Gretchen Breuner, Author, The Road Scholarz: 'Lessons from the Scenic Route'
Related Story: San Diego Mom Offers Advice For Summer Road Trips
CAVANAUGH: Last week, KPBS reporter, Alison St. John explored the ins and outs of summer road trips. Here's that interview.
ST. JOHN: Road trips are adventures, and a big part of family vacations. But life on the road can also be challenging. Getting lost, car breakdowns, and traveling with kids is not that simple and could be stressful! But San Diego mom Gretchen Breuner was up to the challenge. She pulled her three kids out of school, put them in a used RV and took them on a 10,000 mile adventure across the United States. After visiting 19 states, Breuner is now sharing lessons she learned about life on the road in her book 'The Roadscholarz: Lessons from the Scenic Route.' This trip that you decided to take with your kids, it was a self-exploration, wasn't it?
BREUNER: Yes, it was more than that. But in the beginning, I thought it was just a road trip. We started here. We went to Lexington, Kentucky, did a northern route, then we turned on the southern route. We travelled across 19 states and did more than 10,000 miles in three months.
ST. JOHN: And you were homeschooling the kids all this time?
BREUNER: Yes, I pulled them out for their full semester because -- for no reasons, between weather and crowd, and I just wanted to have that experience on the road with them, which is why we became the road scholars.
ST. JOHN: So what was your goal in the first place?
BREUNER: When I planned it it was just to have fun with the kids. But it was really life-changing for all of us, but primarily for myself, which I didn't expect. It was a wonderful surprise to arrive home a new person, as it were.
ST. JOHN: So you didn't expect what happened. Give us some examples of things that happened that you were not expecting.
BREUNER: One, of course, you expect breakdowns mechanically, but the growth we all experienced, and more than that, it was the connection. For me, I had been home with the kids for ten years, and to kind of lose sight of myself in what I wanted to do, the road trip actually helped bring me home, to me.
ST. JOHN: If you were going to tell somebody else who was about to embark on a cross-country road trip in an RV with three kids, what would be the most important piece of advice?
BREUNER: First is to help them plan the trip. That gentlemanings them, and they get excited about what they can look forward to. Something of specific interest to them. Secondly would be to be flexible. You can't plan the trip perfectly. As my husband said, don't expect perfection.
ST. JOHN: Presumably there were many things that didn't go according to plan. Do you think it's possible to overplan?
BREUNER: Oh, great question! I did that. I booked all kinds of reservations ahead of time thinking I was being smart and ahead of the game, and sure enough, breakdowns happened, and we travelled at a slower place than I expected, missed our reservations at national parks. Soy you -- so I learned you can't plan everything.
ST. JOHN: One of the tips you have in your book is about being in a hurry. Isn't that a tendency, especially when we're living these busy lives?
BREUNER: Right. A road trip really helps you to slow down because there's so much to see. And if you move too fast on a road trip, your kids will tell you, this is too fast because it creates anxiety, and I think fatigue for everybody. So it's a great way to slow down because in essence, it forces you to.
ST. JOHN: How did you decide as you were planning what would appeal to your kids?
BREUNER: I asked them ahead of time the specific interests that they had. But most importantly for safety, I planned the route to go north first to follow the weather. We left in September, we got home pretty much the first of December. So I knew I wanted to do the northern route, and are then head south because of snow.
ST. JOHN: And then you presumably, every kid has a slightly different taste in what they like to do. How did you manage to keep all three of them happy for this along road trip?
BREUNER: It follows a lesson of you take your turn. Depending on where we were in the trip and whose point of interest we were saying, they were very agreeable as far as there were no, like, now it's my turn! We all learned from each other's interests, and that was a great lesson for all of us.
ST. JOHN: Now, there's tough times coming for an RV in a small space for a family of four. What did you do when things started to get intense on the road?
BREUNER: It was a great way for the kids to become a team, actually. Oi wasR I was -- I was the only driver. They'd have posts. So each kid was either on the left side or the right side behind me, and one in the front seat. Changing lanes, it was -- you know, clear? Clear, mom. Time to go over.
