Running on Empty: Family vacations are great … right?


I saw a Family Circus cartoon strip one Sunday morning, one of those two-panel jobs with a before and after shot. The first panel showed the entire family, arms full of toys and blankets and coolers, running for the beach and the gentle waves of the ocean on a beautiful, sunny day. It was full of promise and optimism.

“Let’s go to the beach!” it might have said. “It’s gonna’ be great!”

Everyone smiled.


Then came the second panel, the after shot. Instead of cheerful faces and spring-loaded steps, the family was hunched over, exhausted, and frowning as sweat dripped from their faces. The toys and coolers were dirty and bunched, burdens to drag back to a waiting car. A once welcoming sun now beat down on their heads, pressing them to the pavement of the parking lot, and although you couldn’t see it in the drawing, I’m sure every crevice was stuffed with grains of sand.

The baby cried.

This was not the way they expected to feel at the end of the day.

And then there’s the beginning of the movie Parenthood with Steve Martin. A hot, tired, and short-tempered family trudging across a steaming parking lot in a desperate attempt to find the family car. In their arms they carry every sort of baseball memorabilia one would expect to find at a ball game – foam fingers, pennants on sticks, stuffed bears branded with the team logo. The stadium looms large in the backdrop.

(Busch Stadium, as a matter of fact. The family is full of Cardinal fans. Remember, it was the 80s, when being from the Midwest was cool and admirable.)

I’m sure it seemed like a good idea to take his family to a ballgame when dad bought the tickets. Sit in the warm sun, a gentle breeze tickling their faces, hot dogs and sodas in hand, and the kids waving foam fingers when the home team came to bat.

In other words, I’m sure dad saw it going differently in his head.

Instead of warm, the sun was hot – blistering hot. “Why do they play baseball in July?!” he probably thought. There was no breeze because baseball is played in a bowl surrounded by 150-foot concrete walls. And while the hot dogs and sodas were good, they weren’t $9 good! Especially when two of the children took two bites and then dropped them, bun and all, on the hot, sticky concrete floor. Of course, the hot dogs bounced off their chests on the way down.

Ketchup and mustard streaked the new Cardinal shirts mom bought in the team store for $35 each.

I’m suddenly reminded of the Disney World trip my own family took three years ago. It had its positive memories, and the kids loved it, but it could easily show up in the next Steve Martin movie. From the half-mile walk from our car to the room carrying enough bags for a baby and a six-year old to survive for a week in “the happiest place on earth” (if you’ve never been, Disney World Resort hotels do not have luggage carts) to the soaking, three-mile hike to an outdoor barbecue in a thunderstorm.

That was the night I lost the video camera with all those wonderful memories on the Disney bus – the bus that broke down in a parking lot on the highway on the way to our time-sensitive dinner.

(We got the camera back a few days later, but the damage to our nerves was done.)

Why do family vacations never go the way we see them going in our heads? They’re still worth it. Otherwise, we wouldn’t keep doing it…right?

This spring break, I’m taking my family on a beach vacation down south with another family kind enough to invite us along. Small children, a house on the beach, water and sun and sand for days and days. It’s gonna’ be great.

I mean, what could go wrong?

I can’t wait.