As a kid I was the one who instigated a lot of the fun. It might be playing pirates in the tree house, or cops and robbers in my mom’s parked station wagon, or spies who wrote secret code in lemon juice (later revealing the message by holding it over the toaster). Often our make believe reflected whatever section of the library I happened to be working my way through at the time. So after I binge-read every pioneer tale I could find, I created a new game for us called “wagon train.” We’d stock my youngest brother’s little red wagon with supplies and head out across the prairie, facing danger at every turn.
The Internet tells me that on a good day, a real wagon train might have covered fifteen miles in a day. Family road trips move along at a much brisker rate nowadays. When people traveled fifteen miles a day, they couldn’t help but take note of even the smallest details of the journey. When we’re racing along an interstate at seventy miles an hour, it’s much easier to miss all the peculiar and intriguing sights along the way.
But quirky details are always there to be noticed if we only remind ourselves to adopt the right outlook. Here’s a simple travel writing game you can play with the kids you have packed into your “covered wagon” if you’re road-tripping this summer. Give everyone their own small notebook and writing utensil at the start of the trip (a digital camera would add even more to the fun if that’s a possibility). Tell them it’s their job to “collect” at least three unusual things during the course of the day; they don’t need to physically collect the items, simply make note of them in their notebook (or take a photo with their camera). It can be anything that catches their attention: a person, an animal, a building, a bizarre tourist attraction. Then the next day in the car, tell the kids that it’s their job to write a story or a poem featuring the three items they collected the day before. Plus they need to collect three new items for the following day. Along with encouraging everyone to take note of their surroundings as you travel, they’ll each end the trip with a unique memento.
The truth is, I would have made a horrible pioneer: I’m too big a fan of my creature comforts. I’m sure I’d likely have been voted “first person we should eat if we get trapped by winter blizzards” by my fellow pioneers, because they would have grown so weary of my whining about needing a shower. But despite my inability to fit into those times, I recognize that traveling only fifteen miles a day has a huge advantage for a writer: you can never forgot that the time spent getting there—not just what happens after you arrive—is in itself the real adventure.