By Dad “X”
If you live a long distance from your kids, visitation becomes an incredible part of your life. Whether it’s arranging for flights to see them or for them to travel to you, or just long-distance driving, your life during non-visitation days is ruled by the days that are your visitation.
The day after returning from seeing them, you start planning for the next visit. You spend a day or two surrounding actual time with your kids just travelling. You are familiar to clerks at hotels and flight attendants and rest stops and gas stations along the way become as familiar as your own living room.
I travelled 500-1,000 miles every weekend to see my kids in every type of weather – without court awarded travel/visitation fees.
When my grandmother died and I was forced to spend a year and a half dealing with her estate thousands of miles from my kids, I flew them out every chance I could.
I knew one father who drove from Boston to Phoenix once a month to spend a weekend with his kids, and a few mothers who complained their exes, who lived in the same town, never visited their kids.
Money gets tight when you are spending it on travel, hotels and every meal out. You watch and dread the rising costs of gas. Your car puts on a hundred thousand miles in a year and you search for ways to cut corners, at least in your life so your kids won’t have to do without. When it comes time to buy a new car, the thought of a two-seater sports car never enters your mind while looking at minivans that you can sleep in while travelling.
This is the story of how I handled the long travels for visitation. It almost killed me, but I knew it was worth it.
After several long back-and-forth trips with the kids, usually when the cost of gas was less than the cost of one night in a hotel, my youngest said to me as I was driving them home, “You know how we know you love us? It’s because you drive so far just to see us.”
I had to pull over to cry. As tough as it was, that made it worth it.
So, to all of you fathers who travel afar to see your kids, this story is dedicated to you. Perhaps the truth, under the humor, will sound familiar, teach you a few tricks and give you strength to continue on. We do it for love and our kids do see it – and will always remember it!
The Ruling Tribe Outside Wentzville
That humans have tribal tendencies is no secret.
We band together for protection, understanding, acceptance and… survival. It has always been so and will continue as long as humankind walks this planet.
We are drawn together with reasons of gender, creed, color, financial levels, love of music genus, hair styles and favorite Star Trek characters.
We can belong to many different tribes without betraying our allegiance to the other groups with whom we cluster. It is always a unique and anxious experience for those who venture into a new tribe, but we adapt and move ahead, gaining strength, growing towards mentorship of those who enter behind us until, with power and knowledge, we may, one day, lead our tribe.
It was purely by accident, and necessity, that I joined my new tribe. It was there around me, although I hadn’t noticed for quite a while. I joined without initiation, nor a helping hand.
My lessons were learned through toil and experience fraught with scars and scabs. If I can ease the journey for some other person, my work will have the reward of a teacher watching a student enter the tribe with ease and confidence.
As only a father can teach his children, it is with the utmost seriousness you must listen, and learn.
It was shortly after becoming a divorced father, yet another tribe into which I was thrust, when I fell, head first, into a secret band of tribesman who bear no name, no banner and no outward appearance that would signal others to their comradeship.
Travelling 250 miles each Friday night, in the blackness of a Midwest highway, to make an 8 a.m. pickup of my two sons, I had tried many reasonable efforts to make the journey in comfort, but within my budget, I couldn’t afford a motel room on Friday AND Saturday night.
So my travels often started at 3 a.m., driving along what is known as the most dangerous stretch of all American highways.
Attempting to get to bed by 7 p.m. after the work week never gave me more than a few hours of actual sleep and I would often arrive at my destination with the energy equal only to the zombie-living dead.
After picking up my kids, I eagerly awaited the 3 p.m. check-in time at our hotel so I could collapse into a short coma before dinner. It was an existence that sapped my strength, and resolve to live.
On each trip, I had noticed the number of people sleeping in their vehicles at the last rest stop, just outside of a small town named Wentzville near St. Louis.
With some careful planning and packing of certain sleeping accoutrements, I decided to join the weary travelers in their overnight, four-wheeled camping. I gathered my carefully thought-out supplies after work on Friday and drove east with my destination, and anxieties well in mind.
