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This summer my husband had a two and a half week business trip that overlapped our daughter's eight day sailing and snorkeling high adventure trip with her Scouts BSA troop in and around St Thomas.
Then my youngest brother set his wedding date during the eight day stretch that both my husband and daughter were out of town. I wanted to attend, but I didn't want to fly with the two boys and our dog (kenneling her is not an option with her personality).
Even if flights weren't super expensive this summer, the sheer stress and hassle of keeping track of all three of them by myself was just an overwhelming thought. Maybe if I'd flown with a dog before I would have been more open to the idea, but that is an experience I haven't yet had.
After running through different scenarios, I realized that we could do a road trip.
My husband and I have roadtripped since we were dating, we take roadtrips out west to visit family every other year, and I've roadtripped with the kids when my husband was gone on business. We're not strangers to roadtripping. Unfortunately, my ability to drive longer distances was severely impacted when my narcolepsy got noticeably worse four years ago.
However, over the last year I've roadtripped with our daughter to several homeschool conferences to sell my products and course and I've had the opportunity to ease back into roadtripping. I've been able to experiment with how long I can drive before I need to stop, how long I need to rest before I drive again, what I should eat or drink to help with alertness, and so on.
After I ran the numbers I realized we could do the trip in the eight days our daughter would be on her trip. We could take three days to drive to Colorado, spend two days in Colorado, and then take three days to drive back to Virginia.
It would be a challenge, but it would be doable.
I dropped off our daughter at the airport at 4am on a Monday morning, then returned home to sleep for a couple more hours. When I woke up, the boys and I loaded our bags and the dog's travel crate in the car. Then we hit the road.
We arrived in Colorado mid-afternoon on Wednesday, so we had more time with our families than I'd anticipated, which was nice. The time zone changes heading east to west worked in our favor.
Saturday morning we were up bright and early and on the road, heading east. We arrived back home Monday evening, with several hours to spare before it was time to pick up my daughter from the airport. I'd made arrangements beforehand for her to go home with a friend if something were to happen and we didn't make it home before her. But since we made good time and didn't encounter any delays, we didn't have to use our backup plan.
As I drove home, I thought about what made it possible for me to make this trip. Four years ago I was in no condition to make a roadtrip where I was the only driver, and I wasn't sure that I would ever be able to drive longer distances again. Thankfully, the medication and supplements I'm currently taking have greatly lessened my symptoms, but here are four other things that contributed to our successful road trip.
Four steps to a successful roadtrip despite chronic illness
As I mentioned, I've made several road trips to various conventions over the past year. These trips were shorter, topping out at eight hours, which made it easier to dip my toes back into roadtripping. While doing so, I was able to try different things to see what works, just like what happened when I figured out how to camp despite my narcolepsy.
I figured out how long I can drive without stopping, how long my breaks need to be (shorter than I thought), and what I can and can't eat and drink while driving. Road trip snacks used to be full of carbs and sugar and sodas, but those don't work for me these days since sugar and carbs make my narcolepsy symptoms worse. I've also figured out which energy drinks I can tolerate (no sugar, but also no funky artificial sweeteners, and low caffeine since while caffeine does help me be a bit more alert, higher doses make me jittery).
I've also found some music I can listen to while driving. I haven't been able to listen to music while driving longer distances since I was in college, but with experimentation, I've realized that I can listen to fast paced music without it affecting me negatively. Rotating between my music playlist, an audiobook, and my podcast backlog is even more effective in helping me stay alert while driving.
Drive-thru fast food isn't an option for me because of my celiac disease, but I've had good success eating at 5 Guys and Chipotle. I can only order certain things, but they still add convenience to our trip. And ordering online is such a great invention, even for road trips. When we stopped to stretch our legs or get gas, I searched for the the nearest 5 Guys or Chipotle, placed our order, then picked it up and took it to a park to eat it so the dog could run around while we ate.
We've also invested in a small YETI cooler and we used it to bring along yogurts for breakfast and sandwich fixings for lunches. The extra insulation in the cooler meant that my ice packs lasted the entire three days of each leg of the trip and were still frozen when we arrived at our destinations. Definitely worth the money (or credit card points, in our case). This was a no-stress way to bring along inexpensive, healthy food and skip greasy drive thru food.
