CAR-SCHOOLING: Life Lessons & Tips from the Road

by | Jun 15, 2023 | Jenny Milchman, The Writer's Life | 3 comments

By Jenny Milchman

When my first novel came out, my husband and I did the next logical thing. Rented out our house, traded in two cars for an SUV that could handle Denver in February, and took our kids out of first and third grades to set out on what Shelf Awareness called the world’s longest book tour.

Pretty much everyone thought I was nuts. My own publisher thought so. But when that debut novel lit up the bookstore scene in a squiggly, wriggly line following along everywhere we went all over the country (minus Alaska and Hawaii for obvious reasons—we were in a car—and Kentucky, for no good reason—love ya, Kentucky, hope to get there someday), then when my book went on to hit the USA Today list and become a minor bestseller, the whole idea began to seem a little less crazy.

Road Trip USA

We all learned a lot out on the road, about books and the business of being a writer certainly, but also about life, this country of ours in all its trouble and glory, and about ourselves. When a large chunk of the world is your classroom, it’s easy for you and your kids to absorb an education.

Kids on the road trip

My son read his first chapter book (love ya, Junie B.) in the nail salon while I got ready for an event. My daughter conquered architecture by building two story dollhouses made out of cardboard in the back of our car. The kids used hotel soaps as pretend cell phones (have you ever seen the kind with bumps that look just like buttons?) and had imaginary horses named Lazer and Kiley that they rode on a trail in Aspen alongside people on actual horses, the kind that snort and whinny. To be fair, Lazer and Kiley snorted and whinnied too.

I’m sure these memories are adorable only to me, but the point is that getting out there will produce moments of a unique sweetness, times that wouldn’t happen any other way.

If you’re an author, I highly recommend carving out time for the face-to-face amongst all our digital activities with readers. I wrote an essay about ways to do this in the Agatha-award winning anthology Promophobia. Whether it’s an overnight trip to a small cluster of bookstores, libraries, book clubs, or more exotic venues, or an odyssey of weeks or even months, meeting readers live and in-person will give a dimension to the experience of being a writer that doesn’t happen in the same way online.

One of the book events on the road trip

And if you’re not a writer, the summer is here and taking a road trip might be one of the vacay possibilities that’s on your radar. There’s a peace to having some of the people you hold dearest in the capsule of a vehicle, miles unfurling, the scenery changing every day, every hour.

There are also bound to be hairy moments—and you know what? That’s okay.

Road Trip

I recall driving through Kansas, ahead of a blizzard that threatened to shut down the road—that’s I-70, not like, Elm Street—only to arrive at our hotel in the aforementioned Denver and find it had no power. They’d given out all the flashlights, so my tired band of four trooped up twenty-six flights of stairs (no power, no elevators) holding a candelabra for light. Very Transylvania. Another hotel memory had us arriving at 11 p.m., hours past bedtime, getting teeth brushed, pajamas donned, only to turn back the sheets and find a bedbug. We left.

Those times, the glitches and nutty incidents, are some of our most cherished and laughed over memories today.

In case this has you convinced to set out on a road trip of your own—was it the bedbug that did it?—below are some tips to make traveling in a car, with kids or not, not only a success but a future font of some of the best times of your life.

