It's a long weekend, you guys! That means family visits, winter hikes and traffic headaches. Now, in my family we generally we decide to pack up right after Friday breakfast, but because we have two small kids and are fairly disorganised, we inevitably end up leaving at pretty much the worst possible time for long-weekend travel: After lunch on Friday.
Photo: Shiyang Huang
So this pretty much makes me an expert on being stuck in traffic with small kids. But I've learned a few things about making the journey the destination, even if the journey is full of Maccas drive-throughs, and I'm glad to share them with you. I hope they help as your leg begins to tremble after four hours of slowly letting out the clutch and travelling a grand total of 800m through an exhaust-filled tunnel.
Try to Not Be Stuck in Traffic in the First Place
I spoke to Sam Schwartz, the traffic engineer also known as Gridlock Sam and acknowledged expert on New York City's traffic, for tips for amateur traffic strategists. It turns out that the professional traffic strategist doesn't have a ton of information that amateur traffic strategists don't have, but he does break it down succinctly according to what your priorities might be:
"If you want to take the least amount of time, you leave after 8 o'clock [on Friday night]. If you want to have the best experience, you leave on Thursday. Thursday has become the new Friday." My own strategy is, frankly, bananas, he tells me: "After 3 o'clock [on Friday] is absolutely torture."
Pick the Best Route, and Re-evaluate Regularly
I know everyone loves Waze, but I prefer Google Maps. For some reason the design works better for me, and for the places I go, I have already memorised the alternate routes. But if you're in a heavily trafficked area and want constant options for zigging and zagging, Waze is probably the app for you.
Get off the Motorway Before Your Legs Go Numb, and Do Something Else
This is probably the single best thing you can do to save your sanity. As we've entered our sixth hour of captivity while driving on a holiday weekend, googling "best playgrounds in [area we're passing through]" has yielded a bunch of nice outdoor places to stop for a picnic dinner and let the kids run around.
We recently tried a fancy new playground on the grounds of a church on the way to a weekend in the mountains - and had to endure only 10 or 15 minutes of proselytising as the kids played. Another trip revealed a fire museum as a great place to stretch our legs, another a great diner with incredible coconut cream pie, another a lake for where the kids could splash for half an hour.
Juicy burgers that melt in your mouth are one of life's greatest pleasures. If your patties often turn out tough and dry, this clever method might fix the problem.
I often remember these stops more fondly than I remember the actual destinations, in fact. If you have time in advance of the trip, make a list of interesting sites, playgrounds and restaurants along the route so you can pull the ripcord at any time.
We have, thank the good Lord, recently passed out of the board book/Little Golden Book stage with our older son, and reading with him has become, finally, something to be enjoyed rather than endured.
We have some good audio books lined up for this winter: Harry Potter, Lemony Snicket, How to Train Your Dragon. I might stick a few of my childhood favourites in there too: Little House on the Prairie, The Boxcar Children, My Side of the Mountain.
The older kid stays quiet, and the three-year-old is... working on it. (Random: My seven-year-old also inexplicably likes radio talk show Car Talk - he laughs when they laugh. So don't be afraid to put on your favourite grown-up podcasts and hope for the best.)
The second line of defence: Games. For the three-year-old, we stick with I Spy, but the older one can manage Botticelli, a two-way guessing game that is far less boring for grown-ups than our old standby of 20 Questions.
If the kids nap, grown-ups play a game we invented called "Worst Jobs", in which you name a friend or acquaintance and describe the worst possible job for them; for example, for a very chatty but rather unfocused friend: Assembly-line worker.
So kids' music can be numbing. I have made it my mission to find music that I, a Gen-Xer, can enjoy along with a seven-year-old and a three-year-old. It's hit or miss, but I've managed to compile a playlist that gets us through at least an hour or so of travel time. (Why they like these songs and not others, I don't know - I think it has as much to do with some kind of narrative catchiness as anything. I myself remember loving "Poor Poor Pitiful Me" as a child because I thought the line about the Waring blender was hilarious.)
Obviously, your song mileage may vary! But in case this is helpful to you, here's my long weekend mix tape for our traffic jam:
"Poor, Poor, Pitiful Me" by Linda Ronstadt
"Starfish and Coffee" by Prince
"Down Under" by Men at Work
"Money for Nothing" by Dire Straights
"I'm Gonna Sleep With One Eye Open" by Dolly Parton
"I Get Around" by the Beach Boys
"Papa Don't Preach" by Madonna
"I am the Walrus" by the Beatles
"Charlie on the MTA" by the Kingston Trio (train song)
"Leaving on Jet Plane" by Peter, Paul and Mary (plane song)
"Rock Me Amadeus" by Falco
"Walk Like an Egyptian" by the Bangles
"Moses Supposes" from the Singing in the Rain soundtrack; warning: They will keep singing this forever
"Six Days on the Road" by the Flying Burrito Brothers (truck song)
"Rock Island Line" by Dan Zanes (train song)
"Nashville Blues" by the Louvin Brothers (kind of like a round, fun for kids to sing)