The Hills' big adventure

You don't need to know my kids or witness one of their pay-per-view-worthy fights to understand why my wife was nervous when I first suggested we take a 12-day road trip to Colorado.

If you have kids or have seen National Lampoon’s “Vacation” you understand.

“Why don’t we fly?” asked Kristen, quick to point out that “road” and “trip” are four letter words.

“Because getting there is half the fun,” I said, quoting directly from Clark Griswold, the bumbling, luckless dad from “Vacation.”

Intimidating as hitting the road with my 9-year-old son, Alex, and 11-year-old daughter, Kenzie, might be, a road trip is an iconic experience every family should have – one I’d pushed our family to try for years, before Kristen finally relented this summer.

“On a scale of 1 to 10 I thought this was a one,” she said. “I convinced myself it was about a six by the time we left and by the end it was a 10.”

Sure, we could have flown to Denver, where we spent four days visiting friends, and saved plenty of time and probably even some money, but instead, my family learned the joy of going slow.

We visited Mount Rushmore, Devils Tower and five national parks. We toured a cave and a cemetery. I ran into a cougar while hiking in South Dakota and won $100 in a cinnamon-eating contest. We met interesting people at hotels, rest stops and gas stations. All experiences we would have flown right over had we taken a plane.

When it was over we wondered why we hadn’t done this sooner.

So how is it we could put a woman who hates the road and two kids itching to fight in a loaded-down Durango and emerge 4,071 miles later with nothing but smiles?

Easy. We devised eight Rules of the Road and stuck to them – most of the time.


Before we left, I loaded up on advice from Melissa Hager of Tacoma. Last summer, Hager and her husband, Dan, took a nine-day, 3,000-mile trip highlighted by stops at Rushmore and Yellowstone with their 9- and 4-year-old daughters.

They were a little nervous about their trip, but it went so well, the kids were sad when it was over.

Hager motivated her daughters to be good by awarding them toy money every hour. The money could be redeemed for prizes like Silly Putty and pipe cleaners that kept the kids entertained making shapes for hours.

Considering my kids were a bit older, I knew this would not work for us.

So, I bought raffle tickets and upped the ante big time on the prize.

I told Alex and Kenzie they’d get a ticket every 50 miles and a two-ticket bonus at noon and 6 p.m. if they were good. If they collected a combined 220 tickets they’d get to adopt Lucky, a friend’s 6-year-old dog, when we got home.

“Are we there yet?” was an automatic one ticket deduction.

Because there was no way to earn enough tickets without working together, the kids quickly learned tattling was not in their best interest.

Genius, if I do say so myself.

When they finally earned enough tickets for the dog – about 400 miles from home – they actually high-fived each other.

My kids high-fiving? And I’d thought Mount Rushmore was the most amazing thing I’d see on the trip.


Probably the best piece of advice Hager gave me was to “be a kid yourself.”

If you play the kids’ games, sit in the back seat with them and tell stories, there’s not much need for things like video games and DVD players.

In 12 days, the kids watched only four movies and only got about an hour of video game time per day.

Instead, we kept a family journal loaded with silly games. We looked for license plates from every state (we still need Delaware) and we played slug bug (163 Volkswagen Beetles and 20 buses). Alex asked trivia questions. When we found a radio station in Montana that played Christmas music in July, we sang along.

We stopped at every cheesy roadside attraction that caught the kids’ attention. Alex and Kenzie rode the world’s largest jackalope at a gas station in Dubois, Wyo. We watched a re-enactment of Wild Bill Hickok’s death in Deadwood, S.D. And I posed for a picture with a statue of an Old West hooker at South Dakota’s Wall Drug.


You don’t have to be good with maps to know that if you’re in a hurry to get from Tacoma to Denver, you shouldn’t swing through North Dakota. But we weren’t in a hurry, and none of us had ever been, so we took the scenic route.

We were disappointed to find no “Welcome to North Dakota” sign on U.S. 12, so we stopped and made our own so we could take a family picture.

Nebraska also isn’t on the way to Denver, but on Day 6 we still found ourselves driving 20 miles of dirt roads to pose for pictures at Panorama Point, a pastureland that’s the state’s highest point.

It was so hilariously unimpressive that Kristen threatened to revoke my roll as trip navigator. Which brings us to ...


Standing on the roof of Nebraska, mutiny in my family’s eyes, I had to act fast.

