Thirteen Summers

“This thing all things devours:
Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;
Gnaws iron, bites steel;
Grinds hard stones to meal;
Slays king, ruins town,
And beats high mountain down.”
~J.R.R. Tolkien

This Spring I had the pleasure of reading The Hobbit to my kids and ever since we’ve all been a little more Tolkien crazy than is strictly necessary, but I find this riddle a good introduction to today’s post.  Do you know the answer?   It is our most precious and prevalent resource, our greatest opportunity, and our greatest enemy.


Today I’m here to argue that time, not money, is the limiting factor to travel.  Time is finite.  We cannot get more hours in a day, or more days in a year.  We can’t skip forward, and we can’t turn it back.  The expeditious passing of Time surprises every parent, like the shock of another school year or holiday season at our doorstep, or the moment you look at your child and realize that ‘suddenly’ he’s not a baby (toddler, child) anymore.  We have one chance, one infinitesimal moment in time, to watch not just their milestone moments, but every single one in between.  Our time with the kids is fleeting, a collection of quick moments in the great breath of life, and it is our responsibility as parents to make sure they aren’t wasted.

If by some chance this blog has reached you and peaked your interest in travelling with your kids to the National Parks, then I’d like to focus on what is probably your biggest obstacle:  simply finding the time.  As Americans we all work, a lot, our kids are very busy, and all too often we face a positive avalanche of responsibilities to handle.  I’ve seen To Do lists that rival the Democratic National Agenda!  (My own included.)  So much of our “time off” is already filled with chores before we can even stop and think about what we want to do.  But, think about how quickly the time has already passed, and how much you have left to achieve on your bucket list of goals.  Have you looked at the list of parks on my Countdown page?  How many do you want to explore?  Five?  Twenty?  All fifty-nine?  Take a moment and think about exactly how much time you have with them for future trips.  The itineraries I publish are geared towards travelling with school-age children.  No one really wants to travel too long on the road with an infant or toddler.  Pre-school is a perfect time to fit in short but magical trips to places like Disneyland.  Also, although I know there can be benefits to travelling during the school year, I would never voluntarily plan a trip during a time that would take them out of the classroom, and if you save school breaks and long holiday weekends for visiting family members and exploring some favorite local jaunts, you’re left with 13 summers.

Thirteen summers between the day they finish Kindergarten until the day you drive them to their first day of college.  Thirteen summers to teach them things they can’t learn in school.  Thirteen summers to take them to a new place in the country and show them the world they live in.  Thirteen opportunities to model what you think is the most important way to use your precious time.  Thirteen chances to bring an adventure into their lives.  Thirteen possibilities for amazing, life-changing, attitude-changing vacations.  Thirteen moments to make the decision to go.  When you stop and think about how fast your kids grow, how quickly time passes, thirteen summers is not very much time.  We must treat it as the precious resource it is, and fight the hard fight to get as much out of it as we can.

Have I mentioned yet that between my three kids, we are involved with five different ball teams?  My husband and I have attended almost 120 ball games this Spring, plus practices.  I admit – that is crazy!  If I’m not careful, lessons, camps, practices, and tournaments could take over the entire summer too.  I love that my kids are at the ages where they want to be part of teams, and that they are working towards goals together, but each year I have to stop everything and just say Enough.  The only way to start carving out time in your schedule, is to start saying No.  It’s not easy to fit in a vacation every summer, much less a month-long one.  All too often we actually feel guilty for taking a vacation with our families while shelving all other responsibilities.  Determining the start and end dates of the trip is the hardest part of planning, but it has to be your first step.   Even if after all your efforts you can only secure a week of two, you are still teaching your kids something invaluable:  that the thing you want most to do with your extra time is to spend it with them,  away from all that other stuff,  sharing new experiences together, learning together, and being inspired together as you experience the remarkable, majestic beauty of this gorgeous country.

Let’s talk about work.  I was fortunate enough to be a teacher when I started taking long trips during the summer.  Though teachers do work a lot over the summer, I did have the freedom to leave for an extended road trip.  Now my husband and I are small business owners, so again, we are grateful to have the freedom to make our own schedule.  However, we do work through our trips.  Payroll must be made, fires must be put out, phone calls and emails must be returned.   Free WiFi is available at almost all KOA’s, hotels, and Starbucks,  and a pit-stop at a coffee shop is usually well-received by everyone.   A big point of these trips is to get away from technology, but if the only way to take them is to do some work now and then, then find a hotspot and plug in that laptop for a few hours!

Great Falls KOA, 2012 – Everyone getting some work done at a campsite in Montana.

