Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Highs and Lows of Holiday Travel

By Blake Friis

It's midnight in the middle of winter at the Kansas City airport. I am waiting for a rental car and singing Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star to an understandably pissed off 8-month-old. The reality of traveling with a baby is falling short of the cautious optimism I carried into the trip.

Traveling 850 miles to create timeless family memories begins with a question void of Christmas cheer: which mode of transportation will make me want to kill myself least?

Driving offers the freedom to dictate pace and keeps the misery private when the junior member of the operation decides being confined to a car seat for 12 hours is a crock of shit. Babies throw massive fits over the course of a drive, but a 30-minute cool-down stroll through an Oklahoma Wal-Mart during the holidays provides all the motivation one needs to get back in the saddle and carry on to greener pastures.

The downside of the road is it’s a boring beat down. A family road trip is like the drive-home from Spring Break. Everyone is tired, irritable, and hopes the smelly loudmouth in the backseat doesn't puke.

That’s why we choose to shell out a few extra bucks to fly. But the friendly skies are not without their own set of challenges.

Driving is a battle of attrition, but flying has an unmatched ceiling for potential chaos. Airport security, cramped airplane restrooms, and ear-popping changes in elevation prove humans were never meant to fly. Challenging the laws of nature with a child in tow is especially egregious.

One year ago, in the Minneapolis airport, we shared a laugh at the expense of a couple struggling through the terminal with a young child and all the baggage – physical and emotional – required to travel anywhere with young children. Approximately 364 days later, we laughed at ourselves, despite not finding the situation particularly funny. We had become the overwhelmed couple in the airport with sore shoulders short fuses.

Looking over my shoulder from the boarding line, I was relieved to see a dozen other families with small children. There is comfort in a theoretical blanket of anonymity, but that is contingent on each baby having about the same lung capacity.

For most of his first flight, my son was a trooper. He charmed the grandfather-to-be sitting next to us and endeared himself to the high school English teacher sitting behind us. With the exception of the man in front of us, whose hair he attempted to grab on more than one occasion and whose seat he took great joy in kicking, everyone in our section observed his happy disposition and returned his smiles.

Then our plane began its descent. That’s when the levy broke.

For the final 15 minutes of our flight, my son managed to transfer the pain in his ears to the ears of all the friends he made over the previous 45 minutes. He wasn't the only child to dial up a good freak out on the flight, but his was by far the most powerful.

I don't know if it was general understanding or holiday spirit, but the people on our flight could not have been more understanding and supportive as we struggled.

There is no perfect way to cover 850 miles with a young child, but the experience can be surprisingly fulfilling. We met some great people on our trip that we never would have encountered before parenthood.

When childless couples with one piece of luggage laugh at us in all their beautiful, well-rested glory, we smile and nod. They’ll appreciate the smile more than they know one day, when an inconsolable little maniac with hurting ears makes them feel like those parents.

Turns out we’re all those parents.