At my feet I noticed several large, dried bison patties. So I grabbed one, shouted “Alex, let’s play Frisbee” and let it fly.

Kristen nearly pulled a hamstring scrambling for our industrial size bottle of hand sanitizer.

“Kids, come here now,” she hollered. “And don’t touch your dad.”

Panorama Point might have stunk (literally), but we’ll talk about it forever.

It wasn’t the only stop that yielded inside jokes.

While touring Wind Cave in South Dakota, we were saddled with a gassy ranger. From our position at the front of the line we knew exactly what was happening, but when a dainty old woman got a whiff and proclaimed “Oh, that must be cave smell” the laughter echoed off the cave walls for the rest of the tour.


On a 4,000-mile road trip it would be easy to lean heavily on fast food, but there are at least two good reasons to avoid these places.

1.Cave smell. Two weeks of burgers and fries and you won’t be able stomach the smells coming from the back seat.

2. Local restaurants are way more entertaining.

At Sanford’s in Spearfish, S.D., the kids got meals on plates roughly the size of manhole covers in a restaurant decorated with license plates and sports memorabilia. At BeauJo’s Mountain Pies in Broomfield, Colo., the kids got to draw on their napkins and tape them to the wall.

Of course, eating like this too much can ruin the budget, so we kept an ice chest stocked with lunch meat, peanut butter and jelly and other necessities for many impromptu picnics.


We learned from previous trips that a rigid itinerary only adds stress to our trip.

Instead we made a rough outline and we weren’t afraid to scrap our plans – starting on Day 1.

Instead of rushing the 700 miles to Belgrade, Mont., we took a three-hour break in Spokane to watch friends play in Hoopfest, a three-on-three street basketball tournament. Watching Kenzie’s friend, Taylor Hammel of Puyallup, lead her team to the fifth-grade championship made the stop worthwhile.

We planned to spend the second night in a small town in North Dakota before Kristen met some bikers in Baker, Mont., who told her we were making a mistake. They recommended we camp at Medicine Rocks State Park instead. The park and its wind-carved sandstone features proved to be a highlight of the trip.

And at the end of the trip we were tired and overwhelmed by the prospect of exploring Yellowstone National Park in just 21/2 days. So we cut the trip short, promising to return when we had more time.


No matter how good your kids are and how well you’re getting along with your spouse, you can always use a little break.

For Kristen this meant sleeping in almost every morning. For me it meant waking up at 5:30 a.m. to hike or read.

Not pedicures and massages, but it was enough to keep insanity at bay.


On the final day, I woke up at 4:30 a.m. at our campground in Yellowstone and helped my barely conscious kids and wife to their seats so they could sleep while I broke camp.

The plan was to drive 869 miles and be home by 9 p.m. Within an hour Alex was puking in the back seat.

At times like this, dump the Rules of the Road. The first to go was Rule 3. We ditched a longer scenic route past a cave in Montana in favor of the 85 mph – I mean 75 mph – speed limit on Interstate 90.

Then next rule to go, No. 5: Eat right. In a successful attempt to keep morale high we stopped for a breakfast that consisted of hot fudge sundaes and Rice Krispies treats in Livingston, Mont.

As we rocketed west I couldn’t help but notice that while everybody in the car was ready to go home we were still having fun.

Even Kristen, the trip’s biggest critic.

“I think I could do this again,” she said.

“Grand Canyon next year?” I said.

“I don’t know,” she said. “We’ll see.”

Craig Hill: 253-597-8497 craig.hill@thenewstribune.com blog.thenewstribune.com/adventure

Before you hit the road ...

 • Check the car’s tires, lights, fluids, etc.

 • Pack maps, an extra set of keys, a GPS device, chargers for your cell phone and other electronic devices.

 • Bring change for tolls and the Laundromat. (Packing some laundry detergent will save you money too.)

 • Pack food in drinks in a cooler that is easily accessible.

 • Keep a large container of hand sanitizer handy in the front seat. Toilet paper isn’t a bad idea either. Not all of those back-road restrooms are well stocked.

 • Bring entertainment everybody – including the driver – can enjoy such as audio books, trivia games and your own makeshift games. Things such as Frisbees and footballs make for quick entertainment at rest stops.

 • Pack extra entertainment for the kids. We packed binoculars, journals, puzzles and loaded audio books on their iPods. Pierce County Library offers downloadable audio books on its website.

 • Come up with a reward system for the kids when they show good behavior.

Craig Hill, staff writer