How to Fit a Car Seat on a Camel

And Other Misadventures Traveling with Kids


Edited by Sarah Franklin

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Have you ever struggled to dislodge a nostril-bound Cheerio while navigating the interstate at 70 miles an hour? Discovered exactly how many renditions of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” it takes for you to pull the car to the side of the road and weep? Or experienced just what happens when your miniature traveling companion pulls the “manual override” lever on the emergency exit door of a plane? You’re not alone. We all have memories of a hideous yet hilarious family trip.

Now you can read about some that make your trip look like a vacation with the Waltons.

Edited by Sarah Franklin, How to Fit a Car Seat on a Camel is an anthology of outrageous stories about the inherent misadventures that revolve around traveling with kids. Whether the trip is with newborn triplets or with moody teens, a road trip to the beach or a European vacation, each story will resonate with parents who hit the road or the tarmac with kids in tow.


To Dave, Jonah, and Lucas,
who make it all so much fun.

Sarah Franklin
Prekids, my husband and I were that cliché of the thirtysomething childless couple, traveling here, there, and everywhere, with just a copy of The New Yorker and the latest iPod as accessories. Lest you assume I'm exaggerating our itinerant ways for the sake of a story, here's a list of the trips we made from our home in Seattle the year before our firstborn arrived: Alaska; Hawaii; England and Wales; California; Portland, Oregon; and New York (twice). Oh, and a weeklong road trip to the foothills of the Canadian Rockies, just for good measure.
We traveled by plane, train, and automobile (the "automobile" in question being our "Kids? What kids?" cream convertible Beetle). We journeyed for business and pleasure. We vacationed en masse and à deux. We partook in all activities we could think of, from off-Broadway theater and holistic spa days to snowboarding and surfing. We danced 'til dawn in San Francisco and spent lazy mornings enjoying brunch with the newspaper.
In that last prekids year, with every trip we took we'd look at each other and say, with a mixture of query and reassurance, "We can still do all this with the baby, you know. . . ." Yeah, we were that cliché, too: the couple who assumes that our baby, born into a mobile world, will automatically become a mobile baby, fitting neatly into our universe in his/her hipster pouch/sling/backpack, scaling Mount Kilimanjaro with us with nary a peep about altitude sickness.
Ha! Sure, you can travel with a kid. Just don't expect it to be quite the same. In the year after Jonah was born, we held on to our determination to keep on traveling. Okay, so packing for a trip now took a week rather than half an hour, interspersed with algorithm-defying calculations of the precise number of diapers required for a ten-hour plane journey, and just how long a three-hour road trip would really take once we'd factored in nursing breaks. The New Yorker and the iPods were replaced by Mr. Brown Can Moo, Can You? and Philadelphia Chickens.
Still, we got out and about—by the time Jonah was a year old, he'd crossed the Atlantic four times, been up to Whistler, B.C., for a week, and taken several weekend minibreaks within Washington State. Not quite the same pace as in the in utero months, but not bad. The destinations themselves, however, were only half the story. As any parent will tell you (and did tell us; not that we listened), traveling with a wee one is the time in which the old saying "It's the journey, not the destination, that matters" really comes true. Getting to your destination can be an adventure in and of itself.
Our own experiences of the pre- and postbaby trips made me hungry to hear how others had fared. In yet another cliché of our generation, the individualist in me was keen to find company; surely we weren't the only people for whom the word "vacation" had entirely changed in significance postkids?
The women in this collection answered this question with a resounding "No!", and then some. They proved that not only was I not alone, but that I wasn't even remotely intrepid. Sarah Davies takes the concept of "baby's first flight" to new extremes in her story of flying a two-seater plane across Arizona with her three-month-old as copilot. Elena Aitken braves the high seas in a thirty-nine-foot sailboat with toddler twins, an arrangement that can make any mother shudder in anticipation of all that could go wrong. And Amy Bustraan, in a tale sure to make the most hardened outdoors folk pause, kayaks the rapids with her six-month-old daughter bobbing along in her booster seat.
