Would you want to drive for 16 hours straight with two adults and two kids in a minivan? Last year, my answer to that question would have been an emphatic No; but of course, this is 2020, when surreal things never stop happening. So three weeks ago, we did exactly that. At issue here is that we live in Virginia, but planned a weeklong visit with family in Missouri, nearly 1,000 miles away. We make this trip often, usually taking two days, and spending a night at a campground or motel. However, due to all of this year’s weirdness, we wanted to complete the actual travel part of the trip as quickly possible, and with as little contact with other people as possible. That meant doing the whole trip at one time, with only a handful of brief stops… think of it as re-creating the Cannonball Run, but with members of your own household.
While not the most relaxing way to traverse nearly half a continent, it was effective… and it may be the sort of trip that others may need or want to take as well, so I figured it would be helpful to explain how we did it.
The most important aspect to tackling such a trip is to have a suitable vehicle, and for that, our 2018 Kia Sedona (writeup here) is up to the job. It’s roomy and flexible, and the seats are supportive enough that we remained comfortable and alert even after a half-day of traveling. Our kids are 11 and 13 years old – old enough to have opinions about whether or not cars are comfortable, and so far they’ve had no complaints about traveling long distances in the Sedona.
When planning a trip like this, it’s vitally important to leave early, particularly in November when daylight is at a premium. Accordingly, we timed our long drive so that we’d have roughly equal amounts of dark driving hours in the morning and in the evening – and that meant leaving home at around 5:00 a.m. Not the easiest thing in the world to do, but important enough that we packed most of our belongings the night before and dragged ourselves from bed in seemingly the middle of the night. We were a little late – 5:20 – but close enough.
Our family has driven this particular route countless times, and I could probably drive it with my eyes closed – which was tempting, given our brief night’s sleep. For those unfamiliar with North American geography, this is about the same distance as from Paris to Budapest, but with much different scenery. It’s about 940 miles total, and we stopped the car only five times… twice for gas (shown above) and three times for restroom breaks. When all was said and done, we’d averaged 59 mph, including stops. Not too bad.
We made it well into the Maryland Appalachians by sunrise, a fact that shed light on a benefit of leaving in the pre-dawn hours… we completely missed the Washington, DC area’s typical traffic hassles. In fact, the scene above shows the light traffic volumes to which we were treated for the first several hours of our trip. Maybe this one-day trip idea isn’t such a bad idea!
Overall, our 2,000-mile round trip was undramatic, but we did see a tractor trailer use one of Interstate 68’s runaway truck ramps, which isn’t something one sees every day. The truck stopped safely, though the driver seemed a bit displeased.
Fortunately for us, our kids are terrific travelers, having made long-distance driving trips ever since they were babies. This helps a lot. I can tell you that those early trips with babies and toddlers weren’t exactly easy, but the payoff was that our kids became extremely comfortable being in a car for hours on end. They keep themselves busy by drawing, reading, playing fighting with each other, and looking out the window… and fill up the back seat area with their mounds of stuff. I have no idea how they can sit amidst all this clutter for so many hours, but they insist that they’re comfortable back there.
Another ingredient to keeping the kids (and adults) happy is music. We use a USB device that contains several dozen albums – and all four of us rotate turns selecting the music. Yes, I realize this is not the most high-tech music option out there, but it works for us, and the kids have learned to take turns too, which isn’t a bad thing.
My wife, who’s a classical musician, recommends “anything with a beat” for long, monotonous trips. Slow songs will put even music-lovers to sleep, so we listened to upbeat music for 16 hours. The slow stuff can wait til after we get home.
One might assume that we took the most direct route possible for this journey, but that’s not quite the case. Instead of following Interstate 70 through western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio, we followed the lesser-traveled US-50 and US-33 through Parkersburg, West Virginia and Athens, Ohio. This route rejoins I-70 in Columbus, and though it adds about 20-30 minutes in travel time, it avoids a section of Interstate that is chronically busy, and full of aggressive drivers. The mountain scenery of this southern route is pleasing, and there’s virtually no traffic to speak of. Definitely worth an extra few minutes.
