A single mother takes two teenagers and an eleven-year-old on a cross-country vacation and manages to lose one car and buys three more – all in three weeks. Surprisingly, her now-grown children remember this three weeks of hell as a fun summer when they got see Mount Rushmore, the Mall of America, and Rocky Mountain National Park. No one would believe the real story. But it’s true. I was the mother and even if these – now grown adults don’t remember this vacation of many cars with teens (them) from hell, I’ll never forget it.
Parents of teenagers wanting to plan a fun vacation … give it up. They aren’t having fun with you no matter how much you spend, how much you plan or how hard you try to make them happy. Teens are hardwired to think you’re stupid. I wish I’d known that.
In 1995 I was a young widow, 36 years old. Dominic was sixteen, Daniel fourteen, and Lara had just turned eleven. I knew vacations were important. They created memories that lasted a lifetime. Even growing up in my crazy family that loved little and shared less, the best memories were of the vacations. I wanted my kids to have these memories, and I didn’t want the death of my husband to stop the things that we would have done together for them.
So I piled the kids into our Ford Econoline conversion van, equipped with a television (a big deal in 1995), comfy seats and a bed in the back, and room enough that no one had to be “touching” during the ride. We took to the road in August.
Teenagers in a vehicle have two interests – constant personal fun and avoiding conversation with parents (unless the said conversation is about wanting something). They thought my ideas were boring, my enthusiasm for the sites and venues silly. They questioned why I couldn’t buy them more stuff. I embarrassed them. I was a money machine who could drive.
Sound callous? You bet. You try schlepping adolescents across country in a car.
But I loved them. In fact, I was crazy about them … each little negative, insecure, self-centered bit of them. I wanted them to have vacation memories, and was willing to suffer in order to provide them. The Vacation of Many Cars was mega-memory.
I had just made the final payment on that conversion van before we left, and it was in great condition still with low mileage. It was a comfortable ride. First stop, Chicago. I booked us a room in the Omni downtown and took the kids to Ed Debevick’s for dinner. Ed’s is always a hit with kids. At Ed’s, the help is rude and they insult the customers. Their motto is “Eat and get out!” The staff occasionally bursts into joint theatrics such as jumping on the diner counter (while customer’s are eating) and breaking into a song-and-dance version of YMCA. As I suspected, my teenagers loved it.
Because I had a conversion van that was too tall for Chicago’s parking garages, I chose valet parking and let the Omni figure out where to park our van. I planned to spend a full day in Chicago – Navy Pier, shopping on Michigan Avenue, Michael Jordans, Ed Debevick’s – and then head out for our next destination (Minneapolis) at dark to let these tired kids sleep their way across upper Illinois and WisCOWsin. The next stop was Mall of America in St. Paul. I planned to put the kids on shuttle to the Mall, sleep awhile in the hotel, and then join them later.
We had a glitch.
When valet parking attendant went to retrieve our van, it was gone. Stolen. The attendant said, “Ma’am, I looked all over that lot for your van, and where it was… only glass now.”
What to do, what to do? Omni put us up another night – this time in a complimentary suite. The kids loved this part because they got to stay in a three-room hotel suite with all-day movies and unlimited room service, while I solved our “no vehicle” problems.
My options were:
- Fly home – This was very expensive and we had way too much stuff to be able to load it on a plane. Secondly, insurance wouldn’t cover cost of flying home. Thirdly, kids would be gravely disappointed.
- Rent a car – My insurance wouldn’t cover the cost of a rental to replace a stolen truck – just a stolen car. The van was considered a truck. Secondly, mileage put on a rental would be over 5000. This was in the days before free unlimited mileage.
- Buy another van – Seemed like the only alternative. Chicago PD almost guaranteed me that a stolen conversion van would never be found – not in one place anyway.
So while the kids watched tv in the hotel suite, I sought out the best deal on a used conversion van similar to the one that was stolen. I bought one from a Ford dealer in a pretty shady area of Chicago when it was nearly dark and I was running out of time. What did I know? I’d never bought a car in my life. My husband did that. I hoped for the best.
The new “preowned” van was older and not as nice, but it would do for finishing the vacation. It was a two-toned white Econoline with burgundy trim and matching crushed velvet interior. Yuk! I picked up the kids in our new (old) van and we drove through the Midwest dark to St. Paul.
