan, and then spent a few days in Chicago. After that, we passed through Wisconsin and Minnesota on the way to Badlands National Park in, South Dakota. Then on to Mount Rushmore (during the Sturgis motorcycle rally…didn’t intend that overlap), then through Buffalo, Wyoming to get to Yellowstone. We stayed in Montana right near the North Entrance to Yellowstone, and then spent a night in Winnemucca, Nevada, en route to San Francisco. After a few nights in San Fran, we stopped by Morro Bay and Arroyo Grande on the way to Los Angeles and stayed in Marina Del Ray. After a one-day trip to Legoland in Carlsbad, a day at Venice beach, and a visit to see friends in Rancho Cucamonga (love that name!) we turned around and headed east.
On the way back, we visited Joshua Tree National Park en route to Phoenix, then up to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. From there we headed to Zion, the last National Park of our trip. After Zion, we scooted home through Glenwood Springs and Denver, then Kansas City, Louisville, through West Virginia and Maryland, and then back to DC!
We spent a lot of nights in Airbnb rentals, which were, for the most part, delightful. We also spent some time in hotels, carefully masked while indoors. In total, we were gone for 29 days and stayed at 16 different places. So my husband and I used a shared Google spreadsheet to manage all of the reservation and address info.
A Public Service Announcement: The 4th Grade National Parks Pass
ATTENTION: all parents who currently have or will at some point have a child in 4th grade!! The Federal government has a program called “Every Kid Outdoors” that grants FREE access for 4th graders – and anyone else in the car with them – to ALL of the National Parks in the US. It is an AMAZING program that I don’t think is publicized well enough. The pass lasts from September 1 of your child’s 4th grade year through August 31 of the summer after that year.
Most of the park rangers at the entrance stations to each park do actually check to see if you have a 4th grader in the car. (Not sure if there’s frequent fraud on this free pass system, but my kids enjoyed feeling important at each park!) They’d say “roll down your back window, please, so we can see the 4th grader!” which lit my sons up with delight. One ranger actually required my 4th grader to sign his pass, and another quizzed him in jest on a math problem (9×9!) to verify his age.
Given I also have a rising 3rd grader, you can bet we’ll be doing another big National Parks trip the summer after my little guy finishes 4th grade. He’s already planning out what he wants to see on “his trip.”
Trip Highlights: People, Places, and Food!
One of the true joys of the trip – especially after the isolation of this past year – was getting to visit with family and friends across the country, many of whom we hadn’t seen in years. We also got to meet fascinating people along the way. Like the man from the Lakota tribe teaching kids at Mount Rushmore who wore a Jewish tallit as part of his spiritual practice. And the folks at the gas station/rest stop in Kansas who taught us about the crop called milo and showed us their grain elevators.
In addition to the people, the scenery was pretty darn impressive, too. It’s hard to choose which part of the trip was the best. My youngest says the Columbus Zoo and the Wilds, with Yellowstone following close behind. My oldest preferred San Francisco. And my husband and I were completely smitten with Zion, Utah. The hike in the Narrows (where you are hiking through the river as the sky-high rocks get narrower and narrower in the canyon) was breathtaking. Seeing the Grand Canyon under a full moon was an unexpected highlight, too.
If you’d like to see a series of photos from our trip, I will be sharing a bunch in the coming weeks on Instagram. Just follow @mindfulreturn, and I’ll give you the highlight reel!
Finally, I’ve got to mention the food. Yes, our stomachs (well, those of the grown-ups, anyway), suffered from time to time from eating in a more haphazard manner than usual. But all in all, we did pretty well on the food front. Staying at Airbnbs allowed us to make our own breakfasts. And when we got a bit tired of burgers and hot dogs in the middle of the country, we delighted in amazing sushi and Asian food in California. It was my youngest son’s dream to eat a California roll in California. Mission accomplished! I’d also be lying if I denied consuming a fair amount of ice cream during this trip. Our two favorite scoop shops were Sundae in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, and San Francisco’s Home Town Creamery, right by Golden Gate Park.
But What About COVID and Delta? Weren’t We Worried?