We all have heard of the nocturnal goings-on at rest stops and I wondered if a sharp blade would be the proper weapon to fend off hooligans.
I arrived at my destination shortly before 1 a.m. and turned off my van’s engine. I sat there for several moments, surveying the area. Watching people enter and leave the bathroom, I chose the moment when I could relieve myself without the interruptions of anyone else.
I sat, tense in a small stall, keeping an open ear for the sound of the outside door opening. The only sound was my heart pounding and a broken ventilator fan striking metal over and over as it spun.
I finished and walked quickly back to my van, keeping attention to where cars and people situated themselves around me.
Upon locking my door, I wondered where the best spot would be to fall asleep with a minimum of highway noise or the engine clatter from other cars entering the rest area. It was clear those spots were taken and where I was would be the best I would do on that night.
I scooted myself over to the captain’s chair on the passenger side and reclined the seat to its lowest position, which was at least a twenty-five degree angle.
I thought of the wisdom, versus comfort of removing my shoes and decided it was better to keep them on for quick reaction time in case one of my assorted three dozen fears arose. I placed my keys, cell phone and glasses on the console between the driver’s and passenger seats and placed my Marine ka-bar combat knife under my seat, first testing which direction to leave the handle for what would invariably, with my luck, be the quickest way to cut my hand, should I reach for it in a crisis situation.
I had forgone the inclusion of a pillow in my camping supplies and realized within the first 10 seconds that the headrest would press against my cerebral cortex through the night, probably leaving me a drooling half-wit by 7 a.m.
I crawled between the seats, hearing the distinct sound of crunching eye glasses, and the tinkle of my keys dropping down the gap between the seat and console, to find an oddly dirty towel in the back, folding it as loosely as possible and placed it under my head. I crossed my arms and closed my eyes while making a mental note to buy a travel pillow.
The bright orange glow through my lids from the halogen lamps, placed every 10 feet in the parking lot, demanded another sleeping position. I moved back to the driver’s seat and started the car. A quick maneuver and I faced the minivan in the direction of a field behind the rest stop.
Problem solved, or so I thought. I managed to fall asleep sometime after 2:30 but was awakened every time a car would enter the lot as the headlights flooded into my windshield. I made a mental note to buy a reflective sun shade for the windshield.
I didn’t dare even crack my windows, fearing a long, sword-like blade would be inserted by some rest area-stalking psycho to cut my throat while I slept.
The air in the van grew hot and stale. I drifted in and out of first-stage sleep all night. Waking to new arrivals and the sound of doors slamming and engines revving. The battery powered alarm clock was set for 6:30 a.m. and the “click” of the second hand was deafening.
Dawn came sometime within one of my 12-minute sleep sessions. I raised the seat and put on my cracked glasses. I had 13 minutes before the alarm would sound, but my bladder, sometimes the best alarm clock nature can provide, demanded I move, and move quickly.
I felt, well… dank in the fog of the morning as I stepped from my van and noticed another half dozen cars with people raising their seats to an upright position.
I raced to the small structure across the parking lot, hoping to beat the other bursting bladders of other overnight guests and locked myself in a stall.
I could hear the door opening and closing and the sounds of people coughing, hacking and relieving themselves in the usual manner. I exited the stall to see a line of three other weary men who silently waited in a loose line for their turn in the stall I vacated.
My first thought was of how lucky they were that I had warmed the frozen seat but made a mental note to buy a pack of toilet-sani seat covers for future use.
I stuck my hands into one of the automatic hand-washing units, which spit out soap, water and then a jet of warm air. I looked around for a sink, but technology had advanced to the washing unit and the water fountain, I surmised, would have to do for brushing my teeth.
I returned to my van for my shaving bag and walked back to the bathroom. I noticed a man brushing his teeth by the bushes. Rinsing and spitting from a fast food cup, probably filled with a coke-and-melted-ice combination.
