The Cost of Spring Break with School-Age Children, Illustrated and Annotated
by Joshua Michtom
Of all the coming sacrifices that you fail to consider when you have kids (so many!), the most insidious is how all the vacation time you accumulate will be divided in equal measure between staying home with them when they are sick and taking them places when they are on school vacation. This is not to say that raising kids isn’t wonderful and enriching and etc. etc., but for much of their lives, they are whiny travelers who insist on doing boring stuff. Important pleasures that they generally fail to appreciate include ocean sunsets, after-rain forest smell, and weekends walking around Philadelphia and getting drunk. Also, entertaining them costs money.
Of course, you don’t have to go anywhere for vacation. State tourism boards have coined the odious word “staycation” for the perfectly lovely practice of taking time off from work to do nothing and go nowhere. The problem with this is that you, and by you, I mean me, are divorced. This means that for all of your strong personal feelings about egalitarianism and the rejection of privilege and consumerism, you are secretly terrified that your children will fail to internalize the joys of the simple life and will spend their childhood dreading their vacations with you because their mother’s mother is loaded, and when she takes them on vacation they go skiing in fucking Utah, and on top of that they go to school in a suburban district where you have actually heard grade school kids walking through hallways and casually talking about “when I was in St. Maarten.” So you feel obliged to concoct some excursion that is modest and funky and showcases how much fun can be had within driving distance, and secretly hope that when the kids are grown, they will appreciate these trips the way you appreciate the times you and your mom walked all the way to Coney Island to save the train fare and be able to buy soft serve and knishes.
Here’s what it costs:
4 days and 3 nights at a tiny cabin in the woods outside Saugerties, N.Y.: $265
This was supposed to be a camping trip in upstate New York, where I wanted to go to visit my aunt for part of the trip (because I can stay at her house for free and she has endless patience for boring kid activities and always insists on paying for them), but all the campgrounds in that region don’t open until May, because snow is something that happens in mid-April in that neck of the woods. But I found this cabin that looked fun and bucolic, and it’s not exactly camping because it is heated and has a solar panel that generates enough juice to charge our phones, but it sort of is camping because we can cook over an open fire and there is no toilet or outhouse so we have to shit in the woods. Is $88 a night too much for a place where you have to shit in the woods? Probably. But there is a lake there, and when we arrive, my children hop out of the car and immediately start catching salamanders while I unload the car and my girlfriend starts a fire, and the fact that the cabin is not so much in pristine woods as it is in some random place near a mobile home where people dump all kinds of garbage in a creek ends up being OK because the kids think the dump is cool and find toys there and I keep telling myself that Child Protective Services will never find out that I let my children frolic for hours in a tetanus-themed amusement park.
Groceries for me, my girlfriend, and my two sons: $78.94
S’mores ingredients and burgers and hot dogs and exactly zero vegetables because vacation! Also because vacation: beer, and bottle of fancy rye whiskey with a really long neck so that when we sit by the fire and drink from it after the kids are asleep in the cabin, it glug-glug-glugs as if we were guzzling, even when we are actually taking modest sips.
Meals out: $90
Do the children understand how driving around rural roads in upstate New York on vacation is a magic moment away from any attempt at healthy eating or sensible budgeting? Will they cherish the memories of greasy burgers and luscious pies at out-of-the-way diners, or just wonder why they have to put up with so much goddamn rice and beans at home?
More gummi worms? Why the hell not. We’re on vacation. I will eat a whole box of Entenmann’s chocolate chip cookies by myself and pretend that it’s not something I do regularly at home.
Three tanks. It is good that we bought the ’02 Prius, even though it is from the era when Prius gas mileage was really just adequate — it’s still better than the vehicle we made do with before, my ’96 Ranger, which, being a pickup truck, is exactly wrong vehicle for four people traveling many hundreds of miles. The Prius clangs and rattles ominously as it traverses the long, potholey dirt road to the cabin, and its Obama/Biden sticker (a remnant of the prior owner, although we voted for them too) makes us stand out in rural New York, where a gas station staffed by an immigrant sells many different anti-immigrant bumper stickers and one with a picture of Obama that says “NUMBER ONE GUN SALESMAN IN AMERICA.” The children, blessedly, are oblivious to the car’s travails, to the bumper stickers (including “I LIKE BOOBIES” and another with silhouettes of strippers that says “SUPPORT WORKING MOTHERS,” which I am glad I don’t have to explain to my seven-year-old), and even to the crumbling-barns-and-fallow-fields scenery. They occupy themselves in the back seat with cryptic, invented games and movies on the iPad.
My girlfriend makes fun of me because whenever I pay toll collectors or grab one of those tickets from them, I say, “How ya doin’?” in a Brooklyn accent. The accent is real, but it only ever comes out of me when I am drunk, nervous, or, for some reason, talking to toll collectors.
Howe Caverns: $76
This is probably too much money to pay for two adults and two children to do almost anything, but still, Howe Caverns is pretty great. It’s a series of huge caves and a river 150 feet underground, with stalagmites and stalactites and cool lighting and nature’s majesty and so on. The tour starts with an introduction to the history of the caves presented by a terrifying animatronic model of the guy who discovered them (Howe, naturally). I had to stand at the back of the tour group because that motherfucker’s rubber face was already giving me nightmares, but apparently kids have a different understanding of the uncanny valley than I do, because my boys were right up at the front, within grabbing distance of that grotesquerie, and afterward my nine-year-old said, “That old guy at the beginning of the tour was weird.” I wonder how much of the admission price goes to maintaining that awful thing.
Opus 40: $25
This is much more worth it. It’s an old quarry that a retired art professor from Bard made into a huge outdoor sculpture full of ramps and hiding places and deep, tranquil, snow-and-ice-filled pools. I came here with my mom when I was seven, and there was no admission and it was raining and I could run unsupervised and climb high rock walls while a creepy dude who worked there hit on my mom. That was also the trip where I cut my left index finger all the way through the bone in a freak whittling accident, so maybe I should be thankful that Opus 40 is spruced up now and not creepy, because my older son has a new pocket knife and is obsessed with whittling, and it would probably be tempting fate somehow if this trip resembled my childhood trip too much.
New York State road map: $5.99
You don’t think about whether your google maps will work in the boonies when you are patting yourself on the back for saving money by switching to a budget, no-contract cellular carrier.
Movie rentals for kid pacification on long car rides: $5.98
The 1981 Harry Hamlin version of “Clash of the Titans” has lost none of its appeal with the under-10 demographic. “Free Birds” is a recent film that my kids seemed to like even though it did not have Harry Hamlin. I should probably go back and re-watch “L.A. Law” now that I am a lawyer, and old.
Headphones for kids to share: $9.99
The speaker on the iPad is pretty much inaudible when the Prius is doing 80 and the radio is on, and damnit, the radio has to be on: just as the folks in the back seat need movies to get through the drive, the folks in the front seat need to be able to sing along loudly to Argentinian rock songs from the early ’90s, because if two people who actually know and enjoy Argentinian rock songs from the early ’90s manage to find each other and fall in love in Hartford, Conn., it would be an affront to destiny for them not to enjoy those songs together. This is probably the reason why gas stations sell headphones.
Grand Total: $699.83
Josh Michtom is a public defender in Hartford, Connecticut. He spends way too much of his spare time decorating his children’s school lunch bags.
Top Photo: Blake Handley