Sometimes the trips occurred out of necessity rather than careful planning. Julie Barton's tale of "baby's first road trip," involving her premature son, abreast pump with a life of its own, and a freeway full of truckers, is as poignant as it is hilarious. In the same vein, Susan Wolter Nettell tells of taking a six-hundred-plus-mile midwinter train journey from Minnesota to South Dakota with preemie quads, helping her younger sister, the newly overwhelmed mother, bring her babies home. Both of these journeys make for equally touching and hair-raising reading. And as unforeseen road trips go, not many beat Donna Collins Tinsley's story of fleeing Hurricane Frances with a toddler, three teenage daughters, and a motley assortment of pets.
In other cases, trips were not spontaneous events but the result of careful forethought—and still result in outcomes that have us howling in despair and delight. Julia Litton's "Consider Atlanta" will have many readers nodding in rueful recognition with her account of the Thanksgiving trip that almost wasn't, a theme that continues with true Christmas holiday style in Holly Korbey's "Seven Bags, Two Kids, and the Baby Cheeses" and Mary Jane Beaufrand's "Flashdance Snow White."
It seems that there's no end to the variety of situations that can spell disaster when traveling with your beloved offspring. Staying close to home and re-creating the vacations of your own childhood or taking your little darlings to favorite haunts doesn't stave off the mishaps, as Sally Bjornsen, Sabra Ciancelli, and Elizabeth Roca show us. Going abroad just adds a different element of the unexpected to the trip, whether it's in Laos (Willow King), Ecuador (Gabrielle Smith-Dluha), or Niger (Jennifer Margulis). Even a visit to Graceland can be cringe-inducing when one of your party is determined to point out just how dull he finds The King, as Tiffany Fitch's hilarious "All Shook Up" recounts.
Traveling with young children, then, is really an embodiment of the broader life changes that occur when you move from "person" to "parent." Your destination, journey times, suitcase contents, are all determined by the needs of someone other than yourself. Moreover, your own enjoyment of the trip depends on getting these details right in the face of eternal variables. For those of us faintly hoping that travel becomes easier when the wee ones turn into bigger ones and are able to actually appreciate their surroundings and the gift of travel, think again. The sagas related by Dana Standish, Donna Gephart, and Ivy Eisenberg demonstrate all too clearly that preteens and teenagers can be just as "interesting" to travel with as the weenies, even if Dora the Explorer has been swapped for the Paris edition of Vogue.
So what makes us do it?
In recent years, gas prices notwithstanding, Americans have been traveling more and more. In 2006, 38.3 million people were estimated to have traveled more than fifty miles for Thanksgiving week alone. That's a lot of people traveling with a lot of children. Overseas travel is also on the rise. In 2005, nearly 2.9 million American residents traveled to foreign destinations with their children, according to statistics from the Office of Travel and Tourism Industries. Clearly, despite the pain of packing, despair at the destination, and the obstreperous offspring, travel with our families offers us something valuable that we just can't get at home.
That mysterious something can be found throughout these stories, even among the more hideous details of projectile vomit and frantic potty stops: Traveling, very simply, makes indelible memories that, for better or for worse, are the stuff of family bonding. Think about your own childhood for a moment, and I' ll guarantee that you'll start to giggle (or groan) at a long-hidden remembrance of a particularly painful trip or a recurring journey you were forced to make each year, which has now become as integral to your formative years as learning your ABCs.
