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Nowhere near there yet: James Lohan

From playlist pitfalls to the insanity of ‘I Spy’, James Lohan explains the rules of the road trip

Nowhere near there yet: James Lohan
James Lohan. Illustration: Jacqui Oakley

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Ah, the open road. Everything spread before you, full of promise. You can be as spontaneous as you like; put the pedal to the metal and let the adrenaline flow, or veer off route into undiscovered towns or picturesque villages for lunch and a wander. Spot a sign for a pencil museum or the World’s Largest Fork? Go check it out! The road trip is one of the best, most liberating ways to travel. Unless you have kids of course, in which case, within seconds of setting off, without fail, it comes, rising from somewhere on the backseat like a kraken from the deep, “Are we there yet?”

No, we aren’t there yet. We won’t be there for many hours. And, if you persist in asking every five minutes, we may never be there, as I’ll have swerved the car into the nearest canyon in a fit of frustration. First recourse: I bite my lip. “No, darling. We’ll be another three hours, at least. You should try to get some sleep.” But, of course, no child is ever sleepy; sleepiness being one of the things that must never be admitted to, along with needing the loo and liking broccoli.

And yet, there’s a phrase that’s even more terrifying: “Can we play I Spy?” Your answer is irrelevant; the game is afoot regardless. Language itself means nothing anymore. It might be down to a moving vehicle being the worst place in the world to play. Once you’ve covered C = car/cloud/caravan, R = road/rock, S = sky/seatbelt, there’s nowhere to go. E = encroaching existential dread isn’t a legitimate move. 

In desperation, we usually turn to music — that lovingly crafted road-trip playlist compiled in the naive assumption we’d get to enjoy it. By the end of the first bar, our 10-year-old has usually announced, “I don’t like this one.” He wants rock music. I like house music. The seven-year-old then promptly betrays the rounded musical education I’ve attempted to give her by demanding some loathsome ‘comedy record’ such as ‘What Does the Fox Say?’ I’d rather get back to I Spy.

Then, entering the charts of ‘things you least want to hear in the car’ at number three, comes the phrase: “I need a poo.” Nine times out of 10, this is a boredom-induced bluff, but with two hours and 55 minutes still to go, can you afford to take the chance?

This entire scenario played out in my head when my wife suggested we spend our family holiday driving from Denver to Las Vegas, stopping at several hotels en route. The proposition was clearly insane. So, we took the trip, but this time, we came prepared. We distilled all our previous disasters into five essential guidelines, and followed them religiously. As a result, our journey wasn’t a voyage into the bowels of hell. I very nearly enjoyed it.

Lohan’s road trip laws

Get the biggest 4×4 you can afford 
Space is absolutely critical to stopping a backseat brawl from breaking out.

Don’t be ambitious about mileage 
Anything over three hours just gets ugly. 

Make playlists with the kids before you go 
Try family-friendly tracks from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s; and each song can only be played twice. 

Plan meals off the main road
Avoid fast-food stops. Pack unusual lunches or bring a disposable barbecue to make road-trip food a special occasion.

Find fun en route 
Road trips are as much about the journey as the destination. Travel via awe-inspiring viewpoints, water parks or quirky museums (or maybe the World’s Largest Fork).

James Lohan is the founding ‘Mr’ of boutique hotels website Mr & Mrs Smith, and Smith and Family.

Published in the 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller – Family