Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Highs and Lows of Holiday Travel

By Blake Friis

Standing outside the Kansas City airport after midnight in the middle of winter, singing Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star to an understandably cranky 8-month-old while waiting for a rental car, the reality of traveling with a baby officially failed to live up to the cautious optimism I carried into the trip.

The process of traveling 850 miles to create timeless family memories begins with a question void of Christmas cheer: which mode of transportation will make me want to kill myself least?

Driving provides the freedom to dictate pace and offers solitude in your misery when the junior member of the operation decides 14 hours confined to a car seat is a crock of shit. Babies will throw massive fits over the course of a drive, but a 15-minute stroll through any Oklahoma Wal-Mart during the holidays provides all the motivation one needs to get back in the saddle and carry on to greener pastures.

The downside of the road is simple – it’s a boring, unforgiving beat down that seems to go on forever. Both ends of a family road trip are like the drive-home from Spring Break. Everyone is tired, irritable, and just wants to reach the destination with as little input as possible from the smelly loudmouth in the backseat – who you just know is going to puke at some point.

That’s why many first-time parents like us choose to shell out a few extra bucks to fly. But the friendly skies are not without their own set of challenges.

Driving is a battle of attrition, but flying has an unmatched ceiling for potential misery. Airport security checkpoints, wildly cramped airplane restrooms, and the continuous ear-popping change in elevation are all indicators that humans were never meant to fly. Challenging the laws of nature with a child in tow is especially egregious.

One year ago, in the Minneapolis airport, we shared a laugh at the expense of a couple struggling through the terminal with a young child and all the baggage – possibly emotional, definitely physical – required to travel anywhere with young children. Approximately 364 days later, we laughed at ourselves, despite not finding the situation particularly funny. We had become the overwhelmed couple in the airport with sore shoulders proportionately short fuses.

Looking over my shoulder from the front of the family/children boarding line, I was relieved to see a dozen other families with small children on our flight. There was comfort in the theoretical blanket of anonymity. Unfortunately, the condition of anonymity is based on each screaming baby having about the same lung capacity.

For most of his first flight my son was a trooper. He charmed the grandfather-to-be sitting next to us and endeared himself to the high school English teacher sitting behind us. With the exception of the man in front of us, whose hair he attempted to grab on more than one occasion and whose seat he took great joy in kicking, everyone in our section observed his happy disposition and returned his smiles.

Then our plane began its descent. That’s when the levy broke.

For the final 15 minutes of our flight, my son managed to translate whatever pain existed in his ears to the ears of all the friends he spent the previous 45 minutes making. While he was far from the only child to dial up a good freak out on the flight, his was by far the most powerful.

Whether it was general understanding or the power of the holiday spirit, the people on our flight could not have been more understanding and supportive as we struggled miserably through the dismount.

There is no perfect way to cover 850 miles with a young child. We have now made the trip twice – once by car and once by plane – and both were difficult, but the overall experiences have been incredibly fulfilling. We have met some great people on our way to reconnect with friends and family that we never would have encountered before parenthood.

When childless couples with one piece of luggage each laugh at us in all their beautiful, well-rested glory, I smile and nod. They’ll appreciate the smile more than they know when an inconsolable little maniac with hurting ears makes them feel like those parents one day.

Turns out we’re all those parents.