As our kids grow bigger and more independent, those opportunities to spend quality time with them become fleeting (even if that quality at the time may seem substandard at best!), and we're glad to have had these chances, however cobbled together they were. Stephanie Sylverne, telling of her two-single-mothers-three-kids-and-a-grandfather road trip, touches on the realization that this moment of motherhood will never again be captured or possible—the sense of freedom that comes with spontaneity, and the joys of sharing a twenty-four-hour cross-country car journey and all, with our children. And further afield, on a trip to Germany, J. Anderson Coates articulates the impulse that drives so many of us to make seemingly impossible trips with our young ones; to re-create a memory from our own childhoods; to give to our children what our parents gave to us, be it a sense of wonder, otherness, or simply the feeling of being surrounded by friends and relations for key times in our lives. Certainly this is true of my own family's experience. Trips "home" to the U.K. stopped being merely fun diversions in our hectic urbanite lives and became somehow necessary to the fabric of our family life. Our sense that Jonah needed to know (even at three months) what English countryside looked like and to spend time in his grandparents' homes superceded any horror at the prospect of twenty-one hours of travel time, sixteen hours of jetlag, and ten-thousand-plus miles of travel in a one-week period.
Traveling with kids is undeniably messy, frustrating, and chaotic. But so, too, is life with kids; and if we distill it even further, life itself; and so the memories become a part of our life, and keep us moving forward. As does the sneaking suspicion that once the kids are old enough to be left home and we can travel solo again, we'll have a strange feeling that someone's missing.

All Shook Up
Tiffany Fitch
"I thought Graceland was supposed to be like Disneyland, only funner," Henry, age six, said at the top of his lungs. "It was boring and stupid!"
Tourists decked out in Elvis shirts and caps in the packed trolley broken down near Beale Street, Memphis, turned to stare at us. I wished I could drown in the sweat puddle forming under my rear.
"I want some water," Hannah, age four, howled, although not loud enough to cover Henry, who had perked up under the eyes turned towards him.
"Hate me tender. Hate me true. I hate Elvis. Yes, I do," he sang to his now mildly irritated-looking audience, his entire face a grin, eyes glowing like The King's gold lamé jumpsuit.
"You don't really mean that, honey," I said, loud enough for everyone to hear, lest they think I too was a traitor to the Elvis cause and hang us both as examples from the handholds attached to the ceiling.
"Nope, I really do. He stinks! The only ride that place had was Lisa Marie's crappy swing set and they wouldn't even let me play on it."
Georgie, nine, having recently decided she was too cool for our entire family, scooted down the bench away from us, flipping her hair behind her shoulder.
"That is soooooooooo rude! Pretend you don't know me, okay?"
I ignored them all, daydreaming about running away to Blue Hawaii in a pair of white go-go boots and a mini skirt with a Hunka Hunka Burnin' Love.
"Mama," Nicholas, ten, said, interrupting my reverie by poking me numerous times in the shoulder with his finger. "Isn't it just a little strange that the two cities with major fault lines both have trolleys? I find that suspicious."
As if death by Elvis fans' dirty looks wouldn't be bad enough, I thought, looking up at the huge, old buildings destined to tumble down around us at any moment when the Big One hit, now we have a choice of demises.
Just the morning before, on our way to Memphis, Nicholas had informed me of the potential for catastrophe.
"Memphis is a time bomb waiting to explode, Mama," he'd said, pushing his glasses up higher on his nose with his finger. "Floods, fault lines, and yellow fever, which is probably lying dormant somewhere."
I wondered for a moment if I should prohibit future viewings of It Could Happen Tomorrow and put a parental block on the Discovery Channel. Then I spent the rest of the day planning our funerals while waiting for the ground to shake beneath us. It had been bad enough the night before, waking to Nicholas screaming "Earthquake!!" every single time a guest on our floor shut their door. By the eleventh time, I finally realized we were more likely to crash to our deaths in the Heartbreak Hotel's elevator, which stopped a good six inches from its destination, trembling and shaking with a quick drop before the doors creaked open.
As we waited for the Beale Street trolley to recommence its journey, Nicholas had apparently forgotten my ban on natural disaster talk, telling me every detail of each earthquake in the past twenty years.
"Mama, I'm hot," Henry interrupted us. "Can we go to Disneyland next year?"
