The Vacation of Many Cars with Teens from Hell.

Single mother takes two teenagers and an eleven year old on a cross-country vacation. During the vacation she loses one car and buys three more. 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, Ed Debevick's (Chicago), Colorado Springs and Rocky Mountain National Park. No one would believe the real story.  But it's true. I was the mother and there are three people who can confirm the details. Dominic, Daniel and Lara.

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.

So we piled in 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.

Keep in mind I'm traveling with teenagers. They have two main interests - constant personal fun and avoiding parents. They considered my ideas boring, my enthusiasm for the sites and venues silly.  They questioned why I couldn't buy them more stuff. I embarrassed them. To 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 the 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 car. I planned to spend a full day in Chicago - Navy Pier, shopping on Michigan Avenue, Michael Jordans, Ed Debevick's - and then leave 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 went to retrieve our van, it was gone. Stolen. The attendant said, "Ma'am, I looked all over that lot for your car, 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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. 
  3. Buy another car - Seemed like the only alternative.  Chicago PD almost guaranteed me that a stolen conversion van would never be found - not in one place anyway.  

I bought a pre-owned conversion van from a Ford dealer, Chicago.  It 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.

Awful Ford Van Purchased at Chicago Dealership

    I soon realized the air conditioning didn't work.  There were also all kinds of wires running under the dash - obviously, some homemade electronics.  The television stopped working shortly after we left Chicago.  The blinds torn off 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 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?  Mental breakdown approaching.

    But ... I managed to pull myself together.  I sent my teenagers to the Mall 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.  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 that I had secretly named "Hunter" back to the dealership.  With disgust I took back my pimp ride.

    I went to pick up the kids at the Mall.  After we ate 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 to drive across the Minnesota country side and the flat lands of South Dakota in an un-air-conditioned vehicle.  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.

    Lara in the Badlands

    Seeing Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Monument made us feel like we were back on vacation.  We talked with Lakota Sioux Indians and visited the Rosebud Reservation where I recounted the story of Wounded Knee for them as we took in a panoramic view of the massacre site and cemetery.  Then we saw the Badlands.  This was a good few days.  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.

    Daniel - feeding prairie dog in South Dakota

    Next stop - Denver.  As long as we took the long parts of the drive at night, I figured the floozy mobile would serve 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 in downtown Lusk.  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.  We couldn't shut it off. 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.  I paid him $75.  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 visited local Chevy dealer.  I told my story to the top salesman there and said,  "Can you take this van as a trade in, and finance a new vehicle I can drive away with today?"  He said, "We'll make it happen."  We surrendered the sleazy pink van and left 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.

    Dominic at Rocky Mountain National Park

    We visited Colorado Springs and Rocky Mountain National Park.  The mountains didn't seem to impress the kids.  Mountains were boring.  They were at each other all the time, fighting.  The boys were teasing the eleven year old.  The Blazer was too small.  They were cramped.  Oh, the injustice of it all!  They had to "touch" each other while riding.

    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 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 Colorado Springs 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 begin their own family vacations and suffer through the same drama with their kids.  And I'll be there to assure them that it will all work out for the best.

    When they, "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.


    1. Oh, I love this article, Mindie! It is all so true about traveling with teenagers. How I remember hating "touching" in the car at that age! My Mom refused to go on vacations further than Rehoboth Beach once we were teenagers. You were brave to attempt such a daring adventure. This story has it all--excitement, drama, crime, cars, travel, and a plucky herione.

    2. oops..has my old name. Karen Tintle-Cook wrote that last comment. :)

    3. Now that is a great road trip story. Thanks.

    4. Anonymous1:22 AM

      mindie- was reading this at one a.m. with a big grin, i esp liked the pimpmobile, lol. even without photos you painted a great visual, the photos were just icing on the cake. now i just all those other blessed stories i have read of other family vacations could be this honest, and this funny, lol. this is what a real family looks like, sounds like and acts like. well, mine does along with yours anyway. kelly richardson

    5. Karen - I know who you are - and all your names. :) I'm amazed that your mother was ever ruffled by her children, even when they were teenagers. She seemed so controlled and your family so perfect - and I mean that sincerely. To think Mrs. Tintle had limits on what she could take from teenagers ... well it just gives me more confidence in my own competencies.

