5500 Miles: Life Lessons on #TheRoad

Road Trip

Our family of 5 (including myself, my hubby, and our 3 teenage children) decided our family vacation this year should be a wanderlust-ful road trip where planning was thrown into the wind (along with all of those hours spent poring over Travelocity and TripAdvisor in search of travel revelations) and we instead simply hit the road with a few destinations in mind and let the wind and I-80 carry us onward.

I was not keen on this idea, being a born planner and finding great solace in knowing where I am going, when I will be there, and when I will return home and be able to sleep in my own bed. But, the family had spoken and the resounding call was, “Be Spontaneous!”

5500 miles and 2 weeks later, I can honestly say that I learned a lot on this trip and, more importantly, being set free from the burden of hotel reservations and travel deadlines was, in fact, GLORIOUS.

In other words, spontaneity proved to be more than just tolerable. It was, indeed, a great deal of fun.

Thinking of a Road Trip yourself? Check out below my

4 Lessons from the Road

. . . one planner to another ;>)


Lesson 1: There is no shame in feeding your family Taco Bell hunched over a petite and shabby hotel table at 10pm

Here we are “Living the VIP Life”

At home, we eat mostly home-cooked meals. Kale and quinoa make regular appearances on our dinner table, along with a variety of undefined root vegetables that I should know the names for but don’t. In other words, we try to feed our family clean and nutritious food. Enter our extended road trip, featuring unknown destinations, endpoints, and available feeding opportunities.

Many small towns or freeway exit ramps do not offer fresh, local food to the uninformed traveler. Instead, across America we found the most prominent feeding opportunities available to us when we were exhausted, at the end of a long day driving, and searching for some sustenance before collapsing at our hotel were fast food and, even more specifically, Subway or Taco Bell (McDonald’s being surprisingly absent from many of these locales). And so there we were, eating a Grande Meal and then some at the end of a long day, huddled like vagabonds around the little table.

And you know what, it was delicious!

I’m certainly glad we are in a position to afford healthy and local food on a regular basis at home, and realize many families struggle to access that quality of food (an issue which is worthy of an entire blogpost on its own), but in the microcosm of our family roadtrip, I found it freeing and fun to eat a few meals that were more out of desperation than discovery. And, as we ate our bean burritos and tried to sauce up our tacos with limited elbow room, we had a good family laugh that last well into the next day.

Lesson 2: Just Buy the National Park Annual Pass


If you are heading out west, then you are bound to here the call of our amazing US National Parks. Once you get out into the longitude of the Dakotas, you are in line with a spectacular set of Park options. Even if you think you will only go and see, say, the Badlands in S. Dakota, and maybe the Rockies, I am here to tell you that (if you are anything like me) you are fooling yourself.

Inevitably, what will happen is that you will hike one National Park, be astonished by its wonders, and find yourself saying, “Well, it’s only 3 hours to . . . ” and then off you go to your next National Park destination. In all, we went to the following National Parks or Monuments:

  • Badlands National Park
  • Wind Cave National Park
  • Rocky Mountain National Park
  • Arches National Park
  • Bryce Canyon National Park
  • Zion National Park
  • Grand Canyon National Park
  • Petrified Forest National Park

I mean, just look at the map:

National Parks.jpg

Tons of options for you, each just a few hours apart.  We eventually made it all the way to the Grand Canyon because it was only a few hours away from Zion and we figured, if we made it this far from home, how could we not take our kids to see  one of the natural wonders of the world?

So, buy the annual pass and it will pay for itself within the first two or three parks you enter. Plus, you’ll feel like a Real Boss when you get to skip the entrance line kiosk and instead just swipe your card and breeze on through into the park. Worth. Every. Penny.

Lesson 3: Listen to the Rangers, not the Masses

Just before it all went to hell. . .

At Bryce Canyon National Park, we were warned off from doing any serious hiking by  Ranger at the Visitor Center who informed us that storms were rolling in later that afternoon and the Canyon gets many lightning strikes during a storm, which obviously is a danger to hikers.

But, when we arrived at the Canyon and its many trails we were met with hordes of people enjoying the views and embarking or returning from hikes. We figured, if they are doing it, well. . .  (I know the irony of this group pressure, given that I am the mother of 3 teens who regularly talks with them about following your own instincts, etc.).

Regardless, we headed off on our 3 mile hike through the canyon, assuming illogically that being surrounded by masses of people would protect us from any natural injuries. The first 3/4 of the hike were lovely. The towers of the canyon were gorgeous and unique, and the trail took us through a variety of formations within the canyon.

Then came the climb up, where we needed to move ourselves up a 1/2 mile of switch backs straight up the side of the canyon to get back to the top and our car (and, as it would turn out, safety).

It is at this point in our hike that the storm began to roll in, with thunder from not-so-distant lightning booming into the canyon. I will be honestly–it was very scary to be surrounded by steep cliffs, no cover, and yet try to protect your children even as you are persuading them to go faster up the cliffside.

We eventually made it back safely and headed straight for the car, as throngs of people still remained on the top of the canyon looking on even as lightning struck close by.

Lesson learned: People as a group are idiots (myself included). Listen to your Rangers!

