Every single summer of my childhood, my parents threw my sister and me in the back of the car and dragged us across the country (and select parts of Canada) for a couple of weeks of the character-building exercise commonly known as the Great American Road Trip.
It’s summertime again, and for those of you with kids out there, or for those of you who might want to build some character for yourselves, here’s how to do it.
1) Minimal technology.
Kids do not need portable DVD players and iPads and satellites beaming directly into their eyeballs. They need a cassette boombox with a few family-friendly singalong tapes, a couple of handheld analog games (usually having something to do with shooting baskets underwater), a window to look out, and a sibling to fight with. These are the makings of a kid with imagination, self-reliance, and a healthy ability to kick really hard while remaining strapped into a seat belt.
2) No-frills lodging.
For the most part, we camped. This was a) because my parents wanted to impart to us their love of the natural beauty of this country and b) because we were broke as a joke and camping is cheap. You know those friends of yours who turn up their nose at camping because they don’t like bugs or dirt or pooping in a hole in the ground? They’re soft. They don’t understand the badge of honor that is getting a crick in your neck from sleeping on uneven, gravelly ground or freezing to death before the fire gets going in the morning while wearing every single article of clothing you brought on the trip.
To be fair, we sometimes stayed at motels, but if you give me a choice between a tent and a Motel 6, I will take the tent 110 percent of the time. See also: sleeping in a car. Sleeping in a car is terrifying if you’re alone, but if you’re four people, it’s both terrifying and uncomfortably cramped.
3) Long hours.
More than anything else they did for me, my parents prepared me for long hours of brutally boring shifts standing behind counters and sitting in cubicles by forcing me to ride in a car for eight or ten hours a day. Sometimes, of course, we told stories and sang songs and watched gorgeous views of the mountains flash in and out of sight as we switched back and forth on hairpin turns. But other times we drove through Illinois, and Iowa, and Nebraska, and it was brain-boilingly dull. It was my first peek into what can be a major component of adult life. It made me both completely capable of handling such a thing and resolute that I would never do it more than absolutely necessary.
OK, this one is for real. I grew up in an affluent suburb of a major city, but we traveled through all manner of remote places and small towns and saw what at least some kinds of poverty look like, and it gave me the first insight that I was not, in fact, poor in real terms, only in relative terms versus my classmates. Simultaneously, my parents made sure that we saw the great political, historical, and natural landmarks of this country. Staring up at Devil’s Tower, looking over Niagara Falls, and gazing up at the Milky Way showed me how incredibly tiny people are compared to Earth and the universe, and seeing the artifacts of the Revolutionary and Civil wars, particularly learning the stories of some of the children my own age who had been affected by them, made me realize just how lucky I was to grow up in the time and place that I did.
Most of these realizations, of course, were passive at the time and only really occurred to me when I got older. But the lessons were learned nonetheless. If you’ve got kids, you might want to start on them now, while they’re malleable. But it’s not too late for you, either. Just throw a sleeping bag and some cans of Dinty Moore stew in the car and get out there and build some character.