Monday, July 19, 2021

The Road Trip

Hi! Remember me? Sorry I've been gone for awhile. Parenting while working during a pandemic has proven to be....well....challenging. But, I haven't wanted to be all complain-y on the blog, so I've been keeping to myself. Besides, do you REALLY want to hear about the minutiae of our daily grind? The good news is that we are all ok, and I am convinced that the past year taught us Important Lessons about life and living in the moment. 

We LIMPED across the finish line at the end of the school year, and then I taught a summer course, and then then there was some drama with Sky's classes, and then suddenly it was late June and time for us to set off on our First Ever Family Road Trip. 

When I first suggested we take a 10-day road trip to the mountains, Falcon lost it. Falcon is my non-autistic kid who handles change well and rarely overreacts, so her response surprised me. Worse, what she said made a lot of sense. She argued that since we couldn't even make it to the grocery store and back without one of the boys freaking out, there was no WAY we'd make it to Colorado and back. She also had some strong opinions about my suggestion that we camp the whole way.  I mean, she's not wrong. We are not known for our ability to be flexible and adjust. That's life with autism. 

Falcon's first reaction was so strong that I nearly gave up on the idea of the trip. But, driving across the country with my family has been a dream of mine for a really long time. Every summer, I tell the kids we are going to do it, and then I chicken out. On top of all of the other logistical challenges of planning a trip like this, we had the added stress of COVID-19 and some big unanswerable questions like: What if Ren's spine can't handle the drive? What if Stow elopes or becomes inconsolable after so many days away from home? These were all real possibilities and would be horrible if they happened when we were 12 hours from home. Still, after sitting on the idea for a month, I decided that we were going to take the trip anyway. Sometimes you just have to face your fears. 

Falcon was still resistant and she didn't entirely come around until I agreed to stay in hotels instead of planning to camp the whole trip. It was an expensive compromise but also one I am sure saved us much heartache. Instead, of campsites, then, I booked quirky "Mom and Pop" motels, and we had three fabulous nights in Grand Lake, CO, staying in a cabin near a lodge where I worked for the summer when I was 20. 

Random trip photos: Needles Highway (South Dakota)

For a first attempt, the trip went surprisingly well. Plus, I learned a few things along the way that I can share with you. So, here I present "Moe's Random List of Things She Learned While Driving Across the Country in a Car Full of People":

1. First--and I don't think I can stress this enough--when you have five more hours of driving to go, don't buy burritos with beans in them for lunch. Seriously. Somehow I did this not once, but TWICE! Given our various food allergies, fast food options are limited, which is how we ended up eating at Qdoba. I'm hoping I've learned my lesson, especially after the second time when it was raining so we couldn't open the windows.  

2. Build flexibility into your plan. Some of us wanted to do things and some of us didn't. Being able to be flexible was vital. The cabin we rented for the three nights we were in Colorado was close enough to town that we could walk, so if a kid didn't want to go, we could take turns being out and about. Similarly, when we were driving through the Black Hills in South Dakota or Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, we didn't force every kid to get out and look at the scenery every time. By being flexible in our own thinking about what we wanted to achieve on any given day, we ended up helping the kids manage their frustration tolerance in ways we haven't seen them do on other trips.

Custer State Park (South Dakota)

3. Be specific about the plan and the possible ways it could change. I know this sounds funny given what I just wrote in #2, but for our autistic kids, knowing what to expect and how things might change goes a LONG way in helping them manage the stress of new situations. On the flip side, not being careful about this can lead to trouble. 

The two biggest meltdowns Stow had on the trip both happened when I wasn't precise with my language. For the first one, I described the Corn Palace in Mitchell, SD as "being made from corn" when really I should have said, "The MURALS ON THE WALLS are made of corn." Since Stow is a kid who deals with change by becoming more rigid, it can be difficult to get him out of the car. He's also very literal, so if you tell him "everything is made of corn," everything better be made of corn! He spent the entire 30 minutes we were at the Corn Palace pointing out all of the things that are NOT made of corn: "Look, Mom, the steps aren't made of corn. The door isn't made of corn. Those tables aren't made of corn. The walls aren't made of corn. NOTHING here is made of corn....." The second time was at Devil's Tower where I made the mistake of saying we would go on a "short hike." My idea of a short hike (1.2 miles around the base of Devil's Tower) was different from Stow's idea of a short hike (from the car to the bathroom and back), so he spent the entirety of our time there becoming increasingly upset that we weren't turning back. Eventually, he stopped walking altogether, and the five of us stood immobile off to the side of the trail for a solid 15-20 minutes while I tried to persuade a very agitated Stow to keep going. By the time we got him settled down enough to start walking again, Sky was triggered, so I spent another 20 minutes sitting on a bench with him as he alternated between crying and being angry with me for not being more careful with my words. So, yeah, be specific.

Rocky Mountain National Park

4. Use boxes. We had three boxes: a cooler, a collapsible box of snacks, and a huge tote for our clothes bags. On top of that, each kid was allowed one backpack or box for the car. Getting in and out of hotel rooms/our cabin was a breeze. Two kids carried the big box, one carried the cooler, and Ren or I grabbed the snacks. In the hotel rooms, our huge tote fit nicely on the luggage rack while the cooler fit under it. This made the nights where five of us shared the same room much more bearable. Further, since we put our bags into the big box every time we left a hotel, it was easy to spot whether or not something was missing. 

5. Finally, if you are married to Ren, pray that a rock won't hit your windshield leaving a starburst-shaped crack on the very first day of the trip. Because, even though you know this kind of thing happens all the time (and you even think the starburst is kind of lovely), Ren will simply not get over it, which shouldn't surprise you given how hard he takes it whenever you have to drive down a gravel road in a newly-washed (or even slightly dirty) vehicle. Bless his heart, though, the man drove nearly 3000 miles with an unforgiving spine, and his ONLY complaint during the trip was that stupid crack in the windshield!

Elk in Rocky Mountain National Park