Lesson 4: Family Rules Need Adjusting On the Road


With 3 children (and being outnumbered), we try to run a household with clear rules that are consistently enforced. It’s how our family functions the best. But, being on the road for hours at a time, and then hiking, and then seeking out food and shelter each evening, I found that my own parenting stamina was waning, much as the politeness and rule-abiding of my children waned as well. On our trip, I learned the importance of ignoring churlish behavior from my kids that would have otherwise been dealt with promptly at home.

Why did I ignore it?

Because, when you put 5 human beings in a car and hotel room 24/7 for 2 weeks, people start to rub on each other like sand paper. No matter how much you love each other, you will annoy your loved ones to no end by the end of your trip, and they you. Granted, all of that will be forgotten as you look back fondly on all the memories you made, but this will be inestimably easier if you use planned ignoring more than you punitive intervention.

Meaning: When you don’t like your kid’s tone of voice or phrasing as you ask them to pass you up a pack of crackers, ignore it. No need for discipline.

Meaning: When you hear your two youngest debating who would win in a death match, ignore it.

Meaning: When your spouse asks why you need to buy lettuce for the sandwiches and your oldest child nabs the final packet of mayonnaise and you are stuck with mustard, ignore it.

On a condensed road trip, open communication is not nearly as important as maintaining some semblance of familial sanity.

Take a deep breath. Let it out. And move on.

Once home, you can reinstate the rules with gusto. Until then, though, relish the freedom that comes with simply ignoring your children as they yell “Shut Up” at each other for the 6th time. I know I did.



What My Students Taught Me: Spring Semester Edition

It’s the end of another semester here at Penn State and, as my mother (who is a high school science educator herself) reminds me, nothing ever stays the same when you are an educator. Classes end, students graduate, and time marches on. It’s one of the blessings and drawbacks of this profession–you are ever continuously in motion.

As we head into our finals week on campus and my Human Development and Family Studies students (HDFS-ers for short) prep for exams, I’m struck looking back on the past 15 weeks by what my students have accomplished. Not just objectively, from exam packets completed or written projects handed in, but also more intangibly through their comments, actions, and affirmations. It’s been a good semester for growth, and I feel empowered and strengthened by the gift of having worked with my students this semester. Below are three highlights.

Book and Woman.png

  1. When discussing links between pornography consumption in men and viewing women as objects, I posed the question of what it means to be objectified, especially since that phrase has been overused to the point of becoming meaningless. My students responded to the question, with swift emphasis, that:
  • An object has no desires.
  • An object has no discomfort.
  • An object does not need to give consent.

After this discussion, I sat quietly at my desk after class, thankful these young people are heading out into the world soon. Change will come.

2. At the end of the semester, I asked my students for their final in-class assignment to write about which activity or topic I should definitely include next semester. Almost half of the course emphasized the importance of viewing The Hunting Ground and our discussion of sexual assault on campus, including the Bystander Training Prevention program we participated in as a class through Penn State’s Student Affairs.  It reminded me, once again, of the importance of giving our students access to a safe educational environment. Given that I’ve received 4 ‘timely warnings’ of reported sexual assaults on campus in the past week, we still have a long way to go, but I am confident that many of our students will continue to fight until we get there.  @endrapeoncampus

Timely Warning

3. My sophomore-level course is a survey of infancy and childhood, so we cover a variety of topics, much to my delight since I love learning and teaching about this period of development. Each semester, I try to squeeze in a presentation on the Children’s Village of Grasi, which is a children’s home/orphanage in Cesvaine, Latvia. I volunteered there many summers ago and my husband and I have since traveled back to Latvia several times as part of our adoption of our three children. I partly share the Children’s Village with my students because their program of caring for children whose families are unable to do it themselves, due to illness, maltreatment, or a variety of other causes, reflects what developmental research has shown again and again to promote resiliency, including family-style homes, family meals, longevity in their staff, and support for children even after they ready the ‘age of majority’. It’s an incredible program, to say the least.

Another a reason I talk about this with my students is to encourage them to consider how families form, and that families grow from a variety of circumstances. Grasi creates a family by linking the children who stay with them with the staff who have worked there for years. My husband and I created our family by adopting our children, who are all siblings, when they were school-age (our son was 11yrs, and our daughters 8 and 7yrs). This semester, luckily like so many others, my presentation on Grasi led to a flurry of e-mails from students wanting to know more about Grasi, about volunteering at children’s homes, about foster care here in the States, and also about adopting older children. Although I feel all of these topics are important for my students to explore, I am always especially gratified to hear students considering alternative ways to form their future families.


With so many stories in the news focusing on adoption in a negative light, whether with exposés on reactive attachment disorder or discussions of the ills of children who are adopted later in their lives, it is even more important to communicate to my students that these stories are the exception, not the norm. When I hear students tell me they are now thinking about adopting as part of their future family plan, and even perhaps adopting older children, it makes my heart swell.

If you worry about Millenials and their impending impact on the world when they come of age, I’m here to tell you: Don’t sweat it! As my students have taught me again and again these last fifteen weeks:

The future is in good hands.