Backpackers Tokyo

When Brian and I were 29 we spent 2 months backpacking in Southeast Asia during the recession when we had just moved to LA, had no work, and were pretty depressed (we used his uncle’s pilot passes to get over there). We saw so many parents traveling with young kids in Vietnam and Laos, kids in backpacks touring around. We promised each other that when we had kids we would be THOSE people, that we would take them around the world no matter what ages they were, that we wouldn’t let them stop our then “see the world” desire and they would have experiences that would shape them forever. But oh how things have changed. We are decidedly NOT those people, in fact kinda the opposite. Here’s another story…

5 years ago Brian and I took the kids to Australia when Birdie was 3 months old and Charlie was barely 2 years old. We went for Brian’s job – he had a video series he was hired to shoot (which now seems odd/irresponsible that the client flew in an American for it). But we thought it would be a “fun” thing for the whole family to do so we extended the trip to add some vacation time. We were there for 3 weeks, and during and after the trip we promised that we wouldn’t go anywhere internationally or far with them until they were at least 4 and 6. None of us were able to appreciate it. It was expensive and exhausting. At the time we couldn’t even enjoy a meal out, we prayed there wouldn’t be a meltdown at the restaurant and then have to rush home to put them to bed at a normal time. We were in a nap trap during the day, we couldn’t drive on the other side of the street (and hard to Uber with car seats) and then Brian got Listeria and was bed-ridden for 5 sweaty days before our 20-hour flight home where Charlie watched Paw Patrol until his eyes almost bled. Obviously, I’m grateful we were able to do it, but boy did we realize that traveling with young kids made for basically zero fun for us.

But I get it that sometimes you have to book “a trip” to take time off and before we had this mountain retreat we needed to get out of L.A. A LOT – and a staycation at home in the summer is hot and traffic is terrible. So the following summer we booked an Airbnb in the valley for us and two other families with small kids. Our friends were not impressed when we pitched it to them (it was only 20 minutes from home). But it was my treat and forced them to come. It was AWESOME. It had a pond, a barn, miniature horses, and ponies that roamed the property. We could be together, it was pretty affordable, and we didn’t leave the property in 3 days. It obviously helped inspire the idea to look for a mini-farm in a city. It solidified the idea that we didn’t need to travel to get a vacation.

Since we’ve had this house (four years now!), we haven’t gone anywhere else besides Ojai Valley Inn and Disneyland. Until last year right before Covid, we felt ready to attempt another “trip”.

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They were 4 and 6 and while we weren’t going abroad, we were ready to take a “trip”. It was THE BEST weekend of our lives as a family – I’m not being hyperbolic, Brian and I debriefed afterwards and said it was the best 2 days we’ve ever had together. Why? It was so easy and flexible, full of manageable “newness” but very little work or stress. The kids were finally on the same schedule (no naps!) and old enough to not melt down in public (no risks!!).

We woke up on a Saturday morning and decided to take the train to Santa Barbara and explore. The kids packed their own backpacks for the first time – with help, but no schlepping on our part. We Ubered to the train station in LA and took the first train north. Brian and I remember being on the train with Charlie playing legos on the fold-down table and me teaching Birdie how to draw a butterfly right next to him. The kids were SO excited to be on a train and it was shockingly nice and comfortable with very few people on it. With a glass of white wine and a half decent train food lunch, we played with the kids, watched the ocean go by, and I wanted to cry out of pure happiness during the 2-hour short trip. It was SO EASY for us and so fun for them. It was a new experience but with almost zero planning and little financial stress. When we got to Santa Barbara everything was on foot and with just a backpack each we didn’t have anything to schlep. We found a motel with availability, dropped the bags, and explored the city. We had no car to deal with parking. No suitcases full of extra stuff. Just the four of us, four backpacks, and no plan. The kids had autonomy with their own bags so they felt like big kids, we didn’t have to worry about parking or having a drink at dinner and driving. There is such freedom in not planning and just having things be easy. I’d like to do THAT again, for sure, once it’s safe for kids.

