Pensacola, New Orleans, and the Choice of Relationship

22+ hours in a car with your family and no electronic distractions probably sounds like a nightmare to most people, but we seem to like it a lot. Last year’s epic family road trip to Arkansas was so surprisingly not-stressful - and actually fun - that we decided to do it again this year.

Yeah, we’re a little crazy.

We debated where to go. Vermont? Niagra Falls? Maybe stay closer to home and just spend a week really touring DC with a little Williamsburg thrown in? Then my father’s cousin Susan in Pensacola mentioned that we’d be welcome to visit her in Florida, and that decided it. Whenever a trip can be coupled with getting to know family who we don’t know or don’t get to see often, we jump at the chance. The relationship factor just makes a long trip feel so much more satisfying and worthwhile. So, Pensacola it was.

Besides, it’s free housing!

But before we could get there, we had to go through that long drive. I know a lot of parents will disagree with this, but we have a “no electronics in the car” policy for trips. We like to use that time together to do things that bring us closer, not separate us into our own individual worlds. To pull it off, though, a lot of patience and planning is required. In case anyone’s interested, here’s what we do: I pack a bag of car activities that I dole out during the trip. The things that have worked well for us are: pipe cleaners that the kids can shape into whatever they want (Emily made this elaborate game that involved a hoop, tunnel, and little pipe cleaner balls); bendaroos, which we let them stick on the windows and just plan on cleaning up when we get home (this occupied them for 3 hours straight), one interesting new coloring book each (we really love Ruth Heller’s Designs for Coloring); one interesting new activity book each (we got mazes for Daniel and doodles for Emily); and audiobooks (the one we listened to on this trip was Savvy, which was a real surprise. It seemed kind of like a fluff book, but it turned out to be a really good coming of age sort of story with worthwhile themes.) All these activities keep the kids entertained, and yet retain interaction with each other. The kids collaborate with each other on the pipe cleaner/bendaroo creations, and show each other what they do in their books, and we all talk to each other about the books we listen to. The rest of the time we simply talk to each other about what we see or what we did or what we plan to do.

And maybe they’ll sleep. (Or at least pretend to.)


It might not work for everyone, but it works for us, and we love it. It makes the driving a part of the journey, instead of something to just get through.

The other thing we do is try to find something fun and interesting to stop at along the way. On the way down, we packed a picnic lunch for the first day and ended up stopping at a great state park just across the border of Tennessee called Warrior Path State Park. It had a nice picnic area next to this amazing playground. It had interesting, different kinds of playground equipment and was set into the woods with cool lookout points in the trees and things. If you need a place to stop on I81/40, that’s a good one. We also stopped at the “Lost Sea Adventure!” in Sweetwater TN, which was admittedly rather cheesy, but still fun. The kids thought it was awesome.




After the Lost Sea Adventure! we were hungry for dinner, and I found this wonderful BBQ place called Uncle Gus’ Mountain Pit BBQ in Decatur TN by searching on my iPhone. The fact that I can do this seriously is enough to make me feel like my iPhone is worthwhile. It saves us from resorting to the ubiquitous chain restaurants, and instead gets us amazing local food like this. You don’t find hickory/pecan smoked meat like this anywhere in the North - or at least not anywhere near where I live. It almost even rivaled Craig’s BBQ in DeVall’s Bluff, Arkansas, which is really saying a lot!


Finally, on our third day of driving, we got to Pensacola and I got to meet my father’s cousin Susan. She was lovely and hospitable and wonderful with the children. She was generous and patient and never once made us feel like an imposition. I’m blessed that I got to spend time getting to know her, and am mad at myself for not getting a picture with her before we left. I also forgot to get pictures of my father’s cousin Michael and my Great Aunt Nancy, for which I’m equally mad at myself. Spending time with all these people was a true blessing.

