Illustration: Charlotte Farmer

On its face, a road trip with children is the worst kind of Faustian bargain. You willingly give up freedom, personal space, and ultimately your soul. In exchange, you don’t get much beyond the smell of Cool Ranch Doritos and kid feet.

A few summers ago, my wife and I loaded up our 2002 Honda Eyesore and drove from the North Side of Chicago to the Black Hills of South Dakota with our (at the time) two children. It was one of the best weeks of my life. I have never fallen more in love with my kids. I also wanted to hogtie the whiny little shits to the roof like Aunt Edna in National Lampoon’s Vacation.

For eight days, my family and I were captives with no distractions beyond the radio, some books, and the view rushing by the window. Of course, we were sick of each other before we got past Arlington Heights.

Then a funny thing happened: We started talking. And singing and arguing and sharing french fries, then getting bored again, then slaphappy, then talky, then silent for hundreds of miles. There were ill-timed bathroom demands that went fulfilled at sketchy truck stops and dusty Cracker Barrels. Whenever we crossed into a new state, a cheer went up from the back seat. The whole cycle happened again and again, and in the process I learned the undistilled thoughts that passed through my kids’ heads, many of them revolving around butts and Pixar characters, but also what they thought about school and friends and life in general.

When we got back to Chicago nine days later, I knew these fascinating little people inside and out. We had not simply experienced America or the freedom of the road or any of that Kerouac Zen-and-the-Art-of-What-Have-You nonsense. We had experienced each other.

Then I stayed away from them for a week.