I didn't think Memphis was so bad myself. We'd arrived the morning before, meeting up with my mom, grandma, and brother, Oliver, at the Scottish Inn on Elvis Presley Boulevard. We dropped off Nan (who hates Elvis as much as Henry does) at the Heartbreak Hotel and headed out to Graceland, four kids in tow.
Elvis music assaulted us from all sides. People were everywhere, accents and languages spanning the globe, the temperature only four hundred and forty-seven degrees. Perhaps I declared the fact that we'd escaped our first gift shop without making a purchase a sign of good things to come and we moved towards the bus line that would take us to the mansion.
The line was long, wrapping around like an amusement-park-ride queue. Sadly, the wait did not lack in photo opportunities involving annoying Graceland employees with cameras shoving us like cattle to the slaughter up against a wall painted like the Graceland gates, two miles from the actual gates. Once they had you trapped, they snapped pictures before you could suck in your gut, turn your face to the best angle, or even smile.
"I wanted a picture of me alone by the gates," Georgie whined, for the next thirty minutes in line, like a hound dog kicked by a pair of blue suede shoes. "Not with y'all."
Mom crept ahead with Henry and my brother. They caught the bus before us, bringing on another round of complaints from Georgie and tempting me to flee.
I didn't, though, and we squeezed onto the next bus, headphones on ears for the trip across the street to the palace of a King. Mom had already disappeared inside and I gritted my teeth, prepared to go it alone. Nicholas and Hannah bustled ahead and Georgie trailed behind, listening to every moment of the recorded tour. I stayed back with her and prayed I wouldn't find Hannah hiding in the Jungle Room or Nick lounging on the yellow sofa in the TV room.
Five hundred hours later we emerged, skipping the memorabilia entirely, much to Georgie's dismay. The children surged forward, a bulging mass of giggling, pushing, and arguing, to the gravesite. It was a solemn affair, full of quiet tears and millions of camera flashes. Until we arrived.
"Which one is Elvis, Mama?" Hannah asked. "Is that a baby grave? Whose baby is that?"
I made the mistake of answering. So much for a quiet, discreet side comment.
"Poor Elvis, his brother died when he was only a baby and he took too many pills on the potty," Hannah announced to the world.
I scrunched between two now quite angry Germans, snapped a picture, grabbed the children, and ran like hell to the bus line.
Back on the Beale Street trolley, the Graceland fiasco flashed through my mind. "Maybe it was a little bad," I sighed, as the trolley shuddered to life, moving down the track.
Ten minutes later, as we passed the steel Pyramid Arena where the Memphis Grizzlies play and approached our stop, I pulled the cord to signal the driver. Instead of slowing, the trolley seemed to gain speed. I yanked again as she went past our stop, and another and another, halting six long, treeless blocks from where we were parked.
"Disneyland, indeed," the trolley driver huffed under her breath as we trooped past her. I wished I had one of Elvis's scarves to choke her with.

Driving Mozard
Sabra Ciancanelli
"But, Mom," Solomon says as I strap him in his car seat. "We need room for Mozard."
Shifting the cooler of juice boxes to the top of the tote bag of trains stuffed behind the driver's seat, I push the baggie of Goldfish crackers closer to my four-year-old's car seat.
"Good enough?"
Solomon surveys the cleared space, cocks his head to hear an answer to his left, and nods. "Yeah, Mozard says that's good."
We've done the run-through: made sure the lights and oven are off, the plants watered, and the stacks of cat food neatly piled on the kitchen table for the neighbor. Everything is as it should be; all that's left now is for us to go away.
Nestled in his backwards car seat, my four-month-old, Henry, sucks his binky and squints. My great-grandmother was a Mi'kmaq, and it's as if all her Native American features have been dormant for generations waiting their debut in Henry. Even the delivery nurses commented they'd never seen a newborn with black eyes, dark like coal with nothing to distinguish the pupil from the iris.
