Discover Your Kids and Yourself: Be A Travel Dad
By Scott Beller
Daddying blog Editor
Our family arrived home from our trip to France – Paris, Normandy, Loire Valley – on July 4. Independence Day. Despite our rising high-school sophomore’s initial protestations and missing her friends (she quickly got over it), arriving at the airport to rent a car and discovering mom and dad had left all passports back at the downtown Paris Airbnb (thankfully, we were waylaid just a couple hours thanks to mom’s resourcefulness), and a lost bag upon return to the States (mom’s), it was an amazing, eye-opening trip and one I’m confident my daughters will remember and talk about for the rest of their lives.
While I absolutely will share some photos of our trip, including the image above, this post is not about our trip to France. Not directly, anyway. It’s about a trip to the past and a trip not taken. Thanks, as always, for bearing with me.
My father hated to travel. That’s the only conclusion one could draw from many decades of evidence. I remember only two times during my childhood when he and my mom went out of town, just the two of them, for a couple’s getaway. Once, they took a plane to Acapulco for a week. The second time, they took the train (I think) to New York City for a long weekend.
I would tell you more about their trips, but they never told us anything about them. They just showed us a few photos they took, which arrived, like all photos developed from film back then, many weeks after the fact. The image I remember most vividly was one of my father posing next to a lion statue in front of the New York City Library entrance. And he wasn’t smiling.
As kids, my sister and I knew our family’s one “big” summer vacation trip would be to Rehoboth Beach, DE. A two-hour drive from home if we left at our father’s usual before-dawn timing to beat Bay Bridge traffic snarls. We usually rented an apartment a few blocks off the beach from the Lingos (who now seem to own most all Rehoboth rental properties) not just because it was cheaper accommodations, but also so we could save money by making most of our meals at home. Made our daily lunch slice and half-steak sub at Louie’s Pizza all the more delicious. Our $5 in quarters to spend on Pacman, Punchout, and Skee-Ball at Fun Land more precious.
My mom saved all year to make that trip happen, earmarking a little from each of her Fairfax County Public Schools paychecks for a vacation fund and, from time to time, slipping a little cash into an envelope marked “beach expenses.”
My mom, sister, and I did often take one more summer car trip together to North Carolina to see her extended family. My father never went. Not once.
Photos of my father and me from my childhood are rare in any context. But photos of us on vacation together, to my knowledge, do not exist. The few early vacation photos I still own copies of are either of just me or me and my sister. Even when he was in photos with us, he showed no interest in being there and almost never smiled.
After my mom and dad’s separation and divorce my sophomore year in high school, I never vacationed with my father again. He never asked.
I did once.
In 1997, I had been living in Dallas for a couple of years after moving there for a job. My father was poorly handling the aftermath of his second divorce. On one of our many awkward, drawn-out, long-distance calls in which he’d lament over his past misdeeds and tell me how much he envied how I was able to overcome previous relationship breakups, I suggested he take a break and fly out to Dallas. We could hang out, do some day-tripping to places I’d not yet explored in the area, catch a Rangers game. Whatever.
Because I traveled frequently on Southwest Airlines at the time, I’d built up several free flight coupons, and I offered to send him some in order to cover his roundtrip from BWI to Love Field. I was encouraged and more than a little surprised that he accepted. I sent the coupons the next day, and he never used them. Never explained why.
I didn't know whether my father was just afraid of flying or afraid of traveling alone. I do know he was afraid of being alone in life, hence his third marriage, which came not long after the second. It lasted a while longer, but ultimately, it also ended in disaster. I think maybe if he’d taken that leap – that solo trip to Dallas – he might have learned something about himself that could have buoyed him, helped him get back on his own feet. He might have begun to realize he was capable of being on his own and that there was more for him out there. Maybe it would have changed his perspective on a lot of things. Maybe it would have changed how the rest of his days played out.
We all hear how exciting, fulfilling, and mind-opening discovering new places, exploring different cultures, and meeting new people can be. But I’ve also found that traveling is just as important to knowing and understanding and caring about yourself and how you fit into the world. Once I was able to travel more as an adult, I seized the opportunity. My first international trip didn't come until I was in my early-30s. I went to Italy for two weeks by myself. After moving to Dallas in my mid-20s, I gained a little confidence in moving out of my comfort zone.