I soon realized the air conditioning didn’t work. There were also all kinds of wires running under the dash – obviously, some electric install done by the previous owner. The television stopped working shortly after we left Chicago. The blinds were shortly torn off the windows, and stereo tape player chewed up three tapes. My heart was sinking, the kids were complaining. I kept talking about the mall. They finally fell asleep.
We got into our hotel in St. Paul at 10 am the next morning. When we got out of the van, my son Dominic said, “Mom, this van is pink. Did you know that?”
Oh, my God! I had bought a pink vehicle. I thought it was WHITE with burgundy trim — but alas… it was pink – pastel pink. I felt so cheap. All I needed now was a pimp and blinds for the windows. Mental images of this van’s prior life made me sick. It was dark outside when I bought it. I didn’t detect the faint pastel pink color. The kids were mortified (except Lara who liked that we had a pink van). Me? No sleep, high anxiety, mental breakdown approaching.
But … I managed to pull myself together. I sent my teenagers to the largest shopping mall in America with Lara and decided to ditch the van. With no sleep in 36 hours, I drove to Apple Ford in Minneapolis and explained the whole catastrophe to a nice salesman who assured me that they could trade in the van for another pre-owned vehicle. I opted for a Ford Bronco. It was a little smaller, no TV, $5000 more, but everything worked.
I left my sleazy pink van at Apple Ford and drove back to the hotel in a slick, forest green Ford Bronco that I imagined was previously owned by an L.L. Bean sort of guy who loved the outdoors and wore a lot of khaki colored clothes.
I was asleep for two hours before my hotel room phone rang. It was the young finance guy from Apple Ford asking me to bring the Bronco back. It seemed Ford Motor Credit couldn’t complete the deal because it would take 3 days to get a clear title for the pink van (which was also financed by Ford Motor Credit). The deal was a non-deal. I told the finance guy to “Bite me.” I said I had a temporary registration, the keys and the van, and paperwork glitches weren’t my problem. I hung up.
An hour later the phone rang again. It was the same finance guy saying he was going to lose his job if I didn’t return the car. He begged me. I caved. I drove my beautiful, forest green Ford Bronco back to the dealership. With disgust I took back my pimp ride.
I met my kids at the Mall, and just after dinner, I lost my 14 year old. You would not believe what you have to go through to retrieve a lost child from that monster of a complex. Working with Mall of America security, I watched a line of live-video monitors broadcasting various spots in the mall, and responded to officers on the monitors saying – “is this him? … is that him?…” I was thinking, I could say yes to any number of kids, how would they know? How secure is this? Then I thought, who’d say yes to collect the wrong teenager? It’s bad enough to have to say yes to get back the right one.
After about an hour they found him in a music store, not at all worried about his frantic mother.
This wrecked what was left of a barely bearable day. Signs of a nervous breakdown moved closer.
The next morning we left in our pimp van to drive across the Minnesota country side and the flat lands of South Dakota in an un-air-conditioned vehicle bearing up in the August heat. Bored teenagers are a serious problem. Hot bored teenagers stuck in a car for 12 twelve hours – pending disaster. Hot, frustrated mother tasked with driving hot bored teenagers for said 12 hours, occasionally being flagged down by hookers who thought pink van was a rolling brothel – homicide risk. It was hell, but we eventually got to Mount Rushmore. This was a short respite where we were able to collect our sanity.
Seeing Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Monument made us feel like we were back on vacation. We talked with some Lakota Sioux and visited the Rosebud Reservation where I recounted the story of Wounded Knee for them as we took in views of the massacre site and walked through the cemetery. Then we saw the Badlands. Crazy Horse is a wonderful site for teenagers. They can get into the stories of Indian persecution and the hero that rose from the ashes. And Crazy Horse’s figure being chiseled into that mountainside is a powerful site. We wrapped up the South Dakota spur of our trip with a ride through the Bear Country Safari. Another hit with teens. They loved all the “DON’T GET OUT OF YOUR CAR” drama depicted on signs throughout the park.
Next stop – Denver. As long as we took the long parts of the drive at night, I figured the pimpmobile would serve as adequate until I could get it back home and ditch it – or paint it. But disaster struck in Lusk, Wyoming, also known as “The Little Town with Big Possibilities.”