Solomon, with his fair skin and hazel eyes, is a replica of my husband. Now and then a glimpse of me bursts in the corners of his smile, but if you look closely, the resemblance vanishes just as magically as it appeared.
Tony grips the wheel. "Ready?"
Solomon hunches over the DVD player balanced on his lap. Sipping my coffee, I sigh. It's eight in the morning, we've been up for three hours, and our road atlas shows the stretch from New York to Cape Cod covering three states.
"You get the Thomas DVDs?" I ask.
Tony nods and reverses down the driveway, navigating through the strategically placed rearview mirror. No small feat, since it means peering through a tunnel of Boogie Boards, pillows, suitcases, pails, and shovels, all in the back.
"The baby monitor?"
Another nod.
"Did you put the D-r-a-m-a-m-i-n-e in his j-u-i-c-e?"
Tony furrows his brow. He finishes The New York Times crossword almost every day, but deciphering spoken spelled words escapes him.
"Dramamine," I whisper.
"What?" he asks. "Don't want to be on the interstate covered in fermenting apple juice and Goldfish this year? Yeah, it's in his juice."
We descend our country road, leaving behind our white farmhouse with four nervous-looking cats perched in windows.
Solomon focuses intently on the small screen. Getting a DVD player was a difficult decision. "It's like drugging them," a friend of mine said, unaware we had a portable player and planned to use it. "We always played car bingo on long trips," she went on. "Don't people want kids to have memories?" Of course, my friend hadn't said anything we hadn't wrestled with ourselves, and I didn't let on about the player or the Dramamine. Hitting the highway, we speed up. The sun inches over the Catskills, shining glorious rays that beam through the clouds like hope. We've done this trip to Cape Cod for years. Before we had kids, our vacation started the moment the ignition turned. The road filled with stories, Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, movie trivia, and long, relaxing, silent stretches. We'd stop for lunch at a nice restaurant and stop again right before the Cape for a clam dog and a beer. Somehow, after Solomon, the drive grew thorns, a risk to factor in when deciding how badly we want to see the ocean, to feel the waves on our toes.
Though my siblings and I live within a ten-mile radius of my mother and meet up often, like a cluster of planets in orbit we all go on vacation together. My mom rents a huge house in Wellfleet. My brother and two sisters come with their families and all of our children play on the beach. It sounds sentimental and reminiscent of something you'd see on a Brady Bunch reunion show, but there are fights over the TV, stomped-on sand castles, unhappy Chutes and Ladders losers—you name it. And then there are the adult issues of doing dishes, preparing dinner, and getting parked in. Some days a member of the group has broken into tears. You just hope it's not you or your kid.
This year is Henry's first time to the gathering, and everyone's pretty excited to have a new member of the family. For all of Henry's four months on God's green earth, the one thing he's made pretty clear is that he needs white noise to go to sleep, so we've packed the baby monitor to turn it to the wrong frequency and blast the noise we've named "fuzzy," as in "Henry, you want fuzzy?"
About an hour along the highway Henry whimpers. He shields his eyes from the rising sun. Despite reassurance from the front seat and rattling of toy keys mixed with Solomon's high-pitched tea-kettle scream—his version of "fuzzy"—Henry wails. I tune the radio station to something that doesn't come in and raise the volume as high as it will go. Henry's hysterical cries persist.
Unbuckling my seatbelt, I slip off my flips-flops and contort myself over the console of our Subaru Forester. Wedging my hips in between the car seats, I hold Henry's face in my hands. Henry reaches towards me.
"Mom!" Solomon yells. "You're sitting on Mozard!"
"No, we switched. He's up front with Dad."
Henry's cries pierce the muscles that run the sides of my neck. I once read that a newborn's cries are a perfect example of intelligent design: loud enough to get your attention, fierce enough to wake you from any sleep, yet right on the edge of making you run towards the source instead of away.
