Our summer vacation started the winter before.
I needed a book to read out loud to my kids, who were six and not quite two at the time. They were sharing a room and, to be honest, sometimes the only way to get them to settle in at night was to read one or two chapters from a book in my most boring voice. After making our way through The Hobbit, some Ramona Quimby books, and the first Harry Potter, I stumbled on my collection of Laura Ingalls Wilder books (I’d previously purchased them off the local shop and swap). We skipped the first few and dove right into The Long Winter.
My friends, in case you have forgotten, or maybe you haven’t read it, it was a very, very long winter for the Ingalls family on the prairie of South Dakota in 1880-1881. There were nights that my husband read out loud to the kids and he would come downstairs shaking his head, unsure why I had chosen such a depressing book to read out loud to our kids as the drifted off to dreamland. But our six year old, Finn, was enthralled. He couldn’t wait for the next chapter and so many nights he begged for just one more, even after we’d already read through two or three chapters.
It was during one of these nights, after a discussion of money and what a nickel or a dime would be worth today, that I suggested we go see Laura’s homestead in the summer. Finn latched onto that and as I read through each of the remaining books in the series over the rest of the winter and into the spring and into the summer months, we would talk about our vacation to South Dakota.
My husband and I began working on an itinerary; we planned our route from northern Minnesota to Eastern South Dakota and found some things to do in between to break up the trip a bit. We decided that we would camp in a tent (something neither of us had done for years!) and compiled a list of what we’d need before slowly purchasing things for our trip.
Traveling with small kids is a total balancing act. We wanted to have enough things to make the drive smooth because it was about a six hour drive, however, we’ve learned hot and fast that traveling with small humans adds about 2 extra hours for potty breaks and leg stretching and general energy releasing. We also didn’t want to have so much to do that they wouldn’t be challenged to explore and utilize their imaginations. We packed books and bikes, a tablet and a snorkel. We had sketch pads and colored pencils, and a doll and bucket.
As we got closer to our vacation time on the calendar, we began making lists of what would go in totes (so much better for packing for an extended trip than suitcases). Then began the Tetris act of removing the back seats of the van and filling it up with All The Things. We were off!
Here are a few traveling truths we learned along the way.
Plan your time accordingly
Satellite map apps may say that your trip is going to take a certain amount of hours… but it’s going to take at least two more than that, depending on when you leave, and if it’s a particularly hard trip, it can take even longer. My husband and I do not particularly like driving at night, so it’s not beneficial for us to travel when our kids are asleep to get someplace faster. Without a doubt, they’re going to wake up at their regularly schedule program time and we’ll be dog tired having slept zero hours just so we could shave a few hours off of our trip. That’s not for us. But if it works for you, more power to you! Less time in the car is always a good thing.
Have plenty of things to entertain your humans
I don’t mean shove electronics in their faces, although there’s a time and a place for a movie or two (and invest in some decent headphones unless you want to be singing all the Moana songs or quoting the Lego Movie!). What I mean is: get thee to the Target Dollar Section. Stickers, notepads, coloring sheets – especially brand new never before scribbled on paper – is like candy for my kids. We have packed whiteboard markers for them to write on the windows. We’ve done a Car Scavenger Hunt, where they have to find and check off different types of cars (Pinterest: making mom’s lives easier since 2010). And above all else, do not underestimate the power of snack bribery: granola bars, goldfish, fruit snacks. Toss them back with wild abandon when the kids get restless.
Pack light – and heavy
I know, contradiction, but hear me out. Our daughter was in the very early stages of potty training last summer, so we packed her little potty seat and a roll of toilet paper in the very back of the van, easily accessible. Nothing causes your eyes to search the horizon for a blue Rest Area Ahead sign faster than a 2 year old yelling from the back seat, “Mama!! I have to pee NOW!” The potty seat came in handy when we had to pull over to the side of the road a couple of times because there was nary a stop in sight. I’ve also found that vacation, especially camping, is not a time for cute outfits or over-packing. Shoes and plenty of socks, clean underwear, a couple of shirts and shorts and you’re basically good to go. They can wear the same thing for days because half the day, inevitably, is going to be spent in a swimming suit. And if all else fails, there are laundromats in most every town.
When you get to your destination, it’s okay to let your kids free range a bit
This is obviously age dependent. Finn had just turned seven and he spent more time down by the lake with his mask and snorkel digging for treasure, sticking his face under water to see the fish, or collecting all sorts of beachy things. We let him bike around the campground to the playground. It worked for us because first of all, there were maybe 2 other people camping in the whole campground and second, we were literally right next to the beach, so we had eyes on the area at all times; we left our campsite maybe 10 minutes behind him when he was biking so he wasn’t totally alone for long. But we were able to back off and let him test his own independence. I know this is not going to work for everyone – I’m entirely certain the rules will change for our spicy second daughter this summer, and I am probably the world’s biggest worrier about my kids and their environment, but it was also a lesson for me to back off a little bit.
Things are not going to go as planned…in good and in bad ways
My daughter spent one entire night in the tent having the worst nightmares she’d ever had. She could not settle down, she would not be soothed. She cried and screamed all night long and when she wasn’t crying she was whimpering. (Again, super thankful there were only a few other people at the campground and they were all in campers, so hopefully they didn’t hear our little tent screamer). We woke up the next morning exhausted because nobody slept, so we had an impromptu slow day full of coffee and sunshine and extra grace. I kept reminding myself that there was never going to be another night just like that one. We also had wanted to stay in a covered wagon at the Ingalls Homestead (you guys, this is a real thing!) and were super disappointed when they were all full the night we stayed, so we ended up reserving the Bunkhouse instead. After Eleanor’s night of terror in the tent, it was such a relief to show up and sleep in actual beds on actual mattresses.
When we ask our kids what they remember most about our summer vacation to South Dakota, affectionately dubbed The Little Vacation on the Prairie, they will inevitably tell you about the new baby kittens at the Wilder Homestead. Sure, they might talk about the covered wagon ride or the horse drawn carriage they played on, sleeping in a tent or seeing all the stars in the sky at night, but the real show-stoppers were the small, soft, snuggling balls of mewing fur that neither of my kids seemed to be able to put down for more than 12 seconds. And when my husband and I talk about that first big family trip, we laugh about the worst night in the tent (in a way we can now that some time has passed), we talk about how our kids ran barefoot over the same land that Laura Ingalls Wilder grew up on, or marvel about the brightest falling star we watched plummet from the biggest sky I think I’ve ever seen while our kids slept snuggled next each other in a tent a few feet away and I wonder if any subsequent vacation will come close to the fondness I have for this one. I guess only time will tell.