I entered the bathroom and thought of waiting for the last person to leave before using the water fountain to brush my teeth, afraid of the cold stare I would receive for such a heinous and uncivilized act in a public place, but time was of the essence and knowing I would never see the other man again, I shrugged off my usually civilized respect for the rules and started my criminal actions.
I looked up to see he was struggling with the timing of the automatic sink, waiting for the soap dispensing to pass before dipping his own toothbrush into the water stream (a trick I would try later in my rest-stop camping, but using the soap as a toothpaste substitute). He brushed quickly and vigorously and craned his head into the opening to spit and rinse, again, timing out the soap dispenser to await the water stream of the unit.
Our eyes met several times and I’m sure we were both as aware of our trepidation of our actions, but no words were spoken and I think neither of us felt the least bit guilty at having practiced such an odd method of morning hygiene.
I did make sure there was no evidence of toothpaste left behind in the fountain, using my hand to direct the fountain stream to wash away the foam from the steel basin.
I walked back to my van and stashed my camping gear, so to speak, and drove off to my 8 a.m. appointment feeling tired, but wiser for my experience. I knew it would be easier next week.
As weeks of travel turned into months and the months turned into years, I gained the experience of the overnight rest stop campout and I was quite comfortable in my position within the tribe.
There were familiar faces I would see every week and while we didn’t speak, there was a nod at recognition and even the pride of watching others following my water fountain teeth-brushing lessons.
We have respect for each other’s arrival and the unspoken rules of the tribe were never broken by any of us. Occasionally a recreational vehicle would invade our tribal grounds, instead of using the “trucks, trailers and campers” area, but they are not part of our tribe. They slept in comfort and warmth… in beds.
Their generators oozed forth a settling white noise through the night, so we tolerate them, but never made a nod or look in their direction. Our tribe was only for those who contorted themselves around the seats of smaller vehicles. We had to exit our dwellings for bodily relief and hygiene. We adjusted to the seasonal weather with loads of blankets and battery-powered fans.
For those of you who are thrust into our tribe, anywhere across this great nation of rest areas, let me mentor you in the fine art of survival, and elevate myself to the level of rest area shaman:
- The most important supply is at least $10 in change. If you are hungry or thirsty, you will need this financial “spear” to “hunt and gather” Twinkies, cookies and sodas to sustain your strength. But, you must also keep a supply of peanut butter crackers with you at all times in case the gods of the candy machine are angered and post “out of order” notices. The night is long and only the dawn and the open road will supply the drive-thru windows which supply body fuel to lesser men.
- Ear plugs and eye masks are necessities of deep sleep.
- In three seasons out of four, three blankets, no less, must always be within your vehicle. Space blankets will not work and the crinkling noise will drive you insane. You must stay warm in the Winter nights or you will awaken to hypothermia. For more tips on cold weather survival, read Jack London stories and take notes!
- Weapons are not necessary, but you must learn to sleep with your car keys in your hand for a possible quick getaway.
- Park on a flat surface or a carefully considered incline. Sleeping with your head lower than your feet will give you a splitting headache.
- Perhaps the best tip I can hand down to the next generation of tribe members is the knowledge that a complete hair washing can be achieved in the aforementioned automatic hand-washing units. Stick your head into the opening and it’s soap, water and blow dry, all within two minutes!
I plan to give up all I own in my retirement, save my mini-van and have my social security checks delivered to rest areas all over America, wherever I go to visit my kids and grandchildren.
Eating cellophane-wrapped treats and downing endless gallons of soda, I shall gather the tribe for stories of travelers and interloper campers that invade the “cars only” area and watch the children, with tribal names like Camry, Buick, Celica, Ford and Mini Cooper, grow into adults… who live in four-wheeled comfort and safety.
There are many great pieces of literature for the layperson about divorce laws. Some are available from your state family court website. You can also find numerous resources here at DadsDivorce.com.
Check back on the first of every month for the next column, outlining the mistakes I’ve made and how to best work with your attorney for success and, most of all, a better life for you and your children.
To arrange an initial consultation to discuss divorce rights for men, contact Cordell & Cordell.