4 weeks on the road

Written by contributor Rachel Wolf of Clean and Lusa Organics

My son once mistook Lake Michigan for the ocean. So we sat down with a map and found the Great Lakes. And then we found the Atlantic.

Lake Michigan is big, but the ocean is immense. He wanted to see it for himself. So did his sister.

And so did I for that matter. After traveling the world in my teens and 20’s, I hadn’t left the Midwest for nearly a decade.

It was time for a little sand between our toes.

At four and eight years old, my children were ready for a road trip. Why not take a month off and head to the beach?

And so we did.

Two kids, one grown-up, four weeks, and 3000 miles. My husband would stay behind to run our business and I would take our homeschoolers on the road. Alone.

We were excited, but I was also nervous. Could I swing it – even on the hard days – without the support of my husband and the comforts of home?

There was only one way to know. In early October we headed south, anticipating sand and sea within a week.

While there is no formula for the perfect road trip, this is how we pulled it off.

Packing Clothes

Road tripping in a VW Beetle (even with a roof-top box) means packing light. Very light.

We went from the Midwest to the coast with just five outfits each. Yup. Five. (Including the clothes we wore as we drove away.)

This terrified me at first. Four weeks and three t-shirts? How exactly?

But having such few choices was liberating. For all of us. Even my four-year old who prefers to changes clothes every eighteen minutes.

We added mittens, a warm hat, and sweater for the mountains; and sandals, a swimsuit, and sunhat for the beach. Extra socks and underwear. And not much more.

We also brought soap for hand washing clothes. Everything fit into one small backpack per person.

Travel time

How far should we drive each day? I used my children’s travel experience as a baseline.

I knew that my little one could gracefully handle a four-hour day in the car. So I planned our driving days to be short. This gave us time to explore – rather than hurry – our way across the country.

With four weeks before us we chose to enjoy the journey. I guess that’s a metaphor for how we try to live. Process over product. Journey over destination.

Sure, there were a couple of gnarly eight-hour days. But mostly we kept it short and kept it fun.

Car play

Each child packed a small bag of car activities and a lap tray. I also brought a box of surprises to ease the long days on the road.

When my comrades began to unravel I doled out magazines, books, and magnetic games from the front seat.

Our favorite car toys include sketchbooks and colored pencils, Wikki Sticks, and puzzle books. I also brought an MP3 player with audio stories, bird song identification, and music.

Roadside exploration

Every driving day we scheduled several stops. Picnics, museums, parks, and public libraries were favorites.

And every day we stopped to letterbox.

Letterboxing is a treasure hunt. It is one of our favorite family pastimes. Using clues and a compass you search for a hidden box in a public place. (Learn more about it here). Letterboxing got us out of the car and moving after hours of travel.

Snacks and meals

Homemade jerky, crackers and cheese, and fresh fruit was our daily road fare. We packed a cooler with perishables for the first week and brought enough non-perishables for the month. I also dehydrated meals for camping (chili, lentil soup, spaghetti sauce).

Because of our special dietary needs, I mapped out natural food stores along our route for restocking during vacation.

Where to stay

For the sake of our budget our trip was nearly hotel-free. Most nights we stayed with friends – and yes, strangers – along our route.

To find places to stay we used Couch Surfing International. This free service connects travelers with hosts around the world.

Couch Surfing isn’t for everyone. But our experience (with a like-minded homeschooling family) was wonderful.

Home again

Our month on the road transformed how we view America and one another.

We relied on each other. We gave ourselves up to the adventure. We enjoyed the journey as much as the destination.

And my children saw the ocean. Lake Michigan is now just a big lake. As it should be.

But a bit of their hearts stayed at the shore.

They’re both ready to take to the road again. We all are. I’m not sure where the next journey will take us, but the road is calling us back.

The next adventure is waiting.

And we already know what to pack.

Where has homeschooling taken your family? Have you traveled alone with your children? I’d love to hear your tips and experience.

About Rachel Wolf

Rachel Wolf woke up recently and realized that she's living the life she has always wanted. Her days are spent with and two spunky unschoolers, running LuSa Organics (her small business), and hanging the laundry out on the line. Rachel writes about her homeschooling, homemaking, and non-violent parenting path on her blog Clean.


  1. Meranda H says:

    Wow, this sounds like a dream! I will most surely put this on our “to do” list for next year.

  2. It’s been ages since I have been there. I miss the lake and the sands.
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  3. Loved your article! Reminds me of my childhood, when we would take a month long vacation. Great ideas!

