A 5-year-old and video camera in tow, Chicago couple hit Route 66 for cross-country trip

The next time you’re en route to the grocery store and your kids are squabbling about which DVD to watch and playing whack-a-mole on the back of your seat, just think: You could be on a 2,100-mile road trip in the middle of the desert.

One Chicago family found itself in exactly that position last week, traveling from Los Angeles to Chicago along Route 66, one of America’s oldest and most iconic highways.

Ryan Salzwedel and Pascale Piron hit the road Aug. 18 with their 5-year-old son, Leo, as part of Sears’ Exploring My America Challenge. The family was one of 21 teams selected to travel one of nine famous American highways and send back blog posts and videos from the road. The Uptown couple’s assignment was the first half of Route 66, from Los Angeles to Amarillo, Texas, which they completed in five days last week before driving back to Chicago.

“We had been trying to go on vacation in August anyway and here was Sears, offering to pay for it,” Salzwedel says. “Plus, we’ve spent a lot on appliances there” — the couple recently bought a new washer, dryer and grill — “so this seemed like a good way to get some of that back.”

Ryan, Pascale and Leo aren’t rookie travelers: Pascale is from Belgium, and the family has taken overseas trips to visit her family there. But jet lag is one thing, and four days in a car is entirely another, even for Leo, who, as an only child, Salzwedel says has always been treated like “one of the team.”

“He did pretty well,” Salzwedel says. “A little fussy here and there, but I think he really got a kick out of the whole thing.”

His favorite? The Grand Canyon — and Mom and Dad’s, too.

“He was like, ‘I wanna go out on that ledge’ and point to some tiny rock over this huge canyon that no one in their right mind would ever set foot on,” Salzwedel says. “He has no fear.”

(Watch Team Windy City 66ers’video from the Grand Canyon and other stops along the way at theExploring My America website.)

And because there’s nothing like the idea of a long road trip to make any parent start sweating bullets, we asked Salzwedel to share some pointers from their experience, sort of a “How to travel 2,000 miles with a 5-year-old and not lose your mind” kind of thing. Here are a few lessons from the road:

  • Prepare. Keep your kids in the loop on your vacation plans. Let them know beforehand what the trip entails. Let them know not only your expectations for the trip, but also your expectations for them. Successful vacations take a lot of teamwork, so it’s a must that they understand their role on the team.

  • Read Up. At Leo’s Montessori school, he learned that asking questions is how you learn. True, but it’s also how you give Mom and Dad throbbing frontal lobe headaches. So read up and know a little bit about the places you are visiting. Be patient with your child, and understand that even if you give an explanation of the Grand Canyon that any geologist would be proud of, it is inevitably going to be followed by “Why?”

  • Entertainment I understand this is not going to win us any “Parents of the Year” awards, but desperate times call for desperate measures, and some kind of in-flight entertainment is a must. When I was a kid, I only had my older sister to torment in the back seat, and I did so relentlessly. (Sorry, Erin.) Leo is an only child, so that wasn’t an issue, but with long stretches with little to see, some 21st-century distractions came in handy. We have educational games on the iPhone, along with some not-so-educational games.We also have a DVD player for the car, but my son has lost interest. Can you believe that? I couldn’t even spell DVD at 5!
  • Flexibility We always keep our car stocked with water and, with that, the understanding that a child’s bladder can go from zero to full in seconds. You are going to have to make “emergency” stops along the way. We were lucky — it’s easier with boys — but learn to take bathroom breaks when you can, choose your rest stops carefully and be prepared for at least one time when your child swears he doesn’t have to go and then, just minutes after getting back on the highway, you’re looking for a place to pull off. Like all other parts of parenthood, flexibility is key.

  • Be Understanding. Road trips can be a drag (not much to see in Oklahoma), so expect a little complaining. Figure out the root of the frustration and, if you can, take a detour from the schedule to deal with it. My son got restless a few times, so we found some McDonalds with “Play Lands” where he could burn off some energy. It also gave Mom and Dad a few minutes to catch up. If you’re lucky, your child will be stimulated and recharged for the next leg of the trip, and if you’re super-lucky, he will tire himself out and you can zoom through the next 150 miles worry-free!
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