Washington State Road Trip Bingo on the left, with a map of the U.S. on the right, as the Slager family heads east in Washington. (Melissa Slager/The Herald)

Plan ahead: Long car trips with kids don’t have to be awful

The temperature outside read 100 degrees and the air conditioning was not working. A two-hour delay still loomed ahead at the pass, and we had already been on the road for about nine hours that day.

The situation did not look good.

Yet our family made it even through that danger zone.

In fact, by the end of that 13-hour day, our two young girls were still relatively chipper. We had survived the entire 1,450-mile road trip without any major emotional blow-ups — or screens. And that’s saying something with a moody pre-teen and a grade-schooler well-versed in scowls.

“What? Everett already?” our oldest said when we pulled up in front of the house late that night. “How is that so fast?”

It was a new moon. But at that moment twin shafts of light descended in beatific glory upon my and my husband’s heads. Or maybe it was the dome lights. Either way, we were whispering hallelujahs.

The emotional meltdowns came in the post-road trip recovery days. And I am well aware the next road trip may be a disaster in direct proportion to this one’s success.

Still, it feels good to have the kind of successful car trip I remember from my own childhood. Gazing at different landscapes, exploring new places, learning fun facts, enjoying treats you never get otherwise — and having all the delays and mishaps become integral chapters in the grander narrative of The Road Trip.

We test-drove some new ideas for our fellow road-tripping readers, too.

Road trip bingo

A newspaper I used to work for in Michigan advertised its “Driving Up North” Road Trip Bingo game on its Facebook page. It had me laughing — “avoid pothole, but hit another pothole” and “realize you forgot something at home” — and then thinking, “Hey, that’s actually a good idea.”

So Washington State Road Trip Bingo was born. (Find it here.)

I took some ideas from our friends in the Midwest mitten.

I also got some help from my friend and north Everett blogger Rachel Zupke. She and her family covered the same stretches of pavement as we did just a couple weeks earlier. Thanks to her, I enjoyed spotting the many quilt squares on the sides of barns, and am fully attuned to the different methods of stacking hay bales.

We took a family approach to the game. The girls had different game sheets, but we all collaborated and called out bingo squares as we saw them.

It looked like the youngest was going to score bingo first. But it was the oldest — on our second day of driving, in Idaho — who shouted it out after we spotted an elusive “Subaru with kayak or canoe on top.”

We kept the game going the rest of the trip, aiming for a blackout that didn’t quite come.

The bingo game got us noticing new and different things, like those quilt squares and a stubborn dearth of electric vehicles.

They got us laughing, like “Really awful smell (outside the car).”

And they had us amazed, like on a Montana road where we passed a piece of farming equipment with tires so tall we could have driven under it (it was likely a field sprayer).

There were some surprises, too.

One of the bingo squares I plucked from the Michigan version was “Minivan with roof rack and stick family decal.” I thought it would be a cinch to find. Nope. Soon I was ditching caveats: Forget the roof rack. OK, SUVs are OK. Pretty soon it was just a stick family.

The stick family became the holy grail of our trip. And The Road did not consider us worthy.

Under darkness passing downtown Everett on I-5 toward home, we spotted an SUV with a family of zombies pasted on the back window. “Good enough!”

It had me retooling the “Bumper Sticker Bingo” game I had created for the long haul home. We didn’t score a bingo on that game, though we didn’t spend as many hours on it. It may also be better suited to trips south along the more heavily traveled I-5 into Oregon? You try, and tell me.

Another bumper sticker that has apparently seen its heyday? “Keep Calm and (fill in the blank).” We didn’t find that one either.

The company that birthed that onslaught of annoying copy-catters has instead graced us with another trendy newcomer: Bill Murray’s face. (For awhile, I thought it was some fringe presidential candidate. Then again, maybe he will be …)

License plate learning

Signs of the times were apparent with another road trip diversion: the license plate game.

For our trip, we paired this popular game with a map of the United States. The girls colored in a state each time we spotted it on a license plate. Then we turned to the state’s profile in a kid’s atlas borrowed from the Everett Public Library.

It was a fun way to learn geography.

“Where’s New Hamster?” asked the youngest, looking up from her map.

And to read up on some facts and funny traffic laws.

“Firing a catapult on Aspen’s streets is against the law,” I read on the Colorado page.

But we didn’t learn anything about Delaware. It was one of 11 states we didn’t spot.

That’s OK. I have heard that Delaware may not actually exist outside of Delaware.

A state that definitely exists: Minnesota. We marveled at the number of Minnesota license plates. I wish I had counted. Turns out there’s been a net migration of Minnesotans to our parts. Maybe that’s why? Or maybe it was just the nature of the game.

Some final tips

Pack more activities than you need — then pack more.

Pack more snacks than you need — then pack more.

And in the same spirit of plenty, say “yes” whenever possible. Especially if you might normally say “no.” (My girls’ eyes registered shock when they asked for another snack about five minutes after eating and I said, “Sure!”)

Have a few surprise activities, including one you only pull out in case of emergency. I had “Mary Poppins” on standby for the last day, and was mildly shocked we didn’t need to turn it on.

I’m not opposed to electronics on long car rides. Personal music players were lifesavers on this car trip, letting the girls sing along to “My Little Pony” soundtracks ad nausea while the driver listened to podcasts and I set my mind to my book club’s latest selection. We all paused what we were doing whenever we spotted a new state for our license plate game. And there were plenty of hours spent without earbuds, enjoying a modified version of the Headbanz game, listening to radio theater, or coloring.

The biggest advice, of course, is to head out expecting disasters, prepared to roll with whatever The Road dishes. Savor what brought you there in the first place; for us, it was quality time with friends who now live far away.

Sweltering without air conditioning that final day, we made an unplanned stop at a chilled Walmart. We bought ice cream, cold drinks — and got the back-to-school supplies shopping done weeks early.

It was a lesson I now realize I should take with me into the wilds of everyday parenting. How many more danger zones could we squeeze through if we approached each day like a road trip? With a sense of adventure, flexibility — and more ice cream?

Have a road trip tip or favorite memory? Send it to streetsmarts@heraldnet.com.

Road Trip Bingo

The Daily Herald’s Washington state-themed Road Trip Bingo games and expansion tiles can be found here. You can also find an interactive Road Trip Bingo game from The Star-Ledger in New Jersey here. Thanks to The Grand Rapids Press for the idea.

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