MAUREEN ST. JOHN: Oh, that's a great idea!
BREUNER: So they had a job, and they had a place in the trip too. They were excellent mavigators. They learned to read maps, and GPS, and look out the window and make the trip a game too.
ST. JOHN: Did you have games?
BREUNER: We had the license plate game. Trying to get the semis to honk at us. And the best one was books on CD.
ST. JOHN: Ah, ha. In any family, you always need perhaps a little space, right? A little time alone. How do you factor that into a long trip?
BREUNER: That's such a funny question, because the answer is unusual. Alone time is really important. And I guess that's a lesson for all of us to remember, to get that on a road trip, I would pull into the camp ground, and I would take a lap around by myself. And then I realized the kids actually needed one-on-one time with me, and they'd say mom, can I come on your walk too? So I'd do my lap, then take a lap with each of them. But past that, we'd also pull into Walmart. Walmart became my baby sitter. I had a walkie-talkie for myself, and one for the kids, and we would divide and conquer the store. That was my alone time. It gave them at a chance to explore, and me a chance to be by myself.
ST. JOHN: Would you say your relationship with your skids changed in a way that it wouldn't have if you stayed at home?
BREUNER: Yes. I think that they saw me in a whole new position, as it were. Mom taking the lead. It's very unusual to be a solo woman on the road. It's typically traditional husband and wife, two kids, or retired grandparents traveling. So I think they were able to see me in more of a nontraditional leadership role as it were.
ST. JOHN: And perhaps they too adopted leadership roles at times.
BREUNER: Absolutely. And they realized that they became more independent and better friends with each other. Because they were the only kids on the road. So they were the team, they were their play dates, but they also had an independence that we don't normally have at home. As parents, we tend to keep them close, and the road trip allowed them to explore and be more independent.
ST. JOHN: Were there any scary moments for you?
BREUNER: Yes. One was breaking down on day 2, and cutting off semis and pulling off. But the other one is -- as a solo parent, especially as a woman, you have your red flags up. And there were only two other times they felt like -- not in danger, but definitely on alert. A solo woman attracts attention, especially in this kind of situation. One time I had taken a shortcut, which didn't turb out to be such a shortcut will
ST. JOHN: You knot lost.
>> And that was pretty scary. And I tried to hide that from the kids, but yeah, we were roof route for quite a few hours, and that made everybody nervous.
ST. JOHN: So you didn't succeed in hiding it from the kids.
BREUNER: At the end, I fell apart! But that's because I knew we were back on the road to safety. And my husband, poor guy, we have a standing 6:00 call as a safety call.
ST. JOHN: That's a good idea.
BREUNER: And I missed that call by a number of hours. And by that time, he would trace my cellphone, trace my visa, where was the last stop to try to recreate my path.
ST. JOHN: On the other hand, sometimes when you get lost or take a turn you didn't intend to, perhaps you find some things you never would have seen!
BREUNER: Right. A detour is what I prefer to call them.
[ LAUGHTER ]
BREUNER: And absolutely. A chapter in the book is you see the unexpected in a detour, and the kids recognize, they even said, wow, we would have never seen that had we gone the route we planned!
ST. JOHN: What were the things that the kids really liked the most?
BREUNER: I think more than anything -- more than anything was the freedom from our regular routine. It was a break from the chop chop of getting ready for school and off to soccer. It was a reprieve from all of that kind of frenetic schedule. They commented on sleeping in in the morning and just reading or taking our time and -- the relaxed pace. I think more than anything, that's what they appreciated.
ST. JOHN: So that is really an important tip then. Don't plan your trip so much so you're always in a rush to get to the next spot.
BREUNER: Absolutely. It's a killjoy. When you do a road trip, you want to plan time in between, and time to relax, and just to be.
ST. JOHN: What about your own feelings where you got into a difficult situation there? Or perhaps someone honks at you you, are or you have some road rage.
BREUNER: One of the chapters in the book, it says while flipping other drivers off is often gratifying, it's not recommended because of course your children watch you. And sure enough, mine did.