As much as we’d love to continue to our destination on calm, scenic roads, we need to bow to reality at some point, so we joined I-70 again and drove due west. Not the most pleasant part of the trip, but at least we’re heading in the right direction. Every mile we get away from the crowded East Coast becomes just that much more calming. By this point in our trip it was mid-day, and we’d been on the road for about seven hours… still less than halfway there!
Napoleon is said to have remarked that “an army marches on its stomach.” Well, a family travels on its stomach, too. And since we were intent on not stopping at restaurants, the bring-along food became vitally important. Our consumables for this trip can be separated into three categories:
Drinks: To cut down on restroom breaks, we obviously didn’t want to guzzle liquid, but people do need to stay hydrated – and awake. Therefore coffee (in an insulated, non-spill thermos) became our most important provision. We also had water bottles for each of us – and grapes. Grapes are a wonderful road food, and can fill up your stomach and simultaneously quench thirst; I highly recommend them.
Snacks: An assortment of cookies, and fruit such as clementines, kept the kids satisfied. And the adults, too. We placed a cooler just behind the front seats for all food that needed to remain cold.
Food: Food that’s easy to store, prepare and eat while in motion gets the nod for these types of trips. By far, the most efficient single food is hardboiled eggs (I call them Energy Orbs for the amount of oomph they pack in a single helping). We also traveled with the fixings for simple sandwiches – lunchmeats, bacon, cheese, etc. Believe it or not, we ate well on this trip, though it did require a good amount of advance planning.
All in all, this assortment of food kept us satisfied, alert, and ready for more miles… which is what we needed.
In the early afternoon, we made it to Indiana, with our journey taking us along the Indianapolis Beltway, our only encounter with big-city traffic. Luckily, even here, traffic wasn’t much more than a nuisance on this day.
Once past Indianapolis, this journey typically becomes much more relaxing – the traffic peels away with each passing mile and the terrain gradually opens up into prairie farmland. One thing that was noticeable in this trip was the distinct paucity of out-of-state license plates. Ordinarily these highways are full of cars from all over North America, but economic and social restrictions have taken their toll this year… it was unusual to see cars from more than one state away.
The upside of this year’s lack of mobility was that places like rest areas were all but deserted. Of course, it’s easy to maintain social distance at a public restroom. Still, we kept such stops to a minimum – just three on this trip… using the facilities, taking a few quick stretches, and then back on the road. Incidentally, our kids didn’t even get out of the car until this rest stop in Indiana.
Daylight ran out on us in Illinois – which, after staring directly at a setting sun for about 90 minutes beforehand – was somewhat of a relief.
For the last two hours or so, we drove in the dark. Given the low traffic volumes and clear weather, the night-driving portion of the trip wasn’t too bad. Incidentally, when we bought our Sedona, I was a bit worried that the red dashboard lighting would become irritating on long trips, but we’ve had no complaints about it. That the speedometer and tachometer displays are white helps to avoid the 1980s Pontiac video-game look.
We arrived at our destination in northeast Missouri at around 8:30 p.m. – tired but still reasonably alert considering the miles we had covered. Accomplishing such a trip in a one-day marathon drive has advantages and disadvantages. On one hand, driving for 16 straight hours is draining, but then again, we got more time to spend with family than would otherwise have been the case… and of course we didn’t need to hassle with hotels and restaurants, which was a definite bonus this year.
Our visit with family lasted slightly over a week, after which time…
…we made the same trip again in reverse. In the above picture, we were treated to the sunrise over Interstate 72, rather than the sunset of the prior week. Thankfully, we had clear weather for both travel days – I wouldn’t be eager to undertake such a long (and dark) journey in the rain, and in fact would probably postpone our travel in order to avoid rain.
But assuming good weather, a good vehicle, and willing passengers, this isn’t a bad way to travel long distances. In fact, I have a feeling that we’ll travel this way more often in the future. While it may seem daunting at first, this type of long-distance drive isn’t nearly as overwhelming as it may seem. And it can actually be fun.