The long ride

With telephone poles whizzing by, the Beatles blaring on the stereo, and my kids strapped in the back seat, I learned to be a father on the road.

Published June 17, 2006 11:44AM (EDT)

Dublin, California, headed east on Interstate 580 to Interstate 5, November, 2004

My kids are discussing number theory in the back of the minivan. Eli, 7, is explaining how multiplication works to Tiana, 10. Tiana's contribution is a short discourse on the role of the number zero, a digit whose awesome powers Eli considers "crazy."

This is going to be a good ride, I think. From the sound of their chatter, they are relaxed and ready to road trip. We have just begun a six-hour journey from Berkeley to my grandmother's house in Lakewood, a suburban city just south of Los Angeles. We are old hands at this jaunt -- we know every rest stop, gas station, and highway interchange along Interstate 5's spear-thrust through California's vast Central Valley.

Our rituals are all in place. The Beatles' "White Album" is playing on the stereo, because all road trips must begin with the sound of the jetliner that opens "Back In the U.S.S.R." We picked up some chicken wings and raspberries from the grocery store, and the food is carefully balanced on top of a small cooler wedged between their bucket seats, right in front of a garbage bag. They are cocooned amid a swathe of blankets, pillows, and favorite stuffed animals: "Lion-y" for Tiana, "Alligatey" for Eli.

The sun is beginning to set, because long experience has taught us that when you're trying to make good time on the Berkeley-Lakewood express, you start at twilight. The kids eat their dinner, and then they drift off to sleep, lulled by the familiar rhythm of the minivan's passage. And I cruise, my world comfortably and completely reduced to the contents of the car.

I never expected, before becoming a parent, that some of my favorite moments of fatherhood would arrive while driving 75 miles per hour between the stockyards of Coalinga and the Tejon Pass. Looking back, maybe it isn't so surprising that that is where I grasped some of the most important lessons on how to be a good dad. When you're on the move, you define who you are and what your relationship is with your co-travelers at every step. You learn fast.

But what I find really intriguing is not how I found out how to be a father on the road, but how my kids learned how to be my children.

Ascending the Altamont Pass between Livermore and Tracy, Interstate 580, spring 1994

The baby is sleeping. We hit the road just before nap-time, and we're going to see how far we can get before she wakes up and starts demanding attention.

We are outfitted for a major land-war. We have car seat, stroller, and portable crib. We have a diaper bag, canisters of baby powder, a vast assortment of rattles and a hefty supply of cloth diapers. (Our friends think we're crazy for taking cloth diapers on the road, but hey, we're from Berkeley.) In the rash exuberance of new parents, we think nothing of crossing the great state of California with an infant in tow. Sure, we won't make the same time we did when we were unencumbered -- but match us up against anybody else with a six-month-old and we're confident our record will be impressive. We think we know what we're doing.

It's the pre-minivan era, and we're driving a behemoth 1967 cherry red Ford Galaxie convertible, which is not exactly ideal for total baby comfort. The radio is broken, and the engine leaks oil, and you've got to check the water in the radiator constantly.

But we have style. We're feeling good. We're finally back on the road after several sleepless months at home, holed up with a newborn. Jeni and I have always loved to travel. We've backpacked in Southeast Asia, road tripped across the country, from Berkeley all the way to northern Florida, sought out the obscurest, most roundabout routes, and driven nonstop through the night in headlong marathons. Now, for the first time, we're finally heading out on a serious car trip as a family. We've got the provisions, we've got P.J. Harvey on the boom box. So far so good.

Jeni and I plunged into parenthood in much the same way that we hurtled into marriage. It seemed like a good idea at the time but we didn't give it a whole lot of thought. Kind of like hitting the road without knowing exactly where you are headed, but on the general assumption that it's time to roll. We knew we wanted to do it, but I don't recall extended consideration of why. One day, we said to each other, hey, isn't it time to start a family? The next day, Jeni went off the pill, and within a couple of weeks, she was pregnant. Somewhere, a switch got flipped, and we went from being carefree lovers to prospective parents.