It made me really think about what I loved about summer growing up and what really imprinted on me. Maybe the need for big trips is just a pressure we put on ourselves in the name of “showing them new things” and exposing them to other cultures. But then I look at these families that take a year off to travel all around the world and I think about how special that must be for them, too.

So in lieu of any big trips, we’ve been thinking a lot about what our summer family traditions will be. What touch-points we want our kids to remember when they are grown. What experiences will actually imprint? It’s my current hypothesis that the best childhood memories are all about simplicity, ease, and repetition (while they are really young), a sense of safety and security, and of course just being together with family and friends (ours and theirs). Camping. Road trips. And even going to the same places every year with the same people. While it might not be considered “cool”, I think that sameness and annual traditions they can count on are probably what makes them happiest. I wonder if the pressure to do something “different” and special is more for us to feel like we are still interesting, rather than for them? Or am I just getting old, lame, and lazy? (I don’t care if you think yes:)). When we move to Oregon we are excited to explore and have day trips, so there is some desire to still see somewhere new, but only if it’s easy, comfortable, and close. Is this just post-Covid latent anxiety and being scared about the world? Or is it just trying to recreate the nostalgia of a simpler era for our family? Maybe both.

So what do I remember about summer vacations as a kid? We always played softball, did 4-H, and competed our wares at the county fair. We built forts, slid on discs down the dirt hill, and swung on the rope swing. We jumped on the trampoline, rode bikes, and picked salmon berries. We rarely left the yard or the state (except to go to Utah/Wyoming to our uncle’s ranch) and never left the country but every summer was full of so much fun. Granted my parents had 6 kids and we lived way out out in the country there wasn’t this need to escape a big city or book a lot of playdates. We went camping a lot but mostly just hung out and did family projects. Because our parents are both teachers they were around a lot (so no camps except church camp when we were 12). Our family did one summer “project” together which included building a huge play house, planting, and harvesting a massive vegetable garden. When I was seven we even produced a family dinner theater musical with two other families (the real-life Waiting for Guffman – not joking – it’s AMAZING to rewatch the VHS tape). One summer when I was 8 we took an RV around the US for 6 weeks – all the way to New York and Disneyworld with 5 kids. I have no idea how much my parents planned for that trip and I’m sure it was “work” but it still felt easy and simple with a free schedule and lots of downtime playing games on the dining table.

Brian remembers an annual week-long trip every year to Balboa with a family with two boys where they could take the ferry by themselves to the arcade. He remembers the fourth of July at a friend’s house in Lake Tahoe with 5 other families (and a ton of kids). He felt freedom and autonomy as the kids played independently while the parents hung out and talked/partied. The rest of summer for him was riding bikes and little league with his crew in his neighborhood. He remembers it being THE BEST. He couldn’t really put a finger on why, just summers were the best.

These are magical years – where the kids are less work, more independent but young enough to want to just hang out with their parents. They will go fast, we know, so we are soaking it all up and maybe when they are bored of us when they are 13 and 15 we’ll get more adventurous.

So if you are feeling guilty that you haven’t taken your kids somewhere “special” or “traveled” since before Covid, I’m here to assert that maybe we don’t need to anyway – at least not for their sake. Maybe we all learned during Covid that camping, nature, and exploring locally is easier, just as fun and so much less work (not to mention cheaper and kinder to the planet). Not to guilt anyone who is planning a big trip – we all have different needs and boxes to check. But my boxes are very, very few these days and involve s’mores, sand, and swimming. I’m hoping that when they are 30 that they’ll have nostalgia for the feeling of their childhood summers, not just because of the big orchestrated trips if/when we take them but also the repetition of our simple summer days and nights. But I’m not a child psychologist 🙂

So I’m curious, what do you remember about your childhood summers that made them special? What summer traditions did you or do you have that your kids can use as touch-points? What were your favorite family “trips” that really imprinted and shaped your childhood? And are you feeling a big trip this summer or keeping it more low-key?