The Dad Next Door: Road Warrior
A few years ago, an epiphany came to me while driving our family car. We were headed down the Oregon coast, on our yearly trek to the beach, and we passed a tacky little tourist town. Every storefront was cluttered with seashell wind chimes, five-dollar T-shirts and ads for soft-serve ice cream. They called out to my kids like the Sirens calling to Odysseus and his men.
“Can’t we stop?” they pleaded. “Pleeeeeeeeeease?”
“No,” I said. “I don’t want to be late.”
They groaned their disappointment. The mood turned suddenly sour, and it stayed that way for the next fifty miles. As I drove on in silence, I realized that something awful had happened to me. It had crept up on me, little by little, and now it had swallowed me whole.
I had turned into a party-pooper. A kill-joy. A cautious, rigid, unadventurous old codger. In a word: a parent.
It wasn’t always this way. When I was a kid, I wandered through the woods and fields behind our house from dawn ‘til dusk, like a small, Chinese Daniel Boone. After college, I spent a summer in Europe with a pack on my back and a rail pass in my pocket, surviving on nothing but bread and cheese and wanderlust. But here I was, zooming down the road like a mindless drone, afraid to stop because it might make us late. Late for what? For vacation?
Something about having kids just does this to you. There you are: a young, healthy adult with your whole life ahead of you. You’re on top of the world and on top of your game Then, someone hands you a seven-pound bundle of precious, fragile, completely helpless life, and tells you not to drop it. The whole universe turns inside out.
Suddenly every stranger could be a kidnapper. Every sniffle might be the plague. And every journey is a gauntlet of risk, with unknown dangers lurking just around the bend. But it doesn’t have to be that way – and as fathers, it’s our job to make sure it’s not.
Do you ever wonder why there are so many road trip movies for guys? It’s because adventure is in our blood. Every day, our forefathers ventured out from the safety of their caves into the vast, wild unknown. They went on vision quests, and walkabouts, and set their sails for the uncharted edges of the world. That call to adventure is still hardwired into our brains. We just have to slow down and let it speak.
This summer, I went to Italy for work, and I tacked on a week of travel just for fun. It was just me and a couple of buddies from college, roaming around the Italian countryside with no agenda and no schedule to keep. Our only tour guides were fortune and fate.
We rode around Rome on little kid bikes – standing up on the pedals, dodging tourists, and dunking our heads in every fountain we saw. We wandered into a castle in the middle of the night where some teenagers were playing electric guitars and howling at the moon. We drank Chianti with a pot-bellied butcher in the back of his shop, talking philosophy and religion in a broken mix of bad Italian, wild gesticulations, and good red wine.
On our last night, as we wandered the streets in search of one last adventure, we asked ourselves why traveling was never like this with our families. Somehow, with the wife and kids by our sides, every trip boiled down to a single goal: get from point A to point B in one piece. The fewer surprises the better. It never felt much like adventure – more like damage control.
When I got home, I decided to take a road trip to California with my daughter. But this time, I tried not to worry about where we were going, or how we were getting there. Every moment I could, I tried to notice where we were. And more often than not, where we were was exactly where we needed to be.
It’s easy to forget that we owe our kids more than just our protection. We owe them our excitement, and our wonder, and our amazement at the ways of the world. If we don’t share those things too, their lives will be much poorer, and so will ours.
So the next time you pack up the car for a family vacation, open your arms wide and embrace the great unknown. Don’t act like middle management on a corporate retreat. Act like Huck Finn pushing off from a riverbank. Like Lewis and Clark at the continental divide. Like Magellan at the helm, with the wind in his sails.
Schedule? We don’t need no stinkin’ schedule. This is a road trip.
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Editor’s note: This issue, we’re launching a new monthly column by Dr. Jeff Lee called “The Dad Next Door.” Our goal is to carve out some space for a man’s perspective on parenting. When it comes to fathers and fathering, Lee has a lot of experience to share.