The baby is sleeping.

I-5, somewhere south of Fresno, summer 1995

It's hot. The kind of baking Central Valley heat that is great for ripening peaches and almonds but is hell on a one-and-a-half-year-old baby who is sick of being in her car seat, suffering from mild diarrhea, and utterly unwilling to nap for one more second. The gas station in this benighted section of near desert has no changing table, of course, so an impromptu changing station has been set up in the back of the new, but already slightly battered, minivan.

We no longer bother with cloth diapers on the road -- it's all about convenience now -- but changing the baby is still a chore. And it's my turn, as well-proven by the glare Jeni gives me when I not-so-innocently ask who dealt with the last nasty diaper.

I am only slightly less grumpy than my daughter. We are making terrible time. Tiana only slept for half an hour before starting to whimper, and since then it seems as if we've stopped at every exit. She's teething, and we forgot a teething ring, so we tried to find one on the way. At one point she was howling so loud that we were forced to stop in the middle of absolutely nowhere, and wait, impatiently, while she played in the dirt on the side of the road.

I'm going to lose my mind if I hear Raffi's version of "Baby Beluga" one more time. Neither Jeni nor I have had much sleep in months, and our interaction with each other has been reduced to a series of militarily terse interchanges that deal mostly with logistics. Where did you put the diaper rash ointment? Stop the car. I have to breastfeed.

Just one and a half years into the age of parenthood, and road trips are no longer fun. They're tedious. Like so much of parenting a small child, they are drudgery, something to be gotten through, rather than savored. The first few trips with the baby were a novelty -- a learning experience: this is how it works now. But I'm not at all sure I like what I've learned -- how every coo of happiness from the baby is matched by a howl and a whimper, how much work it takes just to keep it all together. I long for the days when I zipped through the Valley, making just one stop at a gas station, wasting not one second. But my baby will not comply. Yes, yes, I remember all those warnings that after my child was born I would no longer be the master and arbiter of my own destiny. But deep down, I never really believed it. I thought I could outwit my kids, that my will would persevere over theirs. I miscalculated.

I'm ready for this road trip to be over. Two hundred miles from L.A. But it feels like 2,000, and I know that by the time I get there, I'm going to be too exhausted to enjoy it. And then it will be time to turn around and come back.

Just south of the Harris Ranch, headed north on I-5, fall 1999

It is the Sunday after Thanksgiving and we have made a disastrous strategic error. In past years, we left Los Angeles at sundown, counting on the kids (now there are two) to sleep while we burned rubber in the night. But arriving home in the wee hours and then starting the work week, short of sleep and with cranky kids, presents challenges that, as time goes by, we find increasingly wearying. Besides, there's a friend we want to visit in West Hollywood, so we decide to bite the bullet and return home after seeing her, in the middle of the day.

It's a nightmare. Half of California is on the move. I've seen slow traffic on this highway before, but nothing like this. There are stretches of road that go nearly 30 miles between gas stations, and still the traffic is stop and go, bumper to bumper, crawling along at 10-15 miles per hour. Time has no meaning in this wasteland. The land is empty, except for the occasional orchard. It is a vast, unpopulated expanse, save for these strips of highway, jammed with traffic sludge. Even worse, the Central Valley's notorious tule fog has settled in, a thick blanket of cotton that reduces visibility to just a few yards. So even when the traffic, on rare occasions, does speed up, there's always the danger of a sudden slowdown, announced only by a car's back end suddenly emerging from the fog, dead still.

My marriage isn't doing much better than the traffic, though I don't know it yet. It's all of a piece: the parenting, the travel, the stresses of balancing work and relationship and children. It comes out later in couples therapy -- Jeni resented the grueling airplane trips back to the East Coast to visit relatives every summer and Christmas. And rather than making the same drive to Lakewood every six months, she'd have preferred exploring some new territory, taking a less pre-planned route. Who, in their right mind, she wondered, would condemn themselves to I-5 in the Valley, again and again and again? It's quiet inside the minivan, and what conversation there is is directed at the mind-numbingly bored children.