  • Bribery and rewards. I’m a big fan of this parenting, and life, tool. After a good day of travel, the kids were allowed to choose a new book or small toy or art supply from a bag I’d packed before we left. These don’t have to be pricey investments. A drugstore car was a big deal to my son and my daughter did a lot with the aforementioned salvaged scraps. Reward yourself too with snacks and treats, good music and stops at points of interest.
  • Lay out your route, but also make time for spontaneity. It’s one of the joys of road travel. Wild west exhibit in South Dakota? We swung off the road and the kids drove a mule. World’s largest kaleidoscope? Why not? It doesn’t have to be the Grand Canyon to make a big impression, and a memorable day on the road.
  • Fuel yourself along with your car. It doesn’t work to get hangry on the road. Make sure the car is stockpiled with faves and remember that chocolate melts into a gooey mess in summer in the glove compartment. #lessonlearned
  • Prepare for the unprepareable. Blankets in winter, water year round, extra clothes for potty training kiddies—and be ready to swing over to the side of the road fast. Get ahead of gas station deserts (I’m talking to you, Kanorado) by having a full tank or know where the EV charging stations are.
  • Old standards are standard for a reason. Songs in a round, the license plate game, GHOST, etc. will provide a little distraction—and remind some of us of our childhoods.
  • If there’s an occasion, like a holiday, birthday, or anniversary, integrate it into your travels. My husband is a big distillery fan and we took him on a whiskey tour for his birthday (kids were allowed to be there, but not sample). My daughter was in a Harry Potter craze and we went to Warner Brothers studio because we were in L.A. when she turned eleven. My son had happy birthday sung to him by 200 attendees at a bookstore!
  • While we’re on it, factory tours are soooo much fun on the road. Look up which products are made where. We happened to be near the Jelly Belly factory, Lake Champlain chocolates, and a doll manufacturer. Ditto for specialty museums. We saw the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, MI, and the world’s largest exhibit of miniatures in Tucson, AZ—as fun for the adults as the kids.
  • Make time for movement. Sitting for long stretches isn’t good for the body, but why would you need to when you’re driving past some of the most gorgeous scenery you’ll ever see? And in case you happen to be in Illinois and not Colorado (love ya, Illinois, you have the best fudge sauce), a good old park for a walk or playground for the kids will get the tension out of everyone’s muscles.
  • Meet new people. We encountered some of the warmest (and occasionally strangest), the most welcoming and (and in a few cases off-putting), people on the road. Every single one added something to our day and in some cases our lives.
  • Follow the weather. As a debut author, going where the events were, I didn’t have this control, which is why we had to get ahead of that blizzard in Kansas and it hit 119 degrees in Phoenix when we were there in August—love ya, Poisoned Pen! But if at all possible, plan your trip to avoid hurricane season, the Rockies becoming impassable, and wildfires.
  • Decide on your digital policy. I’m all for a digital detox, and our kids actually didn’t have devices when we set out so it wasn’t an issue. But knowing how much screen time you want to allow, and sticking to your plan, will keep it from becoming an arguing tool. At the same time, decide how much time you want to spend each day on social—because you’re gonna be doing a lot of stuff worth sharing.
  • Know that the bad times are the good times too. I remember one night on a road trip in another country before we had kids, my husband and I got stuck on a muddy road and didn’t feel safe walking out. We were in the middle of a jungle. Also, we’d heard there might be jaguars. We were wet, dirty, and hungry. We had one candy bar to split (he gave me the bigger half). We’d had a hotel res I had been soooo looking forward to. And as we curled up in the front seats, uncomfortable, disappointed, and a little scared (cause jaguars), my husband said these wise words: “We’re going to have a lot of nice, fun nights on the road. But you know what? This is one we’ll never forget.”

And you know what? He was right. Happy trails!

A jaguar we thankfully didn't encounter on our road trip in another country
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  1. Lisa Black

    I’m in the ‘can’t believe you did that’ group but man, what an education for all! When I was in the 7th grade me, my mother, two aunts and four cousins piled in a station wagon with a bad fan belt and drove for two states, cementing ‘travel’ as my #1 goal in life.

    Bestseller’s list, eh? Maybe when I retire from the day job in two years…..!!

  2. Karna Small Bodman

    What an incredible adventure – good for you, Jenny. I remember when my first thriller, Checkmate came out, I planned a book tour too (alone). I wanted to fly to Chicago and do a signing at a bookstore near my old high school. Trouble was: a huge snowstorm hit and only a few people I had contacted were able to show up. Same story in Washington, DC where I did a book signing at the (then) big Books-A-Million. I was placed at a table in the basement surrounded by tons of chairs. But in the midst of another storm, only one person (my husband’s former secretary) showed up. A better plan was when I was able to give talks to “ready made” audiences where perhaps half the folks would buy a book (which is what I’ve often recommended to new authors). But kudos to you for your courage, time (and budget) to publicize your novel and go on to “bestseller-dom.”

  3. Dana McNeely

    I love this story! Love road trips for all the aforementioned, reasons my hubby steadfastly avoids them. Thanks for the smiles. I bought the anthology. ☺️