By Gregory Keer
I am geographically challenged. As a child, my navigational deficiencies surfaced when I got lost in shopping malls and grocery stores. I regularly made the milk-carton waiting list for missing persons.
As a teenager, my directional disorder extended to my driving. I often criss-crossed the city, missing freeway off-ramps, making panicked calls from payphones, and being late to dates because I couldn’t find my way to a coffee shop without a Bat Signal or police escort.
Even after two decades with a wife who rivals the Thomas Brothers for route-making mastery, and despite the benefits of online map programs, I still can’t drive far without wondering if I’ll need a search-and-rescue team to find me hours later.
All of this explains why leading a road trip with my children gives me a palsy shake.
Spurred by my desire to overcome my failings in the name of giving my kids memorable experiences, I prepare for a three-day trip to San Diego with my youngest sons (my wife is working out of town and my oldest has plans with his grandparents). I print directions from Yahoo! Maps for each proposed stop and pre-load Google directions onto my phone. I even have the benefit of having made the journey before, albeit with my wife navigating, so I have some sense of how to get there. How could anything go wrong?
After 20 minutes on the freeway, my heart palpitates. I call my wife long distance.
“I’m lost,” I say edgily.
“Are you on the 405?” my wife whispers from a meeting across the country.
“Yahoo says to take the 5 and there’s no 5,” I stammer.
“Turn around and get on the 405,” she says. “It’s easier for you.”
“What do you mean, ‘easier for me’? I reply defensively.
At this point, my precocious nine year old looks up from his video game.
“Daddy, take the 405,” Jacob instructs.
“I can handle this on my own,” I say with forced confidence.
Of course, I double back for the 405. Two hours, countless map checks, and several surface-street U-turns later, we reach our destination.
“We’re here,” I announce proudly.
“Are you sure we’re in the right place?” Jacob remarks.
“The parking lot has animal signs!” Ari (6) confirms.
The San Diego Zoo is well worth the stress of traveling there and I maneuver around the park fairly well as we observe all manner of beasts, including the lions Ari favors and the performing seals Jacob loves. When we ride the aerial tram, I look over the surrounding area, thinking that everything seems easy to get to from a bird’s eye view.
Following a night in which I take 30 minutes to find the seafood restaurant that is three minutes from our hotel, we arrive at our next day’s location, Legoland. This is an amusement park meant for me — small enough that it’s simple to re-orient myself when I end up in Pirate Shores despite the plan to find The Dragon roller coaster. All day, Jacob tries to take charge as our guide, but I successfully lead us for seven fun-filled hours.
On our trip’s last morning, I feel grand. I’ve entertained, nourished, and rested my sons without mistakenly stumbling across the national border. We rejoice with the reward of a room service breakfast (how does a bowl of oatmeal end up costing $15?) for cooperating with Daddy, even during his most anxious moments.
A visit to the Fleet Science Center at Balboa Park rounds out our itinerary in apt fashion since we’re supposed to get lost in the interactive exhibits. Still trying to prove he can navigate better than me, Jacob finds a whole wing of the museum few visitors know about.
It’s 8pm by the time we head home. My hope is that the kids will fall asleep quicker than it takes for me to suffer my inevitable panic attack about changing freeways.
“Daddy, do you know how to get back?” Jacob says groggily.
“I sure do,” I promise.
“Thanks for taking us all over the place,” he yawns.
I smile into the rearview mirror as he drifts off to slumber.
An hour later, I frantically negotiate through surprising traffic to get to a gas station before we run out of fuel. Then, I have a heckuva time finding an onramp and almost miss the freeway switch — twice.
But we do get home. And nobody needs to know how we got there, right?