A Road Trip With My Dad. Sort Of.

by Christine Burke
Originally Published: 
Luděk Maděryč / PEXELS

Last summer, I took a road trip from Pennsylvania to Texas.

On my own, with two kids.

And, believe it or not, I loved every single minute of the 48 hours total we spent in the car together.

When people ask me why I embarked on such an adventure alone, I tell them I blame my dad. It’s his fault that when the days get longer and the weather becomes warmer, I feel the need to pack my bags and hit the road. I blame him that the smell of warm asphalt takes me back to the family cross-country trips of my childhood. And every time I cross the threshold of a convenience store on a sweltering hot day, as I get a blast of cold air conditioning and a whiff of fresh coffee, I smile because I know it’s my Dad reminding me of my road trip memories.

My fondest moments as a child are of riding the hump seat between two gangly, behemoth brothers as the sounds of the Oldies station floated through the open windows. Every summer, with my Dad at the wheel of our compact blue station wagon, we took epic two-week vacations that resulted in us eventually seeing the entire Lower 48 by car. I had the privilege of spending the Fourth of July in a different city for over 10 years, all because my Dad would spend six months planning these epic adventures while sitting on the john armed with his faithful Rand McNally.

I want my kids to have those memories too.

When I first hatched my plan for an extended road trip, my husband was skeptical. Because his allotted vacation time wouldn’t allow him to join us, I would have to travel solo with our children, ages 9 and 12. I had been thinking of making the drive from my home in Pennsylvania to my mother’s home in Texas for several years, and finally, last summer seemed to be the right time. I was familiar with the route, having traveled back and forth to Texas from my Northeastern college, always with my father as my copilot. My father passed away in October 2012, and somehow, the route and memories of our shared travel experiences made me brave enough to attempt the trip.

I knew my trip would help me remember my Dad and assuage the grief I still felt in my heart since his passing. I needed that time on the road with him, to reminisce, to briefly inhabit the locations where he and I once stood together. I wanted my kids to see the country as I did, and I wanted to plant the seed of wanderlust in their hearts, much in the same way my dad did for me.

As the date of the trip approached, I prepared as much as I could. Travel games and snacks were packed alongside my dad’s vintage Rand McNally. I researched our route, booked hotels ahead of time, and prayed I wasn’t making a mistake. On the night before I left, as a moment of panic swept over me and I started to doubt my ability to manage the 1,600-mile trek, I heard my dad say the words he used to say to me from the passenger seat:

“Just keep your hands at 10 and 2, be courteous to truckers, and don’t get caught speeding.” With those words in my head and my hands firmly at 10 and 2 on the steering wheel, the kids and I pulled out of my driveway in the early morning hours of a dewy summer day. As we made the turn toward the local highway, we noticed an Idaho license plate, quite out of place in our small Pennsylvania town. My son smiled and said, “Poppy is with us…” and the license plate game was in full effect. Ultimately, we saw license plates from 38 states over our four days of car travel.

The rolling farm hills of western Pennsylvania and the mountains of Virginia and Tennessee whizzed by our windows. We laughed, we told stories, we counted license plates, and we listened to Harry Potter audio books. For the three-hour chunks of time between bathroom breaks, driving forced me to be in the moment with my kids. No texting. No emails. No phone calls. As I relaxed into the miles, I found myself relishing every minute, and I realized that my father must have done the same as he listened to us chatter in the backseat. I smiled to myself as I could almost see him in the passenger seat, giving me pointers on long-distance driving.

Along the way, we saw the majestic beauty our country has to offer, and the kids expressed their amazement that fences or dotted lines don’t divide states. Every hotel and rest stop held employees and people willing to make a mother’s journey easier, a further sign that my dad was still managing my travel from afar. I will never forget the kindly manager of a Nashville restaurant who bought us dessert when he heard we were headed to his hometown. My dad would have delighted in that coincidence.

As we rolled into my mother’s driveway, road-weary and excited, the only thing missing was my dad standing at the door with the words, “1,595 miles in 23 hours and 17 minutes. You did good, kid.”

We sure did, Dad.

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