Of course we were worried. We were leaving Washington, DC, just as Delta was starting to rise. And we were traveling through some parts of the country where masks are a foreign concept. Ultimately, we took all the precautions we could, breathed through the anxiety, appreciated that we (my husband and I) were vaccinated, and did it all anyway.
We only ate meals outdoors (unless we were in an Airbnb or in our own hotel room). We wore masks every time we went inside. And we washed hands religiously. The kids got tested for COVID before school, and the negative results told me our precautions were effective.
Did we get some strange stares for wearing masks in certain states? Of course. Did we care? Not at all. We also heard some fascinating viewpoints about COVID, as expected. The owner of the BNB cattle ranch we stayed at in South Dakota, for example, believed he didn’t need a vaccine, because his ancestors had survived the Spanish Flu and the immunity carried down through the generations and protected him now. He also believed hospitals were inventing cases of COVID to get Medicare payments…go figure.
But What About Work?
Wasn’t it brazen of us to take 4 straight weeks off of work? Maybe. But my husband and I have both spent time in France. And we remember that not every culture in the world is as stingy with vacation time as we are in the US. To anyone struggling with the guilt and fear of taking a longer amount of time off, my key piece of advice is to plan ahead. WAY ahead. If you distance yourself from the event, declare that it will happen, and then take actionable steps in that direction, you can make nearly any plan become a reality.
If you didn’t notice I was gone, it’s because it’s entirely possible to plan things in advance. I queue’d up blog posts before I left. And my social media manager kept everything rolling. I also did do about an hour of work most evenings, at least during the first half of the trip, after my kids had gone to bed. An auto-responder was a must, and all my clients were incredibly supportive of my time away.
I took exactly one Zoom meeting during this trip (from a hotel room in San Francisco). My husband took a handful of client calls from the car, on his headset. One unexpected advantage to this arrangement was having our kids hear the advice he was giving to his career coaching clients. They definitely left the trip with a better sense of “what daddy does for work” – and picked up a few tips for their own future careers, too!
Finally, I have two more arguments about the work front. (1) If you managed to plan a parental leave and return (which I suspect you did, or you wouldn’t be reading this blog), you have the planning skills to be away for a few week vacation. And (2) all of the remote work we’ve done this past year and a half has proven that sooooo much more than we thought can in fact be accomplished from anywhere.
Want to Plan an Intentional Vacation, Too?
This trip has inspired me in so many ways. To keep visiting National Parks. (That 4th grade pass had its intended effect of getting us hooked!) To keep taking a day off per month to breathe and unplug. (As my new t-shirt from Zion says, “Lose Reception. Gain Perspective.”) And to share what I’ve learned about intentional vacations and trips across the US with the Mindful Return community.
At the moment, I’m feeling inspired to host a hands-on, interactive 90-minute workshop in the coming weeks on this very topic. Please join me on Friday, October 15, from 1:30-3:00pm Eastern / 12:30-2pm Central / 11:30am-1pm Mountain / 10:30am-12pm Pacific for this Mindful Return Workshop: Intentional Vacation Planning for Working Parents. During our time together, I will share more about the framework for my own trip, and we’ll also take a deep dive into themes including:
- Mindset around vacations and travel
- Work issues and negotiating time off
- Financial considerations and money plans
- Managing kids as you travel
- Deciding when to unplug and not
Sign up here, and I promise you’ll walk away from our time together with new ideas for how you and your family can explore this big and beautiful world around us. It’s a world we often don’t take much time to see, but that is there waiting for us at any moment.
Consider even this 90-minute time of dreaming and planning a trip to be a mini-retreat for yourself. And yes, we will record the workshop, if anything comes up at the last minute that prevents you from attending live. It will be more fun to be together live, though, if you can make it!
As for me, I’m now back in my home office feeling refreshed, happy, connected to my family, and ready to dive into work again. This is a feeling I haven’t had in a loooong time. And it was good to see so many smiles on my kids’ faces again. Joy and wonder are such beautiful gifts.
Want more practical tips on working parenthood? Check out my book, Back to Work After Baby: How to Plan and Navigate a Mindful Return from Maternity Leave