Ah the road trip, that iconic American (human?) experience. Willie Nelson sang about it and Jack Kerouac defined the beat movement with On the Road. Certainly I, Lily Bingham, could survive a simple Boston to Florida and back, right? In January, freezing in a snow-less Vermont, I promised my parents and children alike a visit to Florida. A native Floridian myself, I was born in Miami and grew up mostly in Tallahassee, where Mimi still lives, and Grandma and Grandpa have been on Marco Island for 20 years. I’ve done this trip at least a dozen times. Southerners drive a lot. We are spread out over a large swath of the country, the car is a necessary tool we learn to enjoy. Sure, my boys are little (1.5 and almost 3.5), but it’s never too early to embrace your heritage…right?
I should first explain that I love everything to do with air travel, including the food, the layovers, and those kind-of-gross airplane pillows. There is an energy and excitement to airports—everyone going places! I grew up with my dad flying small planes, and I myself have only 8 hours left for my private license. I took my first solo flight while 7 months pregnant with River. Since becoming a mom, I have flown alone with both kids many times, including a 15 hour, 3-plane journey to the BVIs to meet up with their dad, and then back. I’m not afraid of a little flight down to Florida, even alone with a couple of crazy toddlers. Rather, the problem arrived in the form of a dog—the boys adopted Summer in February. She had spent her first year on the streets of South Carolina before being sent to a shelter near our home in Vermont, and we didn’t want to board her so soon after bringing her home. My husband had to travel at the same time and couldn’t keep her. It felt a little cruel. Thus the road trip idea was hatched. ‘We can bring Summer!!!’, we said. ‘It will be so awesome!!!’, we said.
Well, it started out just dandy. We left Boston around 2pm on a Sunday in early April, with snow swirling around us as we headed west on the Pike. An April snowstorm is always a good time to get out of town. We zipped right through the major metropolitan centers of the NE, and made it to Charlottesville, VA by 1am. We stopped on the New Jersey turnpike for dinner and walked Summer down a boardwalk though a rather trashy looking wetland preserve area. River thought it was awesome and is convinced he saw about 10 bald eagles. Everything is an adventure at their ages. I brushed up on my “PJ Mask” knowledge, so I could play along at quick rest stops, pretending to fight Luna Girl and Romeo all the way down the Eastern seaboard.
I was feeling awfully pleased with myself when I made it to The Graduate 5 hours later, a gorgeously decorated boutique hotel just across from UVA’s campus in Charlottesville. I was south of the Mason-Dixon, my kids went to sleep clean, cozy and on time, and I even fed and exercised the dog. I got us all into the lobby and was quietly checking in when the horrid smell reached me. It took over the whole gorgeous lobby as wave after wave of disgusting dog diarrhea spread across the floor. I did the only thing possible—clamped my hand over my mouth and tried to look as horrified as I felt. Oh how pride cometh before a fall. I handed out twenties to the staff, said a million apologies, and retreated up the stairs with my tail between my legs.
April mornings in Virginia are, apparently, gorgeous. The trees were just beginning to bloom, there was sunshine, a beautiful breeze, and purple wisteria draped around the city like garlands. But back into the car we went. We drove through Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia, and it was like driving through Spring, smack into Summer (the seasonal, non-pooping variety). The world got greener, fatter, pinker, the farther South we went. The trip itself may have been a questionable decision but the timing was spot on. We also drove smack into about 1,078 billboards promising a direct line to Jesus. Welcome to I-95 through the South—bibles and Café Risque. When I was a kid in Tallahassee, I was amazed that I had the good fortune to be born in the exact same place as Jesus. Wow, lucky me—a native Floridian just like Jesus Christ. (Once I brought that gem home from Sunday School, our family’s tenure as Baptists came to an abrupt and glorious end.)
That second morning I got up at 3 so that by the time the kids woke up, we only had 3 hours to go. A Waffle House breakfast, morning phone calls to daddy, more than a few Cracker Barrel toy breaks, lots of scooter rides around rest stops and more than one gas station sidewalk decorated with chalk, and we pulled in to Tallahassee! YES!!! Wild flowers, live oaks, and canopy roads–Tallahassee is referred to as “the other Florida” and bears much more resemblance to the low country of Georia and South Carolina than it does to Florida. We went straight to the local Vet, where we learned that Summer had hookworms and needed major medication. I felt appropriately awful for my late-night whispered meltdown in Virginia, threatening to return her to the mean streets of South Carolina.
