"This is the best vacation we have ever taken, Mom," my daughter said sleepily to me as we sat around the campfire.
And then it hits me. Of all the amazing places I have taken my kids on vacation, it has never been about the WHERE – it's always about the WHO.
We are a traveling family. We like to explore and make memories. We're always on the go. The yearning to explore was instilled in me by my parents, and I kept up the tradition when I had children of my own. We are also a multi-sport family, so needless to say, we are constantly on the go. But eventually there comes a time when you get a little tired of the constant planning and packing and just want to go and let adventure be your guide.
I give my husband all the credit for coming up with the idea. "Let's take an RV road trip through West Texas!" (Me? Camping for our summer vacation?) I have to admit, I didn't care for the idea initially, but after looking at some of the beautiful Texas State Parks we would visit, I quickly warmed up to the idea.
With very little planning, other than reservations in the two state parks we wanted to visit, we hit the road. We had an old-school map, a fridge full of food and plenty of sunscreen. We were ready to go!
Conscious of the Texas heat, we planned to spend time in the coldest river around - the Frio in Concan, Texas. The Frio flows right through Garner State Park, which offers some of the most beautiful camping in the entire state. Our first three days were filled with hikes up Old Baldy, floating in the cold water, exploring the rapids and cooking under the stars. I will confess that we initially all felt a little disconnected not turning a TV on or scrolling through our phones, but after a few hours of talking and laughing together as a family, we had no trouble leaving all that behind as we traipsed over to the river to dare each other on the rope swings.
The next stop on our trip was over 450 miles to the north; Palo Duro Canyon State Park is just south of Amarillo, Texas. With two days to get there, for the first time in our traveling lives, we didn't have a set plan. (And it was awesome.) We spent a few hours at a site my husband found, a fort built before the Civil War. After the fort, we drove over 45 miles out of the way to reach the geographical center of Texas just because we could. We randomly picked Abilene State Park on the map to stay for the night only to discover it was a gorgeous park with tons of trails and geocaching.
The next morning, we spent a few hours at Frontier Texas, an amazing museum in downtown Abilene that gave us a great historical perspective of the frontier days of Texas. As we rambled our way up north to Palo Duro Canyon, we were filled with great satisfaction of all the wonderful adventures we had experienced - all without one bit of planning.
Palo Duro Canyon is the nation's second largest canyon and one of the most beautiful places in Texas. As we wove our way down into the canyon to find our camping spot, we slowly lost all reception on our phones. It was as if the outside world was slipping away, allowing us to really focus on each other. Normally by day five or six of vacation, our kids are at each other's throats. This time, however, they chatted happily about all the fun things we were going to do over the next few days.
Our time at Palo Duro was filled with ziplining, horseback riding, cooking s'mores around the fire each night, bike rides and several long hikes. It was on one of these hikes that we truly bonded as a family. Anticipating a long hike to see the Lighthouse, we packed our backpacks accordingly and set out after breakfast. The terrain of our hike varied from a tree-covered riverbank to the red dirt desert of west Texas. We traipsed through the hot Texas sun for hours, and not once did I heard an "Are we there yet?" (Even from my five-year-old.) We had some amazing conversations on that hike. I learned everything from what my kids' perfect birthday meal was to what country they would love to live in one day. When we finally reached the Lighthouse, we sat in silence, taking in this amazing view, happy to have accomplished our goal.
I can't remember the last time we spent so much uninterrupted time together – no phones, no electronics - just us. As we hiked the five miles back, the fun chatter continued but not a single complaint.
That night my daughter declared that this was one of the best vacations we had taken together. By stripping away all of the outside interruptions and being together in such a serene and beautiful place, we made an incredible memory that will last forever.
The trip taught me that you don't need a fancy, jam-packed itinerary trip to call an adventure a vacation. You don't need to go far or spend lots of money; all you need is to surround yourself by those you love in a place free from distractions. That's where the bonding, the memories, and the real vacation occur.