4 Things I Learned By Driving 3000 Miles With My Toddler (ALONE)

Lennox is less than happy. Image: Bridget Brown.

I am not cut out to be Mary Poppins with her bottomless effing purse — not on a road trip or anywhere else, for that matter.

I heard the toilet flush.

As any mother of an un-potty-trained toddler knows, this is the sound of failure. You have neglected to properly supervise, and now you shall pay.

Possibly in plumber’s fees, possibly in diamond earrings.

I was alone with my 2-year-old son Lennox in a motel room in Tremonton, Utah, trying to get us both out the door for another full day of driving. We were not quite halfway between Calgary, Canada (where we live), and Palm Springs, where I’d rented a home for a month while I figured out what to do after abruptly leaving my job, getting a giant tattoo, cutting off all my hair, and making the impulse decision to drive 1500 miles to California alone with a 2-year-old.

Midlife crisis? I don’t know what you’re talking about.

After the toilet flushed, little L emerged from the bathroom carrying a dripping, sodden lump of beige fuzz. His beloved stuffy, Kitty Cat, was a glob of matted fur and (clean? dirty?) toilet water.

My plan to hop in the car immediately was on pause for some emergency blow-drying.

This was my first lesson as Solo Road Trip mom. And the other four:

1. You will never be prepared enough. Stop trying.

I had been attempting to be the most prepared road trip captain ever to ford the Missouri River.

There were schedules to be kept. Maps to be followed. Pinterest-inspired plastic caddies full of toys and activities.

All of these things were driving both me and Lennox up the wall.

OK… Mostly me.

I am not cut out to be Mary Poppins with her bottomless effing purse — not on a road trip or anywhere else.

Even if I had been, my son has the diabolical ability to stymie me at the last minute with a half-drowned stuffy. I needed to cede victory to circumstance and relax.

As Elsa crooned from the iPad at least 300 times on this trip, I needed to learn to “Let it Go.”

2. If something is free, you're the product.

I couldn’t believe our luck finding a nice hotel just into Nevada with a nightly rate of just $27. As soon as we walked in, it reminded me of that old expression: “If you're not paying for something (or paying very very little, in this case), you're not the customer — you're the product being sold.”

To register, we had to walk through the casino. To a 2-year-old, hell is a room full of buttons you aren’t allowed to push. To the parent of a 2-year-old, hell is a room full of buttons your 2-year-old isn’t allowed to push, plus cigarette smoke.

The concept of not being allowed to play with these awesome slot machines resulted in the most epic meltdown of the entire trip: first Lennox’s... then mine.

The hotel room itself didn't have a microwave, fridge, or coffee maker — obviously to force us to use the buffet.

It did, however, have a detailed list of the cost of every single thing in the room posted on the wall, in case we were tempted to steal a hand towel ($4.50).

3. You can’t hang onto the moment. Stop trying.

My 2-year-old loved the ghost town of Kelso, California. It was one of the most photogenic stops on our whole trip, yet I have absolutely zero photographs of Lennox enjoying it.

By that time, I had finally put away my iPhone — because I wanted to enjoy it with L.

For the first three days of the trip, I tried valiantly to capture every moment. I spend my life trying to capture L’s every moment. I am never going to be able to revisit the moments I do capture, because I take 10 pictures a day of Lennox.

That would be 73,000 pictures by the time he’s 20. Who has time to look at 73,000 pictures?

My mother didn’t feel this pressure when I was 2. Partly because the cost of developing 73,000 pictures — and renting a storage locker to keep them in — would have bankrupted her.

I didn’t truly get this until our road trip, when being alone with Lennox all day, every day in a new place provided us with endless photo ops.

There was always another moment, but trying to take a picture of it doesn’t actually enable me to hang onto that time with my son. In fact, messing around with my phone actually caused me to miss other awesome moments.

After a couple of days, I just put the phone away.

4. Air travel is a good way to see airports.

Lennox’s grandfather (my late father-in-law) loved to travel; he once told me that “air travel is a great way to see airports.”

Road trips are the only kind of travel where you are constantly reminded that every part of the journey — from the scenery, to the snacks, to your travel partners — are as important as the destination.

I know that Lennox won’t remember this trip specifically, but I hope it laid a foundation for behaviors I’d like him to embrace: a willingness to do things that other people think are weird, to be spontaneous, to accept change, and to react to unexpected challenges.

Nothing like a road trip for all of that.

Whether or not you choose weirdness and change and challenges, life is going to deal them to you.

A road trip is just good practice.

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