Road Trip Therapy


“My therapist and I even have a joke about it: shit is truly fucked up when I start threatening to take a road trip.”  ― Chris Gethard

There’s a Monster Zero Ultra in one cup holder and a 32 oz coffee in the other. An empty, crumpled coconut Donettes package is balled up on the floor between the seats. The girls are asleep – one stretched out in the back of our rented Ford Focus, and the other is curled like a Pillbug next to me.

I’m beginning my twelfth hour of driving on our road trip through Colorado. We began in Denver and made quick stops in Steamboat Springs to see a friend and meet her young son, and then Glenwood Springs to swim in the world’s largest natural, hot springs pool. I have a little over an hour before reaching Telluride, our final destination. The Ford Focus strains to make its way up the mountain road at fifty miles an hour.

I’m in heaven

My first real, non-parent organized road trip was with my cousin, Susan, and Kirsten, the Finnish exchange student who lived with her that year. We drove from Ithaca, New York, to Washington, DC, during spring break. I was sixteen but didn’t have my license yet.  I lied to my cousin, who was not thrilled about driving, about my limited experience behind the wheel.  Susan let me drive for most of the way each leg while she and Kirsten slept.

I learned to drive on that trip.

It was the combination of getting away with something that I shouldn’t be doing, along with the self-mastery of a daring new skill that imprinted on me a life-long need to keep moving and the unwavering belief in the curative powers of a road trip.

I have never had a strong attachment to any one place and seldom return to a location I’ve already visited. The world is too big and interesting to waste travel time and money on repetition.  A road trip is the ultimate, liberating vertical leap out of routine.

Up until the time I married Matthew, almost twenty-five years ago, I was a chronic geographic Houdini. When we meet, I was months away from a move to Alaska.  Back in those days, a spontaneous change of scenery could fix just about anything.

Slip away, no goodbyes, and off to a new life.

It’s been close to three decades since I’ve disappeared to somewhere new, but that doesn’t mean the urge has left. It’s just under the surface. To this day, I think about escape plans like other people play word jumbles or crossword puzzles. I have a brain full of blueprints of lives imagined.

It’s just a habit, a mental exercise.

My husband does not share my restlessness and his hardwiring has him happy to stay put with our kids, animals and the internet. Although he respects my wanderlust, he prefers that when I travel, I take at least one of our kids as an insurance policy that I’ll return home – sort of like an alcoholic might take their sponsor to a cocktail party.

Matthew and I did not create easy children and much of our parenting time is spent refereeing or just yelling – it’s a fine line. Our four kids don’t travel well together and we have long-ago determined that the family vacation is over-rated.

I know there are plenty of families that vacation well together. But for us the combination of strong personalities, age and gender differences, varying sleep patterns, eating requirements, and interests, along with Matthew’s need to be connected to work is just too much for one little old family vacation to carry.

Instead, we divide and conquer and lately the tactic translates into a road trip for one or two of the kids at a time.  I’m my best parenting self on road trips.  I remember what it’s like to enjoy being around my teenagers and they remember that I’m not just an old, embarrassing drill sergeant.

Every family has their reset button – game night, meals, sports – and for us, it’s the road trip. It may not be cheaper than therapy but it has a far longer therapeutic half-life.


I took the photo as I began the drive into the mountains to Telluride.