The past few weeks for me have been straight from the Americana handbook – both old and new. What is it that makes husbands-turned-fathers romanticize the road trip? Perhaps I’m still scarred from the week-long drive to California from Florida with my family, but when I hear the words “road trip,” my whole body reacts. I immediately smell the stale air; my limbs stiffen and cramp and yearn to be free and, from the depths of my being, the words “Are we there yet?!” rise to surface. But somehow, the bad idea genes won out and we decided to load our five-year-old son, Dylan, and ourselves in the car and drive from Dallas to LA by way of Austin. As I predicted, the trip started off rocky. We were barreling down I-35 trying to make it to the first day of my STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics) conference on time, which was proving to be impossible given our late start. Between driving and navigating, I was fielding questions regarding our itinerary, refereeing snack debates and negotiating potty stops. And my once-brilliant idea to expose my five year old to professional settings by bringing him to the opening dinner (fresh off four hours in the car, no less) was quickly proving not to be my most brilliant to-date. After three days of trying to merge the family vacation and a professional conference I, not surprisingly, felt neither relaxed nor productive. Awesome.
But then something miraculous happened. As we began our 22-hour trek to see my 93-year-old grandmother in California, we began settling into each other.
“NORTH CAROLINA!” piped Dylan from the back seat. “What number is that, Mommy?”
“17,” I said, scribbling the sighting down diligently for our license plate tracking game. Dylan returned to the thousandth viewing of Thomas the Tank Engine, while Keith and I commented lazily on the rolling desert landscape we were driving through and the Steve Jobs audio book playing in the car. Somewhere, between the umpteenth bathroom stop at a strip mall gas station and the gazillionth stop for greasy fast food we hated to love, we became a unit.
By the time we pulled up to my grandmother’s house on Thursday evening just in time to watch Dylan’s beloved Miami Heat win the championship, I had a feeling that this was going to be a wonderful vacation.
On the return trip, we spent a day indulging Dylan’s love for trains and his request to see the Grand Canyon. We rode the Grand Canyon Railway, which—inching along at 40 mph—took probably twice as long as it would have taken us by car. Under normal circumstances, I would have wanted to hightail it out of there for more efficient modes of transportation. But there we were, on our way to see one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World and Dylan was beside himself just to be chugging along in a real train car. His excitement was delicious and I drank it in. I was completely present and I was utterly joyful. You can see it on our faces in the tourist trap photo we purchased on the train ride back to the hotel (which I bought despite a decidedly bad hair day).
A few days after we came home, I realized something. I didn’t have that post-vacation regret. I usually find myself lamenting spending too much, working too little and eating too crappy.
This time, the only residual feelings I had were satisfaction and gratitude. This had never happened to me before. Then it hit me- I had finally won my independence. But it wasn’t from a job or The Man or some external pressure; it was from myself. Running my own company, I am almost always racing between What I Am Doing, What I Have to Do Next and What I Should Have Already Done. And if I’m not doing one of those things, I often enslave myself with the guilt of What I Should Be Doing.
On this vacation, I had freed myself. I spent nearly every waking moment for close to two weeks with two of the most important people to me with close to no work and, more importantly, no guilt about what I wasn’t doing. And, after over 50 hours spent in trains and automobiles, the leg cramps never came and not once did I think “Are we there yet?”
Owning my business has its ups and downs, its moments of total elation and awful frustration. But it is teaching me how to live. How to value the time I have with those I love and not miss a single moment. And now my ability to learn and grow is linked to small pleasures like teaching my son how to boogie board in the cool Pacific Ocean and beaming when he jumps out and shouts “Mommy, Mommy, I did it!”