As a free-spirited traveler, slipping a ring on my left ring finger felt a little like clamping on a ball and chain. Not just one, but now two plane tickets, two work schedules, two destination opinions, and two families to visit between vacations made it twice as difficult for a spontaneous getaway. Adding children, I feared, meant giving up travel adventures forever.
Are travel adventures possible with kids?
While working in Mexico, I fell in love with a sexy cumbia-dancing, guacamole-making, accent-sporting local. The day we got married, I became a stepmom.
Because the kids lived with their mother, our 2004 summer vacation began with my plan for the two of us:
“Let’s go from El Paso to Yosemite, then San Francisco and—”
My newlywed husband halted my vacation dreams. “We’ve never vacationed with my kids and all they know is the Chihuahuan desert. Couldn’t we take them to Mazatlán this summer?”
But…I barely knew the kids. Family travel to the Mexican coast with no minivan, no DVD player? Could four of us endure 14 hours crammed into my compact Mazda?
His puppy dog eyes melted my defenses. He would plan the trip in his native country while I would – gasp – relinquish control.
Where was the new stepmom’s survival guide?
I frantically gathered stepmother supplies, determined to improve the proverbial “wicked” to something better, like “fun-loving.” I stuffed the car with beach and pool toys, games and puzzles, pillows, blankets, books, and loads of healthy snacks. Just enough space left for 7-year-old Jerry, 8-year-old Michelle, and four tiny suitcases.
We headed southwest from Chihuahua, Mexico into the darkness at 2:00 a.m. Backseat giggles faded to snores until the sun illuminated the parched countryside. Gradually, desert scrub transitioned to pines, then jungle vines and waterfalls. “My skin feels sticky!” Humidity was as foreign to Michelle as the landscape.
As we proceeded west, danger escalated with the ascent into the wild sierra. We advanced slalom-style, suspended precariously on sides of cliffs. Speeding buses and sluggish 18-wheelers crossed centerlines on blind curves, risking oncoming traffic instead of a dive off the edge of this shoulderless “highway.” But, surprisingly, the view outside rotating relentlessly from back window to front became the biggest threat to our road trip success.
“I don’t feel good.” My head swung around to see Jerry’s brown skin turn a ghostly white.
“Me neither.” Michelle looked fine so I dismissed her complaint as a plea for attention. But Jerry looked ready to vomit, his stomach sloshing with every curve.
This road would snake west for hours twisting torturously into El Espinazo del Diablo, The Devil’s Spine. “Honey, we should stop.”
His eyes shouted, WHERE? Sheer rock faces on our right shot up toward heaven; those on our left plunged into a foggy abyss.
“As soon as you see somewhere,” I added meekly.
An experienced mother would know what to do. I did not. I offered the kids water and a new mantra. Don’t throw up, don’t throw up…
Twenty curves later, my husband miraculously whipped into a miniscule gravel turnout, spraying pebbles into the emptiness below.
“Now you can throw up.”
“I feel better now.” With his stomach momentarily steady, Jerry enjoyed the misty mountain air. Disaster averted, we pressed on toward Mazatlán.
Two minutes (15 curves) later, color faded from Jerry’s face. “I feel sick again.”
Michelle chimed in, “Me too, I’m going to puke.”
I cringed and wished the car had suction cups to stop on the rock face. Or that I had packed like an experienced mother, who probably had Dramamine in her mom-kit.
My husband growled. “We just stopped!”
“I felt fine then,” Jerry whimpered.
We skidded into the next tiny turnout 15 minutes (80 curves) later.
“Alright, throw up.”
Jerry’s foot hit the ground. “I feel ok now.”
Hours of driving and little sleep transformed my puppy dog into a Rottweiler. “Throw up!” he snarled, baring teeth.
“You said you had to throw up. We stopped; now throw up, both of you! I cannot stop every five minutes or it will take a week to reach Mazatlán. Do you want to vacation on the road or on the beach?”
“We feel fine now.”
A snail-paced 18-wheeler, that my husband had struggled to pass, approached. His rage increased as the truck’s rumbling intensified, and exploded when it passed.
“THROW UP!!” he barked.
“There is nothing in my stomach…”
He grabbed apples from my healthy snack stockpile and shoved them toward the kids, growling, “Eat and throw up, NOW!”
After a bite of apple Jerry doubled over and coughed, but only a string of saliva stretched out of his mouth. “I can’t!” he cried.
Michelle whined a bit and tried too, but gave up since our attention was on Jerry.
“I don’t feel sick now. But I have to go to the bathroom.”
With no civilization for miles, we spotted our bathroom: a section of woods across the road growing up a slope as steep as a skyscraper.
“Did you bring toilet paper?” my husband asked, clinging to a tree jutting sideways out of the hill. Jerry planned to go #2. Ugh, yet another mom-kit essential that I failed to pack. With muddy shoes and soiled underwear, we piled back into the car.
Fifteen seconds (4 curves) later, the look on Jerry’s face sent me scrambling for a container in case the inevitable happened. We weren’t stopping again.
A practiced mother probably had a puke bucket in her kit. I had two plastic grocery bags from the depths of the door’s map pocket. I shoved the bags to the backseat, too hastily to look for holes so common in such thin plastic.
Five curves later, coughing ensued. But it was Michelle, not Jerry, who began vomiting into a grocery bag.
“I feel so sick.” She looked up, desperate for a magical mother solution. My pitiful mom-kit contained only fruit and water.
Her death-stare almost reached out and strangled me.
She sipped water and handed me the vomit-filled bag. As I transferred the bag to the floor between my feet, I failed to notice chunky liquid escaping onto the arm rest, the stick shift, my pants… The odor might have been a clue had the car’s limited air supply not already been contaminated with the pungent smell since the gagging began.
I knotted the top of the bag. The floor mat darkened.
“It’s leaking!” I ripped the second bag from Jerry’s clutches and slipped it around the first.
I inspected the double-bagged treasure. It was no longer gushing, but drips still ran from holes in the outer bag, flaunting their escape from the plastic prison.
My husband steered one-handed around hairpin curves, reaching over to help. I shoved his second arm back to the steering wheel. I’d rather be covered in vomit than careening off the Devil’s Spine into the depths of—
Jerry’s face went from white to green.
I was distracted with vomit clean-up. A real mom-kit contains sanitary wipes. My mom-kit (door map pocket) contained crumpled napkins. The napkins smeared the mess around before resigning to a better-suited duty: lying under the puke-bags, reducing saturation of the floor mats.
My attention returned to the kids, stomachs still sloshing while suffocating in a cloud of vomit perfume. Fun-loving was about to get chased out the window by a drill sergeant with no more plastic bags.