dollar bill stuck in gas tankThis summer was to be my last hurrah as a stay-at-home mother.  The past two years a very intense volunteer engagement took me away from the home almost as much as a job would and The Plan has always been for me to return to my career (or, ahem, start thinking about it) once our youngest was enrolled in public school.  So for months, I had vowed that this summer would be all about the kids and I making the most of our time together — exploring nature, taking trips to different states, visiting far-flung family members.  Perhaps even a coast-to-coast driving trip.

Those plans started to shrink as the gas prices began to rise.  Perhaps we would not drive to California, but we could still go to Florida.  Well, maybe we wouldn’t drive to Florida, but perhaps still to Georgia.  And so on.  As prices hover close to $4, I look at my car, with nearly 100,000 miles on it, and think, is our last hurrah summer really going to turn into a staycation?

We are used to staycations.  When a family chooses to cut its income in half so Mom can stay at home with the kids, vacations are one of the first items to go on the budgetary chopping block.

But a recent USA Today article shows, many Americans, like us, are sick of staycations.  We’ve tightened our belts during this recession so much, we feel like there is no more blood flow going to vital parts of our bodies.  We want to feel alive again.  So we’ll find a way to make some trips — perhaps not the family version of Jack Kerouac’s oddessey (what would’ve happened if he had a minivan and two kids?)  But some sort of trips involving AAA TripTiks (yes, I love those even though I have my Garmin GPS), junk food from Flying J Travel Stops, loud singing, kids movies on DVDs, and priceless memories of the places we’ve been.

Curious, I conducted an informal poll to see how gas prices were affecting other families.  Karin Wallace of Chantilly, Virginia said, “We drive to Maine from Virginia for vacation to a family cabin. It’s still cheaper to drive than to fly the five of us but I think that our other, more local day trips will be fewer and farther between. With any luck, we’ll find daily activities that we can walk or bike to –public library, pool and friends’ houses.”

David Selleos of Campbell, California said, “Considering what the gas prices were back in March and uncertainty of what the summer gas prices could be, the trip to Disneyland was taken in April.”  Many families reported taking big trips during Spring Break.

What I remember most about long car trips with my family is not just the pork rinds from gas stops or eating those impossibly thin Krystal hamburgers, or evaluating the cleanliness of a public restroom, but the map reading skills learned while flip-flip-flipping through those AAA TripTiks; something you don’t quite get staring at the GPS while it blares out instructions and sighs an impatient, “Reeeeeee-calculating” when you ignore it.  Calculating how many more miles to the next stop or your next destination by scrunching your fingers together to use the legend or adding and subtracting the numbers on the side of the skinny map.  Reading the billboards and sometimes making an impromptu stop (though we have yet to go see the mermaids as WeekiWachee, which I am determined to do!)  Keeping track of how many states we’ve been to and reaching forward with our outstretched hands and arms to see who will enter the next state first.  Turkey or tuna salad sandwiches from the cooler at state rest stops as we stretched our legs and ran around on the  grassy picnic grounds.  And most importantly, purely undivided family time — this, of course, in the age of no cell phones or laptop computers, when there was barely the ability to check an answering machine, forget about voice mail.  Family road trips were absolutely about family.  I have some grainy photos taken with my Kodak Instamatic 110, but the best images are the ones permanently burned into the hard drive of my brain, in a place that I hope nothing, not even the ravages of time, will ever delete.

My daydreams about driving to California may be put on hold, but yes, we’ll take some road trips, perhaps just weekend trips.  Maybe one long trip.  Summer camps are wonderful, but even at the cost of a gallon of gas, the value of a family road trip is still worth the price.

J.J.  Newby is the News and Politics Channel Editor at The DC Moms and  blogs about life and family at Caffeine and a Prayer.