      Corey, thanks for the compliment. Coming from a great travel writer like you, it means a lot.

      Kelly, you're sweet. And I, too love reading about real families with real dysfunctions. I remember getting a Christmas letter from a family who went to Mount Rushmore and they included a photo of the kids with Rushmore in the background. Caption was "Here's Mount Rushmore where we had a picnic and Bobby fell down the hill and scraped his knee." (I hope these folks don't read this blog).

      I'd prefer for the parent to have written what really happened at Rushmore - like I could imagine another story where the parent lined up bored teenagers in the Mount Rushmore parking lot and forced them to listen to …. "Here's Mount Rushmore. Let me tell you about the marginalization and near annihilation of the indigenous peoples of this region by white Americans who wanted to occupy their homeland." (insert teenage eye-roll here, then huffing, puffing and sighing, followed by body shifting back and forth - almost contorting while being forced to listen).

      The parent continues. He is a great public speaker, who likes the attention, so he's drawing a small crowd in the parking lot. This embarrasses teenagers who accelerate eye-rolling, shifting and sighing. This forces parent to deliver "the look." No one wants to see the look. It's always followed by a negative consequence. Teenagers temporarily stop eye-rolling and shifting, but hate being held hostage by the one-thousandth boring story of this road trip and the parent knows this… but continues.

      Parent finishes the story with "… and the icing on the cake was to have four heads of your persecutors' heroes carved onto a mountainside so you and your future generations would have to see them at every turn. .. and live your lives out under Roosevelt's nose."

      Gathered crowd gives polite applause. Teenagers say, "Can we go now?"

      That's travel reality.

    6. Mindie,

      I loved this travel story and your bravery at taking the kids on this holiday. The car stories are hilarious at the same time that they're horrifying -- to have the devastation of car problems, but being determined, not to let those car problems stop you for a single moment. Wow! Those experiences do make memories, and I could see this travel story as a scene in a movie!


    7. I've been thinking about this post of yours each day since I read it and realized I hadn't told you how wonderful I thought it was. Still don't know that I can quantify it, but it was one of the best things I've read. Ever.

      As one who was permanently bonded to her cousins through the shared horrors of family vacations with our parents and who then deliberately inflicted the same traumas on her own children (who also survived) I can only say "Bravo!" You nailed it. Equally impressive, and beyond the comic aspects, I was moved by your dogged efforts to keep going.

      This was inspiring. I wonder if I should plan a grandparent/child trip...

    8. Anonymous9:52 AM

      Loved, loved, loved your story, Mindie. I have also written a story of an epic road trip I took with my sister and all our combined children. We had a van that was constantly having problems but we managed to limp it home. My sister passed away a couple of years ago and the rest of us will always remember this trip as something great we did with her. You can have a read if you like, here:

      I've bookmarked your blog and will continue to check in on it! :)

    9. Anonymous2:29 AM

      Hi Mindie, came across ur site looking for info on the Willow plates...then found this story. Very enjoyable! My girls, their Dad & I lived on a boat for 9 years in Southern California. What an adventure. They were 10 & 13 when we moved aboard the 41ft sailboat, Moonshadow. My husband Bob has since passed (2001) and the girls are in their 40's. But I have never regretted those "sea" days. Btw: do you really believe in ghosts? Thanks again for a great story, Ur New Fan, Joan

    10. Hey Joan. thanks for the nice words. Yes I do believe in ghosts. Your time on the sailboat sounds magical. You probably have much you could write about. Thanks for checking in.


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