In my bleakest moments, I can see this traffic jam as a metaphor. Once you become a parent, your actions become greatly circumscribed. You can't just hit the road without planning. You're stuck. Kids are an incredible time-suck -- keeping them fed, clothed, healthy. Short of sleep and irritable, you start to feel that you're running in place, and you wonder, is this why I became a parent?

But you don't actually have too much time to philosophize. Somewhere, a diaper needs changing.

On this trip, as mind-numbing as it is, there is actually one sign of hope. The kids are not so bored that they are making our lives any worse. On the contrary, to my amazement, they are doing pretty well. They've got plenty of food, they're busy with some books of stickers we got at the last gas station, they are amusing themselves. Tiana's musical taste has dramatically evolved. She is 5 years old and likes Tom Waits, Madonna, and No Doubt. She doesn't mind Sonic Youth or Nirvana. She even grooves on P.J. Harvey. Raffi is history.

The kids are gutting it out, making the best of a bad situation. I feel guilty for subjecting them to this hell, but respect their good spirits. They've been on enough road trips that they can deal with one that goes awry.

Pismo Beach, Highway 101, summer 2001

I'm soloing with the kids now, working my way up the coast on Highways 1 and 101. I've learned something. It's a July 4th weekend, and I took an extra day off of work so we could have a leisurely ride back home.

I've been telling them for weeks that this would be the plan. We can stop at every beach along the way, if they want. We'll keep our options open, take off for a hike if the countryside looks good.

Better late than never, I guess. The marriage has dissolved, and parenting, fifty percent of the time, has taught me that a straight line is not the shortest distance between two points. It's sometimes easier -- on the kids, on me -- to take a leisurely, we'll-get-there-when-we-get-there approach to life. To take the long road, instead of the short road.

Out there on Highway 1, as I appreciate the stunning panoramas of Pacific ocean clashing with California cliff, and listening to the oohs of my kids at each new explosion of spray hundreds of feet below, I sometimes wonder, would I still be happily married if I'd learned this lesson earlier? If one day, stuck in a traffic jam, I'd suddenly said to Jeni -- hell, forget about going to Lakewood, let's just stay here, get a motel room, and hang out at the beach? Why are we killing ourselves? Musings like this are pointless, of course -- there's no going back and taking that detour now. There's also, paradoxically, a certain freedom that comes with solo parenting. My mom, who divorced my father when I was 12, recently told me of the unexpected joy of being on one's own -- you don't have to ask anyone's permission to do anything, she told me. You just decide.

I see her point, but it's not completely accurate. I still do need to ask permission -- of my kids. It's hard to say whether Jeni and I could have fixed things -- marriages have their own cycles of ascent and decline -- not every one is fixable or should be fixed. But my relationship with my kids is a different matter. I'm in this with them for the long haul. And they have wrangled me into cooperation in a way their mother never managed. They've made it clear that their pleasure is my pleasure. That it's a lot more fun not to try to make the best time, that an hour building sand castles is worth ten on the Interstate.

But I've also wrangled them.

After two beaches, a cool diner for lunch, and some spectacular Highway 1 scenery, they are both beginning to drag. We had considered a stop at the Monterey Bay Aquarium or a hike around Big Sur, but I'm wondering if that makes sense. Still, the decision is up to them. I ask them: what do you want to do?

We want to get home.

All right. Daddy can do that. Strap yourselves in, kids.

Just south of Highway 140, headed north on I-5, spring 2003

"There it is! In-N-Out!"

Jubilation reigns inside the minivan. My kids have not been shy to declare their level of starvation for the last hour, but they have nixed McDonald's, Burger King, KFC, Taco Bell and everything else we've seen since crossing the Grapevine into the Valley.

This is mainly Tiana's doing. She has decided to renounce all fast food except In-N-Out. Why In-N-Out, she is often asked? Well, she answers, her face getting serious, did you know that In-N-Out is one of the only fast food chains that provides health care benefits to all its workers? Did you know that its French fries are made fresh?