So, say you are not a teacher, or a business owner, or otherwise able to simply re-arrange your schedule to take off for a long summer trip.  What can you do?   I understand how much harder it is going to be to travel with your family, but unfortunately we all have the same 13 summers, time doesn’t make exceptions or excuses.   If you make the decision now to travel next year, what are some things you can do to start collecting that precious time off?  Here are some places to start:

  1. Talk with your employers.  Let them know what you plan to do each summer, and how very important it is to you.  They may just be inspired and willing to help!  Perhaps they would allow you to pick up extra shifts at different times throughout the year, or allow you to telecommute some of the days.  Asking them can never hurt if it is done respectfully and knowledgeably.  The thing is, the only way to create a culture of change in corporate America is to start demanding it.  Ask for more maternity leave, paternity leave, vacation time, and sick time while your kids are growing.  So often I hear teachers being blamed for lethargic, unmotivated, and troubled youth.  But, it is the parents responsibility for fostering a healthy attitude and outlook in our kids.  The only way we can do this is to spend time with them.  A lot of time.  It’s time for the workforce to change.  With all our advances in technology, employers could offer a certain number of telecommuting days and not suffer in productivity.  There are already examples of companies that are offering unlimited vacation days, and it is working.   I realize I’m digressing here and I could write an entire blog post on this topic alone, but I just hope that both employers and employees realize that parents have the right to take time off to raise healthy children in healthy families.
  2. Obviously save every extra vacation and sick day that you can, and then use them all at once during the summer.  Some of us receive so much vacation time that we don’t even use it all over the course of a year and we get these huge roll-over accounts of unused sick and vacation time.  I used to do it!  Why?  What are we saving it for?  Use all your time, every year.  We can never, ever, get the time missed with our kids back again.
  3. Ask grandparents or other family members to help when the kids have a school holiday that you don’t have off.  You can also use extended day programs at the school or extracurricular day camps to keep kids busy when you are trying not to leave work.
  4. Adjust the length of time you spend in any given region of the U.S.  I’ve been averaging about 4-5 national parks per trip because I schedule in a lot of extra stops at other places along the way.  For example, we made the drive to South Dakota to see Wind Cave and Badlands National Parks, but  we also saw the Mt. Rushmore Memorial, the Crazy Horse memorial, Custer State Park, the Mammoth Site, and Wounded Knee.  I think every area of the country has a valuable lesson to teach about natural history, cultural history, biology, and geology.  If you can, take the time with your family to see it when you’re in the area.  However, if you are looking for ways to cut time and get to more parks, then just drive right on through!
  5. If you’re married or in an amicable co-parenting arrangement, think about staggering your vacation time.  If you don’t actually have a lot of vacation time each then this might be the best use of it once every few years or so.  Think about it.  If you each can get close to 10 days, you could start the trip on a weekend, and spend the first stop of the trip together, then one spouse goes back to work, the other continues on with the road trip.  When it’s time for the vacationing spouse to return to work, you can meet up at a mid-way point, spend a couple days together as the whole family, then he or she heads back to work while the other one finishes the last half of the trip.   It would take extra coordination and planning, but this way the kids could fit in a much longer trip during the summer, and get to spend time with each parent.  Meanwhile, the parent that has a week of work with the house to him or herself in the evenings is, I’m positive, not entirely unhappy.  Fifteen years into my own marriage with three active kids and a joint business, a week with the house to myself at night would be nothing less than luxury.  One other cost benefit to this is that you won’t have to pay for pet boarding or for house sitters to take care of your dogs and cats as someone will be home.
  6. If you’re a single parent, first of all,  I applaud you.  My mother was a single parent of four, and I understand the effort it takes.  I do hope you have realized by now that you can do these trips totally on your own.  I’ve done it and greatly enjoyed it.   However, the time issues will be an even bigger obstacle for you.  As a single parent you have to use up more of your sick and vacation time during the year for things like doctor appointments, school programs, and the stomach flu.  I understand this, and I think the most important thing you can do for yourself is not feel guilty about the amount of time you’ve saved for your summer vacation.  Do the best you can, and then work with the days you have.   If you can only do a seven day trip each summer, then enjoy it!  At least it’s seven days where you’re out exploring new areas of the country, making memories together, and getting to know each other a little better.  When they are older, you’re kids will remember that even though you only had one week of vacation each year, you spent it out on a road trip together, camping in the woods, not watching TV.  You may not fit in every park and everything you want to see, but you can at least expose the kids to a different area of the country each year, creating priceless memories along the way.  And if the most you’ve done is inspire them to take their own kids on trips to our parks, then I think you’ve succeeded.

Well, my family is waiting for me to put the computer away so we can head out for our next softball tournament.  Happy First Day of Summer by the way!  Can you believe it’s already here?

Happy Trails.

3 thoughts on “Thirteen Summers”

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