We spent the first two days on the beach, and Susan taught the kids how to find shells in the surf. They found amazing shells of the kind that you never see on our Northwestern beaches, only in the stores. The water was way warmer than it is in the Atlantic up here, especially this time of year, and the sand was finer and smoother. I really liked swimming in the Gulf and I only hope it hasn’t ruined me for the Atlantic now!

The shell seekers (Susan is in the black)



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On Tuesday we went to see the Blue Angels practice. They’re based out of Pensacola, and they practice every Tuesday and Wednesday morning. They were stunning. Unfortunately, I was a wimpy Yankee who couldn’t handle the heat, and Susan insisted that I go into the museum when she saw that I was becoming alarmingly pale. So I missed the last half of it, but apparently Daniel got to hold a flag with other children and wave it as the Angels went past at the end. I bet that would have made a great picture, wouldn’t it have? Oh well. I don’t have it. This is the only Blue Angel picture I have.

I do have a picture of us in front of planes at the museum, though!


Since Pensacola is only about 3 hours away from New Orleans, we decided to go there for a night. First on the agenda was, of course, beignets.






Then a walk through the French Quarter.



On our way to the hotel in Slidell, we drove through the lower ninth ward, which has become something of a tourist attraction. Life is ironic that way sometimes. There were a lot of empty lots with stairs that went nowhere, but a lot of the houses had been cleaned up. There really wasn’t much devastation left to see, although I’m sure the effetcs can still be felt by the residents. We saw a lot of houses built by Brad Pitt’s organization with solar panels and interesting designs meant to be more green, inexpensive to maintain, and safer. They were very unusual.



The kids slept VERY WELL at the hotel that night.

By far, the highlight of New Orleans for us was the next day, though, when we went on a swamp tour at the Honey Island swamp. That’s the kind of thing I like, all nature and history rolled into one. There were tons of alligators! The tour guide was really knowledgable and very informative. He also spent a good amount of time complaining about the show “Swamp People” and how it’s all fake. He said the producers came to Honey Island to take stock footage of alligators, and he didn’t have too many nice things to say about them!







Spot the gator! This fella was 15 feet long, but was really hard to see under all the duckweed.



All the things we got to do and see over the 10 days (including travel) that were gone were wonderful. But, honestly, what made it really special for me was the relationships I got to foster. It was late nights spent talking with Susan, and a morning spent getting to know Michael, my father’s favorite cousin, better. It was visiting my Great Aunt Nancy, who is a wonderfully spunky woman with an unexpected sense of humor. I really wished I had more time to spend with her, because I so throughly enjoyed our visit together. It was the generosity of Anita, my former sister-in-law who I still consider family, who put us up for the night in Atlanta despite her busy life. I loved seeing her again and getting to know her husband.
It was getting to spend a night on the way down, and one on the way back, with my sister’s family in central Virginia, who we always love to see but don’t have the chance to so often. And it was the delight of meeting an old friend who I hadn’t seen since high school, Laura, who happened to be vacationing nearby at the same time were there.

On the last day of driving I had something of an epiphany. It wasn’t something I’d never considered before, but it came to me in a clearer way than before: Family is what you make of it. Enjoy what you have and don’t waste time waiting for it to be what you wish it was. Traveling for that long, and seeing so many different family members along the way and hearing so many different family stories and histories, somehow really drove that home for me. Sometimes we spend so much energy wanting people to be different, or situations to be different, that we miss what we DO have, right in front of us. As imperfect as it is.

My family is far from perfect. It’s disjointed and fractured and kind of messed up. But, isn’t every family, in one way or another? And yet, even in the midst of that there is joy in relationships with one another, if you choose it. You won’t be able to reach everyone, or fix every broken relationship and hurt that is there, and you’ll have to overlook slights and ignore differences, but you can choose to be thankful for what you do have and nurture it. I choose not to dwell on the people who are absent in my life, or the ways I have been hurt, or the things that I wish were different, and instead rejoice in what is, in “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable.” (Phil 4:8) And in that choice is freedom.

Really, life is too short to waste on anything else.