I used Google maps to plan the route I'd drive. Once I knew the total distance, I picked a location that looked about a third of the way and added that as a stop along the trip. This does take some trial and error and moving the stops back and forth, but I was able to pinpoint where we'd stop each night with about 8 hours of driving each day. I also coordinated those stops with cheap motels that were pet-friendly.
While I was researching, I checked the route for rest stops and truck stops that I anticipated using. I ended up not using that list, but it didn't take that much time to do, so it wasn't a big loss. Most days I stopped more frequently than I'd planned, but for shorter periods, so the overall timing of each day still worked out.
One other option I'd considered when planning the trip was whether to drive our RV instead of our Subaru. The RV would have eliminated the need to find pet-friendly motels along the way, but it would have also made me even more tired. I've driven the RV on roadtrips a number of times, and as anyone who has driven a large vehicle can tell you, it's exhausting. Since fatigue levels were already a concern, I didn't want to make them worse by driving the RV, so we drove our Subaru.
3. Be Flexible
When it came to implementation, I didn't stick super closely to my original itinerary, other than the nightly stops, since I'd made reservations for those. We used different rest stops and dinner stops than the ones I'd researched ahead of time.
Because I changed things up as we went, I used the AllStays app, which is worth the $9.99 fee for the Camp & RV version. I bought it years ago for our RV road trips, but it's super handy on car road trips as well. I filtered for "rest stops" or "truck stops" to quickly find the next stopping point.
As I mentioned, I ended up stopping more frequently for shorter periods, and this worked out better on this trip than I'd anticipated. I credit my current medication: the longer I'm on it, the greater the positive effect on my symptoms.
We also ended up starting each day earlier than I'd planned because our youngest wakes up at the crack of dawn. This wasn't a bad thing, it just meant we reached our nightly stops a little earlier than I'd anticipated when I planned the trip.
4. Have Fun
I won't lie, this was an exhausting trip, and one that I won't make again anytime soon. Less driving each day would have made the trip less exhausting, but this wasn't an option with our tight schedule. Despite the long days, we had fun.
I introduced the boys to the music in my Amazon music playlist, which is truly a random assortment of fast-paced songs since that's the only kind I can listen to in the car. It stretches from K-pop to 80's hair bands to ABBA to Imagine Dragons to Johnny Cash. They'd ask the title of each new song and who sang it, and by the time we'd listened to the playlist a couple times they both had some new favorites, as well as a few songs they didn't like.
We worked through the audio versions of several of the Penderwick books, which my daughter enjoyed when she was younger and the boys are enjoying as well.
Before our trip, I stopped at the Target dollar spot and grabbed a couple inexpensive toys that I doled out over the trip. I also brought special treats to dole out, as well as coloring pages and a sudoku for kids book that the boys had requested. Spreading out when I handed around these items switched things up and added a few minutes of excitement to the long days of driving.
We made sure to stretch our legs when we stopped. Well, the boys and our dog did. I usually took the opportunity to lay down on a picnic bench for a few minutes. While I rested, they ran around, got some exercise, and enjoyed the break from the monotony of the car.
The boys love climbing trees, and they had fun climbing the scrubby trees at one of the rest stops. Kids don't need much to entertain them, especially if they're out in nature.
The whole point of the trip was to attend my youngest brother's wedding, which meant we also got to spend time with my family, which is large. We've seen some of them since the pandemic started, but there were others that we haven't seen since before the pandemic. It was such a great experience to spend time with most of my family, though we were still missing a few members.
We enjoy spending time outdoors and we made sure to fit in some hiking while we were in Colorado. We went for a hike with my dad our first morning in Colorado and the next day we did a hike with some of my siblings and a nephew at a local state park that I'd never been to, despite living in the area for a number of years. (tell me I'm not the only one who does that?)
What I would have done differently
I would not buy those little popping fidget things. The boys liked them, but I found the popping noise annoying. This was our first time having them, and I won't be buying any more of them.
I would have liked to work in some "fun" stops where we explore quirky spots and such along the way, but between the time crunch and having to leave Max in the car at stops, it didn't happen. More time for the trip, less driving each day, and doing some exploring along the way would have made the trip a lot easier and more enjoyable.
I should have done more research into cheap pet-friendly motels, as at least one of the ones we stayed at was pretty sketchy and gross. They were right on our route and cheap, but I should have at least read the reviews to make sure they were well kept.