It was 1 am on our South Dakota to Denver nighttime drive. We hit Lusk, Wyoming and the only thing open was a gas station. It was so hot. We stopped for gas. While filling up, I attempted to open the locked door of the passenger side of the van. A car alarm went off. I didn’t know the van had an alarm. I looked everywhere for a way to shut it off. Nothing on the key – no switch on the dash. Lights were going on in houses and buildings all around us – people being woken up from the sound. The attendant tried to help. No one could figure it out how to shut it off. My son Dominic (very shy) was mortified. I thought he would dissolve right there in the lot. Daniel and Lara hid in the van away from the prying eyes of the locals who were shocked at being disturbed at such an hour.
We had no choice but to wake up the town mechanic who lived outside the town limits. After 25 minutes of constant blaring, the mechanic arrived, looked under the hood, cut one wire with some snips, and the alarm stopped. The cost – $75 – cash only. We slithered out of Lusk at 2 am.
On the night drive through Wyoming, I decided to buy a new car in Cheyenne and ditch this van regardless of the cost.
Our fist day in Cheyenne, I looked in the hotel phonebook for car dealers. I was done with Ford. I found a Chevy dealer and called asking for their #1 Salesman. When he got on the I told him my story. He said to come on in and he’d fix me up with a brand new car and take the pimp van in as a trade. I loved that man. I left Cheyenne that morning in a brand new, metallic blue – 2 door – Chevy Blazer. We were off to Denver. And that little car transaction, only cost me $20,000.
We visited Colorado Springs and Rocky Mountain National Park. We ate lunch at a beautiful cafe in the mountains. Everyone was miserable. Both boys said that they hated the new car and that this vacation wasn’t fun. I remember responding, “That’s the problem. You guys think that this is supposed to be fun. But vacations aren’t for fun. They’re for making memories. Really. No one has ‘fun’ on vacation. It’s like a wedding. There’s a whole lot of planning, spending and arguing about how things should be. And in the end, it’s all about the pictures and the memories. So don’t expect this vacation to be fun and you won’t be disappointed. Just figure you’re doing this so you can remember it later.” The man at the next table (who was sitting with two teenage girls and his wife) hollered out, “Bravo!” We all laughed. I wonder how his vacation turned out.
The Rocky Mountains didn’t seem to impress the kids. They were at each other, bickering all the time. The boys were teasing the eleven year old. The Blazer was too small. They were cramped and had to “touch” each other while riding. Originally our plans were to make it all the way to California, but this switch to the smaller vehicle and the tension it created was too much.
I remember saying, “That’s it! We’re going home. Vacation’s over.” We left Denver and made it home in two days with the kids complaining the whole way. When we pulled into our driveway, the sense of relief felt by all four of us was palpable. I considered kissing the ground.
The Vacation of Many Cars a disaster.
Dominic is 32 now and Daniel is 30. Lara is 27. I recently asked them about this vacation. They remembered it as being wonderful. Really!?!
Dominic said he loved Rocky Mountain National Park and giggled when he remembered the embarrassment of Lusk Wyoming. He recalled it perfectly. Daniel remembered Crazy Horse, Rushmore, and prairie dogs. Of course, my little princess Lara remembered the shopping spree at Mall of America where she got some fantastic purple boots. All the memories were wonderful. Go figure.
For me … the Vacation of Many Cars taught me some lessons. How to buy a car and …. how not to buy a car. How to survive (barely) a cross-country road trip with teenagers. More importantly, it taught me that vacations with teens are worth the trauma. It’s an investment that pays off when they’re older. All the memories magically turn good when they like you again.
I’m still crazy about each one of these remarkable people who happen to be my children. I can’t wait until they have family vacations with teenagers and suffer through the same drama. And I’ll be there to assure them that it will all work out for the best.
When they say, “Mom, should I really drag these nasty teenagers along for vacation – a vacation they don’t even want to go on? Nothing we do ever makes them happy. They try our patience at every turn.”
I’ll remind them that making vacation memories is worth it in the end. I’ll encourage them to endure the trauma, because I want my grandchildren to have the same fond memories of travel … but also I get a wicked sense of satisfaction in knowing my children will go through the same hell.
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