In the 10 years since Jonathan and I became parents, we’ve never taken a real family vacation. By vacation, I mean to drive away from our home to another location, see an attraction or two, and sleep there at least one night before driving home. And hopefully, something that in no way resembles National Lampoon’s Vacation.
At the end of last year, we talked about an eventual road trip to either Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, or (ambitiously) both. Knowing how far those destinations are from our home, and knowing our children, I suggested that we start smaller, considering that the kids have trouble getting along for the two-minute car ride from their grandparents’ house. It’s even worse when we visit my mother’s house that’s nearly two hours away. Constant bickering of “he’s looking at me” to “stop singing, Meredith.” I usually turn the radio louder to drown them out until they knock it off. It’s more effective than yelling.
Money was another factor. While we can save for the trip for next summer, this summer we just didn’t have the funds due to other bills (hello braces for our 10-year-old son, Drew). Drew had been bugging us for the last three summers to go to the Crater of Diamonds State Park. At the time, he wanted to be a miner because he loved rocks so much. After we ruined his world by explaining exactly what miners do, we suggested he consider geology instead. (Please note that we’re not against someone becoming a miner should he/she desire, it’s just not for our son based on his skill set.) A family member also spoiled some enthusiasm for the trip when she told him that the park was basically a big field of dirt.
We put a pin in the trip, so to speak and decided to wait a summer. Unforeseen circumstances mixed with some not so good behavior from our son postponed the trip yet another summer. We apologized to him and explained how life happens sometimes. Instead of overnight trips, we visited local parks, the local library, a traveling circus that landed in our community, the local movie theater, and made the short drive to the Little Rock Zoo during those two summers.
With the school break having only about a month left, I started reflecting on what we’d done with the kids over the summer. We’d dealt with all the rehearsals involved for Meredith’s first dance production, the kids had visited our local library, and they’d attended science camp week-long program at a high school near our hometown.
On July 12, at the end of my week-long staycation from work, during which I’d done some thrift-store shopping, reading, writing, and household projects, I started thinking about our promise to our children to do something fun during the summer. I checked the Crater of Diamonds State Park for space (three left), called my in-laws to secure the borrowing of their truck and camper, and then called Jonathan to see if he’d be on board with going early Saturday morning.
Jonathan was easy to convince once I’d told him about all the leg-work I’d already done. I figured if we didn’t just do it, we never would. I knew we had the money to travel because of bonuses we’d just received at work, so it was the perfect time to go. I reserved and paid for our spot, then started a list of the things I would need to purchase for our trip.
Shopping for a mini-vacation was fun. There were only a few things we needed since we’d be staying in the camper. To save money, we brought food for all of our meals. Easy food. Pop-tarts for breakfast, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch, and hot dogs and s’mores for dinner. For drinks, we had water and Gatorade.
The drive to Murfreesboro took us almost four hours due to having to stop for gas twice while hauling the camper. It wasn’t a big deal since we were in no hurry. All we wanted was to get there in time to have lunch, dig for diamonds, and visit the on-site pool before turning in for the night. We arrived before noon on Saturday. After lunch and a bit of rest, we made our way through the woods on the trail to the mine that was conveniently right beside our camp.
Because it was so hot (110 heat index), we took a shade tent and Gatorade with us for our first dig, which only lasted 45 minutes due to the heat. We found lots of pretty rocks, but no diamonds. We went back to the comfort of the air-conditioned campers where Jonathan and our 6-year-old daughter, Meredith, took naps while Drew and I read books on our devices.
At 4 pm, we ventured to the pool with the kids, knowing it closed for private parties beginning at 5 pm. Jonathan and I figured it would be difficult to get the kids out of the pool, so the hour time limit was perfect. The kids had a blast. What I loved most about the pool (besides the three lifeguards on duty) was the deep-end being only three-feet, which both of my non-swimming children are taller than.
We changed into dry clothes after the pool and arrived at the diamond mine again at 5:30. It was soooo much better the second time due to the shade from an awesome tree, cloud cover, and cooler temperatures with a pleasant breeze. We stayed until the field closed at 7 pm. The second trip gained us several more pretty rocks, which I plan to wash and put in a vase, and Drew found two tiny quartz pieces with diamond elements that are only valuable in the eyes of the 10-year-old who found them.
Back at camp, Jonathan roasted our hotdogs over a fire while I took Meredith and Drew to the nearby park area to play on the slides. After we had eaten and made our s’mores, Jonathan and Drew took luke-warm quick showers in the camper while Meredith and I ventured to the adjacent bathhouse to take the quickest showers we’d ever had. It was also the first time I’d explained to Meredith the difference in girls’ bodies and women’s bodies. I’m sure the other women waiting for the shower got a kick out of listening to me explain things to my daughter, who had never seen me naked before.
By the time all that was over, Jonathan, Drew, and I were ready for bed. We crawled into the tiny sleeping space after we’d set up the kids’ beds. Meredith insisted that she wasn’t tired—a regular occurrence for her—so I told her she could play on her tablet for as long as she wanted. Within an hour, she was conked out.
The next morning, we woke up without an alarm, which was nice. After our Pop-tart breakfast, we secured anything that might fall and started our journey home. It was great not having to worry about packing up since everything could just stay in the camper. We were on the road by 8:30 am after a last minute stop at the gift shop when it opened. We figured we should get something special for my mom and Jonathan’s parents, who had taken care of our dogs for their evening and morning feedings.
We ignored the GPS on the way back after I’d realized on the way there that we could have stayed on the interstate much longer than we had before. Once we got closer to Arkadelphia, we got on the interstate and headed to my mom’s house, where she’d agreed to feed us lunch and let us rest on our way through town.
While there, I got into my childhood bedroom and removed a few items I wanted. Since Jonathan and I don’t have a truck, we used the opportunity to get a bench/storage chest out of my old bedroom and bring it home with us. It fit perfectly in the camper without having to worry about tying it down. I was also able to collect a few books and other things I had left behind years ago (I’m sure my mom is pleased to have the stuff out of her way).
After a few hours of visiting and lunch, we headed home—now much closer as we approached the tail-end of our vacation. The ride back was quiet, as Meredith fell at the halfway point, after a competitive round of the ABC game I remembered playing as a child. Everyone locates the alphabet in order on the road signs, billboards, semis, and license plates (last resort). The kids had a blast with it.
Once arriving in Dardanelle, we made a stop at a gas station again and then went to our house where we quickly unloaded the camper. The top priority was getting the cold stuff out of the ice chest and into the fridge. Everything else landed in our entryway hallway and kitchen until we could deal with it throughout the week except the wet towels and bathing suits, which I washed right away.
We cleaned the camper and returned it and truck to my in-laws’ house and then rested for the evening to recover from our vacation.
I consider the whole thing successful for the following reasons:
- None of us killed each other.
- We didn’t kill the kids.
- My anxiety level was low (for the most part).
- Jonathan and I had no stomach problems.
- I only forgot three things—peanut butter, ketchup, and mayonnaise—all of which were available at a Dollar General in town.
- Drew (kinda) found a diamond.
- Meredith had a blast in the pool and collecting her pink rocks.
- We didn’t spend a fortune.
- Jonathan and I made memories with our kids.
- We’re already thinking about what we want to do next time.
-Brandi Easterling Collins