On the other hand, I think my father was an example of how living a restricted life can eat you up. The older he got, the more conservative, stubborn, paranoid, bitter, and hopeless he became. No, he didn’t shun travel because of the costs. it was his self-loathing, which he projected outward, that kept him anchored at home to familiar surroundings and routines that only facilitated his downward spiral.
The last time I spoke with him in person, as I sat at the foot of his hospice bed, he asked me, again, what he could do to make things “right.” I told him what I thought about the way he treated me during my childhood. How it made me feel then and now. I told him what I thought about the way he treated other people in his life, loved ones and strangers. And I told him what I thought about the way he treated himself.
As usual, he nodded. He wept. He thanked me. But, as usual, it didn’t stick with him. He continued to lash out at people he said he loved. At hospice and, later, hospital staff at multiple facilities. A few months later, he was found dead in his apartment alone.
There’s no way for me to know for sure that my father’s life would have been extended had he broken free of the fortress he'd built around himself, hardened with each divorce. He couldn't leave what he considered his "comfort" zone. I believe that just the act of traveling alone (or with others who could stand being with him for any length of time) more frequently could have effectively challenged his negative thoughts and understanding of himself. It might have given him more confidence to try new things. To evolve into a different, more tolerant person. It would have expanded his known universe, his vocabulary, and his capacity for accepting new ideas. I think it would have made a difference.
I think my father was just afraid of seeing what he’d been missing all his life. And, as a brilliant, English playwright once observed, "In time we hate that which we often fear." Bottom line is that money wasn't the reason my father traveled so rarely. The wasted Southwest ticket finally convinced me of that. It was his battle with himself.
We couldn’t afford to travel much when I was a kid. But I didn’t realize then that it doesn’t have to be ridiculously expensive to travel. You don’t have to fly across the country or an ocean to see and appreciate new things, places, and cultures. You don’t have to fly at all. Sure, gas prices go up in the summer, but car travel is still relatively inexpensive and convenient. There are sure to be places just an hour or two down the road from you just begging for a visit and your tourism dollars. Hell, even a bike ride into town can present opportunities for discovery.
I’ve tried to take those early memories as motivation to do what I can to provide a diversity of travel opportunities for my own kids. Although we still bargain hunt (who doesn’t?), our family is fortunate to be able to afford international travel. My wife’s business travel sometimes provides some frequent hotel-stay credits, and our beach trip destination is usually my sister’s OBX condo reached by car. No matter our destination or mode of travel, my objectives are the same: relax, learn something new, have good food, create good memories. And I always try to be sure while traveling that I am there – I am present – for my kids as much as myself. There's nothing I love more about traveling these days than experiencing new places and discovering all they have to offer with my kids (whether they are enthusiastic about it or not).
I wish my father had been capable of stepping outside his emotional bunker into a world that had so much to offer him, including so many travel opportunities to bond with his kids. If he had experienced more of the joy of discovery with his family, maybe then he would have realized – like I have as a traveling dad – that his comfort zone could be with us no matter where we went.
Scott Beller is the proud, imperfect dad of two mighty girls, Morgan and Lauren, imperfect husband of rock-star mom, Elisabeth, former soccer coach, a Rick Steves devotee from way back, Editor of the Daddying blog, and DCG's Director of Communications. He's a seasoned writer and PR agency veteran with more than 30 years of experience helping organizations of all sizes reach audiences and tell their stories. Prior to launching his own creative communications consultancy in 2003, he led PR teams with some of the world’s most respected agencies, including Fleishman-Hillard and The Weber Group. As a consultant, he’s helped launch two other parenting advocacy nonprofits with DCG founder Allan Shedlin. His first book, Beggars or Angels, was a ghostwritten memoir for the nonprofit Devotion to Children's founder Rosemary Tran Lauer. He was formerly known as "Imperfect Dad" and Head Writer for the Raising Nerd blog, which supported parents in inspiring the next generation of scientists, engineers, and creative problem solvers. He earned his BA in Communications from VA Tech.