[ LAUGHTER ]
BREUNER: So I kept a check on the road rage. It's just trying to remain calm under pressure to show them you face adversities in different ways.
ST. JOHN: And you did have somebody you called every day to touch base and decompress.
BREUNER: Right. My husband was my safety guy, and my Czech check-in. And it was a chance for the kids to talk to dad. Historically, we didn't connect well on the phone. I travel often. And either Mike was busy or I was busy. This way it was a reserve time, the kids knew it was coming, I knew it was coming, and it really allowed the connection to take place.
ST. JOHN: What can other parents learn from you? What would you say is the most important piece of advice for people setting off on not quite as long as your road trip, but any road trip can be challenging?
BREUNER: Right. I have people saying well, I'm not going to go for three months! And the truth is, you don't have to do a road trip for three months to learn the lessons that we learned, and are the lessons that the book talks about. It's primarily not to lose sight of yourself and your own interests, and to stay your course. If you just keep putting your kids first, which is a very natural thing for parents to do, are it ultimately a disservice to them, to your partnership, and more so to yourself because you're not taking your own path seriously. And I think that's a lesson for all patients to learn and remember will.
ST. JOHN: Did you have to set some ground rules before you left that turned out to be really important or did you develop some along the route?
BREUNER: I think both. We had a list by the end of the trip, and it was taped up in the RV, and it said ways to get along.
ST. JOHN: Oh, yes!
BREUNER: And it became sort of a mantra. No screaming, and to be kind, and to listen to one another. In small quarters like an RV or a car, you feel like your personal space is invaded, and it's how to respect that.
ST. JOHN: And one of the things is I guess that you planned to go and visit something as you're going across country, and did you find that in some cases, the kids were completely uninterested and you just had to give up your plan and move on?
BREUNER: Yes! Our stop No. 1 was Hoover dam, and it was 102 degrees. And it was literally the second day of the trip, the morning of. And we had to walk across a dam, and my daughter lilly just quote "I hate Hoover dam." And I thought what have I set myself up for? Thankfully that was really the one spot that got the negative reaction. But they just went with the flow most of the time.
ST. JOHN: And were there some things that you would not have predicts they would have enjoyed but they really remember when they look back on if?
BREUNER: I I didn't -- I expected the national parks to be as well receives as they were. I didn't expect the kids to pick up on the nuances on the differences of our country. And they could feel that as we drove across and passed through different -- the north to the eastern, southern states.
ST. JOHN: Can you talk about that? What were they feeling?
BREUNER: It was an interesting time that we travelled because it was 2008, so Obama was being elected, gay marriage was being discussed, and as we went through Martin Luther King, Native Americans, the kids, especially my daughter, seam Sammy, who was the youngest at the time, made these connections of how -- why did we treat people like this? And that was such a huge ah, ha moment for me because she was just 5.5. She was a kindergartner. And she started to see these connections that I don't know you really get in a classroom because they stood on the battlefields, and they stood where Martin Luther King was shot, and JFK. So it was really interesting for me to see that kind of connection be made.
ST. JOHN: Very different from being in the classroom. And also very different from homeschooling at home.
BREUNER: Right! And here we turned the country into our classroom, which was a unique experience for all of us.
ST. JOHN: Well, that explains the title of your book, the road scholars. I guess your husband was pretty glad to see you home when you finally made it back.
>> Yes, he was so wonderful. Truthfully, the trip couldn't have happened without him, and the trip couldn't have happened without the kids, and he was -- I truly mean this, brave to watch his family set out. And who knew what could come up and what would happen? And he met us three times on the road for one or two nights, and our homecoming was meeting in Sedona, Arizona, for Thanksgiving weekend. And I stayed with my sister who met us as well, and he took the RV and had a chance to experience what the kids and I had had for three months.
ST. JOHN: Very good. Because then you had some memories to share.
BREUNER: Right. The comment was, jeez, dad, you drive the RV a lot faster than mom does.
[ LAUGHTER ]
ST. JOHN: Well, I'd like to thank you very much. Very book is quite fun.
BREUNER: Thank you so much.