  4. What an amazing journey! I would love to venture out in such a way! Thanks for the inspiration.
    Elizabeth’s latest post: Yarn Along

  5. “Process over product. Journey over destination.” Yes I have always felt that way. It’s just as much fun traveling there if you can stop and explore on the way to the destination. I think my parents were Nomads, we were always on the road, and because of that when I got married my husband joined us. And when we had children it was just natural for them to travel. We live in Michigan and we go to the ocean every year. We have been doing it for over 25 years.

    If my husband can’t travel with us I pack up the kids and off we go. I got that from my mom. If my dad had to stay home and work she would pack up my little sister and I and we would be on the road. I loved it then and I love it now. Every trip is a new adventure.

  6. Growing up in Michigan, I too thought Lake Michigan was an ocean. 🙂
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  7. This is one of the things I wanted to do when I decided to homeschool, but, I’ll admit, I am scared! I think it is amazing that you did this! This has definitely fanned that adventure spark that I had turned down to low. Thank you for the great post.
    Jennifer Castro’s latest post: Sometimes, You’re the Bug.

  8. I really, REALLY needed to read this today. I’ve been thinking about doing the same thing with my six-year-old, and that was just inspiring! Thank you!!
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  9. That sounds like an amazing trip! Kudos to you for braving it.
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  10. What a dream vacation. Would love to just get away and start driving with no real destination in mind. Stop when want, etc.

  11. We’re going on a three week road trip soon. We live near Chicago. We’re going to drive through Toranto and stay in Montreal for a few days, than stay in a cabin near Acadia National Park in Maine for a week. For the end of the trip, we’ll drive to Boston and New York City and stay in each place for three days. Then we’ll be heading home.
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  12. wow that sounds like a magical road trip. I havent tried couch surfing before but I like the idea of it, and would love to give it a go:)
    Your idea of travelling slowly (for your children to cope) sounds like the best way to travel.
    I love the idea of hitting the road and exploring new places. We are going to look at doing camping trips on weekends – cant wait!
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  13. We just returned from the beach and now I want to go back – for a month! Great post Rachel.
    Sheila’s latest post: http://sureastheworld.com/2012/05/21/us-geography-block/
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  14. This is great! We are getting ready to move from Florida to Seattle Wa and the only way to get our dog there is to drive(it is too hot in the summer for them to fly) This is inspiring as I will have 3 kids and one dog. WIth one of those kids being 3 we will be driving only a few hours at a time.

  15. We did something similar a few years ago when we loaded the old Volvo to the gunwales and meandered our way back to Cape Cod to show the kids (and their papa) where I was hatched. Some of the days were long (especially in the homestretch) but we camped in some lovely places, did a lot of couch-surfing with friends and family and boy did we have fun!

    It’s harder to imagine doing it now because we have animals and land to tend, but I know papa is getting the traveling itch again so maybe some Wikki Stix (cool!) and audiobooks are in our future?

  16. My husband is a consultant for an IT company. That means he leaves home either late Sunday or very early Monday and comes home late Friday or very early Saturday. This leaves me feeling like a single Mom who does extra laundry on weekends. Last September, he found out that his next job was going to be in Corpus Christi, Tx. His boss then did a revolutionary thing…. Suggested we all go. I found an off season vacation rental, and we all went. One box of home school curriculum, 2 dogs and some basic supplies. 8 weeks of beach living. This year we have spent 3 and 1/2 weeks in St Louis, Mo and 8 weeks in East Bay area, Ca (East of San Francisco). Vacation rentals were not an option for these, but with a long job, a residential hotel is just slightly more expensive than a normal one, and we then save the company the back and forth travel costs. Everyone is happier because we get to be together. We have toured great museums and seen incredible vistas. Weekends are now spent acting like tourists with Dad, rather than being quiet because Dad fell asleep on the couch after travelling for 8 hours to get home. We take an extra day or two for the journey home (we drive) to see some extra things along the way.School still gets done, but learning has exploded!

  17. That sounds awesome! We just went on a short 6 hour road trip, four days, with our 6 month old and 3 y.o. Never doing that again! I can’t wait until they are older. 🙂
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  18. I really enjoyed your post. We are leaving in four days for our 4 Week Road trip. We will be seeing Lake Michigan and the Atlantic Ocean too! We are going on an “American History Tour” to see some Presidential Homes, historic sites, Presidential Libraries and Museums. We’ll be seeing friends along the way too. Also, without the husband!! So glad you all had a great time!
    Mary’s latest post: Top 10 Must Haves for Homeschooling

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