I can only smile when I hear her lecture. This is not my doing. I never thought to impose any anti-fast food ideology on my kids. I suspect that their mother has been indoctrinating them, but ultimately, this is all about Tiana, the crusader for social justice. By age 8, my little girl has already marched against wars, protested at the state capitol against teacher layoffs, been interviewed on KPFA, Berkeley's leftwing radio station.

On this trip, she has decided that McDonald's is evil and she will never cross its threshold again. Eli, who has complete faith in Tiana on such matters, follows right along.

And so will I, despite my lifelong love of evil McDonald's fries. But if my daughter says we must no longer patronize their business, I will agree. I am, in fact, gleeful. When you start raising your children, you often think about how you want them to turn out, and how you will attempt to mold their progress. But you learn pretty quickly that you have less control over what happens than you might have hoped.

And so I scrutinize the maps and scroll through the Web pages, searching for In-N-Outs and planning our route. My obsessive compulsion to plan, and, when necessary, make good speed, plugs in nicely. I can tell the kids -- no, let's not stop here, there's an In-N-Out an hour away. And they're down with that.

There is only one In-N-Out along I-5 in the Central Valley, as far as I can tell, almost exactly halfway between L.A. and Berkeley. It becomes our midway Mecca -- a stopping point to look forward to, a place to rest and recharge. Yes, it's another god-awful highway interchange that but for the grace of the Interstate would be uninhabited by man or beast, but to us, it's an oasis. It's our In-N-Out. We eat our burgers and fries while sitting at ugly plastic tables barely shaded from the hot sun, pestered by flies and assaulted by the sounds and smells of a thousand passing cars. And we love it.

We are getting pretty good at this road trip thing.

I-5, headed north, about two hours from Berkeley, 2004

We've broken with tradition. Tiana wants to hear "The White Album" in the middle of the trip as well as the beginning. Of late, she's become obsessive about lyrics, and there's a lot to chew on here. Why don't we do what in the road, daddy? Then later: Daddy, you know why I like the Beatles? They don't just sing about love.

These are words, that when heard from your child, break you into tiny little pieces. I guess she didn't have any choice about being a Beatles fan, since I was her father. But then, I didn't have any choice either, because my parents force-fed me each new Beatles album as it came out. Parents, even as they are trained by their children in the proper way to do diapers, and drive long distances, train their children at the same time, to drive long distances without whimpering, and discourse on the hidden meanings of Beatles tunes.

We are returning from an epic road trip that included beaches, amusement parks, movies, relatives and random adventures. But we had no time for a leisurely trip back up the coast -- that would have required hours that simply aren't available. But I'm not worried about asking them to grin and bear it. We have full faith in each other at this point. They know that when they need a break from the trail, an exploration into the unknown -- it'll happen. And I know that when it's time to just drive, they'll sit back, discuss number theory, ponder rock lyrics, or explain to me the evils of the world. So it's back on the Five.

We pass by the stockyards of Coalinga. We've been here a hundred times before, but somehow, it seems, the kids have never seen it at a moment in broad daylight when the cattle are pushed together in tight masses as far as you can see. It's quite a sight, those placid bovine millions, and it's one I have always appreciated, since it seems to lay bare the reality of our fast food nation. Around the next bend, I warn the kids, you are about to see something that is a key part of the world of McDonald's, and yes, even In-N-Out. As we crest a hill and the vista spreads before us, they both break out in cries of wonder.

Experiencing that wonder through them is why, I know now, I became a parent. I may not have known it consciously before they arrived, but it seems to me that that is what pushed me here, and what keeps me going. Witnessing Tiana rage against injustice, I feel strengthened in my own politics. Watching Eli's eyes widen at the sight of a million cows, mine crack open a little further. I settle comfortably at the wheel, knowing that they are secure behind me. It was a lot of work raising these kids, and having them raise me, but now that we've figured each other out, we make a pretty good working team.

The road beckons.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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