"Mozard's under you. You're hurting him."
"There," I inch forward. "Mozard! Go in the front!"
"Okay, he moved," Solomon says. "You hurt him."
I can't remember exactly when Mozard became part of our family. One day Solomon said, "Mom, Mozard wants to know if he can live with us."
"Mozart?" I asked.
"Moz-ARD. He's right there." He pointed to dead space beside him. "He's got green hair and eyes and lives in our tree. He's tired of being alone. Can he live with us?"
I agreed. Since then, Mozard comes and goes as he pleases, joins us for dinner, plays impossible games of hide-and-seek, and races Solomon on his tricycle, though this is his first trip on vacation with us. Henry's face is crimson. His mouth is open in a silent scream. He grips my forearm, his fingertips turning white. Finding his voice, he lets out an ear-piercing shriek. I pull up my shirt, lean as far forward as I can, holding on to the back of the front seat, and offer him my breast. He sucks wildly, his dark brown eyes rolling backwards.
"We can pull over," Tony offers.
"No, keep going." I rest my head on the back of the front-seat head rest. My feet begin to fall asleep.
Solomon pushes the DVD into my shoulder. "Watch Looney Tunes with me."
Henry's eyes close.
"Watch with me!" Solomon says.
"Later," I whisper. Solomon beats the DVD player into my arm.
"Stop, or it's off," I whisper through clenched teeth.
We pull over at a turnpike rest area with a gas station and McDonald's. We stretch our legs and order our lunch. In the bright light, surrounded by frantic families also on vacation, we huddle together. Solomon holds his Happy Meal prize, a blue character that looks part bird and part robot. The large, red, unlit light on its chest looks like it should do something. Solomon pinches the button on its back. Nothing happens. He hands it to me. I pinch the button, look at the red unlit bulb, read the one-sentence instruction, and pinch the button again. Solomon sucks his green eyes deep into his head and pouts.
"This is terrible," he says.
I wait in line, eating my cheeseburger and balancing Henry on my hip. My drawn-out explanation to the tired-looking woman behind the counter pays off and we get a new Happy Meal prize free of charge. We open the bird-robot twin, pinch the button, and again the light stays dark, dead red.
"They're broke, Sol," I say. "Junk."
Solomon smiles. Holding his toys, one in each hand, he repeats, "I got two! I got two!"
We go to the bathroom, resolve we're halfway to the Cape, and strap the boys back in their car seats. We fill up with gas, and head back to the highway. Solomon balances his new toys on his knees. He clinks them together, bashing their heads.
"I got two and Henry got none, right?" he says.
The radio is tuned to a station that comes in. An upbeat summer song about love fills the car. I reach over and touch Tony's hand. He smiles.
"Mozard!" Solomon shrieks. "We forgot Mozard!"
"We didn't forget him," I say. "He's right here."
"No! He is not. He's at McDonald's."
Tony looks over at me.
"Go back! Go back!" Solomon screams.
"We're not going back," I say. Henry begins to cry.
Tony gestures to the exit sign. I shake my head. I don't mind stopping for meals, or to go to the bathroom, or even to nurse Henry, but actual, physical backtracking is against every part of the goal.
Solomon whips his head back and forth into a blur. Kicking his feet into the back of Tony's seat, he shouts, "Go back! Go back!"
The exit is five miles away. Caustic screams twist my spinal cord. I fight the urge to open the door and jump. Instead, I roll down the windows, thinking the whirling wind might dissipate the chaos. I look out at the side mirror. The bright sun accentuates the wrinkle between my eyes, the one born by scrunching my face from moments like this. The same friend who remarked about the DVD player once told me I looked different now that I have kids. "Different, how?" I asked. "Well," she said, "don't take this the wrong way, but now you look pissed off most of the time."
Tony pulls off at the exit. We turn left and get back on the highway.


On Sale
Jan 8, 2010
Page Count
320 pages
Seal Press