We were finally in Tallahassee and the boys were psyched to get down to business—eating watermelon, running through sprinklers, and looking for ant beds. I was trying to ignore the poison ivy-like rash that I had creeping across my rib cage, while silently cursing myself for going home. I grew up battling chiggers and poison ivy and poison oak and fire ants. Naturally I would wake up in the South and experience an averse physical reaction. By day 3, the “poison ivy” had me back at a doctor, though I admit the only thing that got me there was vanity. I had a suitcase full of bikinis and was heading for the gorgeous Marco Island beaches. Welp. I went home with medication for shingles, something I was not aware befell anyone under the age of 65. They assured me it was not contagious but I was still terrified I’d give one of the kids chicken pox. Week one brought hookworms and shingles…I started knocking on a lot of wood—don’t these things usually happens in threes?
After 4 amazing days in Tallahassee, we headed 7 hours south again to Marco Island, part of SW fLorida’s “Paradise Coast”, so-titled due to its plethora of wildlife. There are eagles, manatee, black bears, sea turtles, dolphins, panthers, and more. Grandma and Grandpa were ready with lots of watermelon, popsicles, and macadamia nuts from their backyard tree (not a typical toddler activity but these guys are obsessed with cracking them open and eating the almost coconut-like flesh.) Summer and her hookworms thankfully stayed behind with Mimi, so we busied ourselves with canine-cousin Ginger and the many kitties that Grandma takes in.
Every day we walked out to the beach—me in my shingles-at-the-beach outfit of bikini bottoms and tank-top—and collected shells, built sand-turtles, and “surfed”, which basically came down to an intense core workout for me to hold them on the board. A Win-win. River and Van were in heaven. The fighting conchs were all over the beach and it was like our very own Wild Kratt’s episode. The over-developed condos and the perfect lawns and canals of Marco Island mask a very real and surprisingly well-protected ecosystem. Marco is the largest of the so-called “10,000 Islands” of the region—many nothing more than a clump of mangroves. The sunsets on Marco are unparalleled, and Van stripped down and added his own full moon to each night’s vigil. You’re welcome, residents of Marco.
As a parent it is awesome to be in a place where you are a short walk from the beach and a 2-minute drive to playground and library. A toddler trifecta at its finest. But we had a long drive ahead, and dad was headed in for shoulder surgery alone in Boston…party time was over. We headed back to Tallahassee to retrieve Summer and her thankfully medicated bowels, then it was back on the road. The next morning we got another 3am start to make up for our poor showing on day 1. I didn’t have a clear plan, so we just drove and stopped whenever they needed to. I decided to push straight through. I drove a full 23 hours that day and got in to Boston at 2am. The last few hours I was punching my legs and slapping my face in an effort to stay awake.
I had to pee for roughly 4 hours, but waking up two sleeping toddlers and carrying them both into a rest stop at midnight is just not an option, so I finally pulled over and put the empty Venti iced green tea cup—the source of my predicament—to good use. For some sleep-addled reason, I then thought it would be a good idea to brush my teeth. I hadn’t brushed since 3am, after all, and my toothbrush was right there next to me in my purse. I was just about to open my car door, spit out my toothpaste and dump out my Venti Starbucks cup when Van started to howl. So I did what any desperate sleep-deprived mom with 3 hours left to drive would do—I spit my toothpaste into the cup and high-tailed it out of there so he’d fall back asleep! I spent the next 3 hours marveling at how much pee and toothpaste spit combined resembles a nice frothy beer, and practicing what I would say to a cop if I got pulled over for speeding and he saw my “roadie”. It was, after all, after midnight on a Friday. As luck would have it, I was far too tired to speed, and we made it without incident. The boys had a full day car-free to play, and the day after that we completed our East Coast run by heading north again to Maine, where I promptly ran out of gas. I’m taking that as a sign.