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Opinion: Why I’m grateful I took my mom on a 2,100-mile road trip

A stop along the way on my 2,100-mile road trip with Mom. Photo: Debbie Dujanovic

The following is an opinion piece and does not necessarily reflect the views of KSL Newsradio or its ownership. 

I remember the look on my mom’s face on that December morning in 1990 when I packed up her sedan she’d generously given me to drive.

As she stood at the doorway of my childhood home on the outskirts of Phoenix, it was a difficult day for both of us. I was leaving Arizona on a journey that her instincts probably told her would take me away from my hometown for good. I was moving to Salt Lake City, Utah, to pursue my career in television news.

Salt. Lake. City.

It was just far enough away that seeing mom more than a couple of times a year with my busy new life wouldn’t be in the cards.

Looking back, I can still see her face in my mind. It was a snapshot in time that seemed so much deeper than sad. Despite our mutual excitement over my new job that would most certainly fulfill my passion for journalism, we were both empty.

Mom & me

Growing up, my mom and I had a great relationship. She was the one I turned to when I got cut from just about everything I tried out for in high school. She would sit in my room for hours listening to my syrupy teen talk about boys who never noticed me in the school hallways.

Before that, my mom was the one who slept at the foot of my bed night after night as I fought to not succumb to the evil grips of the childhood disease known as the measles. To this day, she tells me how guilty she feels that I somehow contracted and suffered through a disease she’d diligently vaccinated me against as a baby.

By all means, things aren’t perfect. I’ve made major decisions along the way that have disappointed her — and quite frankly left my mom holding the bag.

Like the time in 1991 when I abruptly called off my first wedding engagement moments before invitations were to hit the mailbox. Mom ate the upfront costs of my canceled wedding day and heard little from me in Utah as she waded through phone calls from people asking what the heck was going on with her daughter.

I’ve placed my pursuit of that next major news story over phone calls and trips back home to see her. And there have been too many times when I’ve let the not-so-graceful side of me surface in discussions about my career and my parenting style when mom had paid me visits.

Thankfully, we’ve been through more ups than downs together, but the one thing we’d never done together since I’d left home is sit, side-by-side in the car, to tackle the open road for hundreds upon hundreds of miles.

My last-minute life

When I called Mom three days before I was scheduled to depart on my last-minute road trip, alone, to Alberta, Canada, I didn’t know what she’d say. Not for any other reason than because once again, I was flying by the seat of my pants, last-minute as usual, and expecting her to jump feet first into my journey.

road trip mom

One of the many stops along the way. Photo: Debbie Dujanovic

But just like Mom, she hung up the phone, sprung into gear, and in 30 minutes she had a flight booked from Phoenix to Salt Lake City in enough time to get my car packed for our six-day, 2,100-mile journey.

She later told me that even if all flights were booked, she would have jumped behind the wheel of her own car to make the 12-hour drive to get to me in time to start driving again.

Let the little things go, now

Mom buckled herself into the passenger seat of my not-so-roomy car and we set out on a Sunday morning, 30 minutes behind schedule.

I’ve worked for 30 years watching a clock to make sure I was standing in front of a TV news camera or sitting in front of a radio microphone at a precise time. Missing deadlines aren’t an option in my universe and clocks have become my crack. So I was silently proud of myself for not muttering a word about being slightly tardy as we backed out of the driveway of my home.

It may seem silly, but this was a pivotal accomplishment for me and that moment set the tone for the next 2,100 miles – I would let the little things go. I think we all have moments that can set a tone and my moment came in the first 30 seconds.

Road trip advice

Flying doesn’t count.

road trip mom

We got so much more out of our trip than a vacation. Photo: Debbie Dujanovic

When you’re honest-to-goodness road-tripping with a parent, it’s important to let them carry the conversation for 90% of the journey, not pick fights, and steer clear of potholes and politics at all costs because you won’t hear the end of either. Let them tell, and re-tell, all the stories about their childhood and life in America before sidewalks and cell phones.

You will hear about the day you were born at least 10 times, get a detailed update on relatives and old friends you erroneously thought had died years earlier, and be reminded of the avocado green carpet inside the tiny home your parents could barely afford when they were setting out in life together.

There’s no way to verify Mom and Dad pushed the car every time it ran out of gas or how few potatoes they had left to split as they scraped by until payday, but it doesn’t matter. The stories are priceless tales that will be passed down to your own grandkids one day.

You’ll need bionic hearing to catch which highway Siri is telling you to take as Mom talks about Grandma right through the exit you just missed because you couldn’t hear Siri over mom.

Don’t let Mom get eaten by a grizzly bear

If you cross a border, threaten to muzzle your parent to be sure they understand you’re the spokesperson for the car if a curious agent starts asking too many prying questions about what’s in the trunk. Honestly, nothing is in the trunk but piles of dirty laundry you’ve both spent hours discussing the best way to get clean, so why are we both shouting guilty-looking answers at a federal agent who may, or may not, let us in or out of a country?

Bring a biblical-sized atlas along for times when the countryside landscape gets a little monotonous. By day three of the journey, Mom or Dad will read it aloud to you and hold it up from the passenger seat to point out all the turns you missed and all the upcoming exits you don’t dare miss or you’ll risk ending up in Russia.

road trip mom

Mom & me. Photo: Debbie Dujanovic

And speaking of wrong turns, I strongly urge you to let it roll off your back when your journey is seemingly derailed by an exit you didn’t realize you had missed two hours ago.

At this moment, do not turn to your parent and ask, “Give it your best guess, what state do you think we’re in right now?”

The good news is, there’s nothing like getting back on course by singing old Elvis tunes together while driving through three hours of plowed farmland with a single semi-truck barely chugging along in front of you.

And above all, don’t be attached to how many experiences they can no longer be a part of, and please appreciate the hikes or sites you can enjoy together.

This part is very important: when your parent tells you to go on ahead on the path without them while they quietly wait for you on a park bench under a grizzly bear warning sign, don’t keep going. Just don’t.

Besides, I bet they never left you behind under a grizzly bear warning sign.

How wrong turns prove our parents love us

After two days on the road, I realized something special: the thing about parents, especially patient parents, is no matter how many times you screw up and how many wrong turns you take on a road trip, or in life, they tell you how amazing you are. How proud they are. How blessed they are that God sent YOU to them! They never stop being there for you.

road trip mom

2,100 miles turned out to be the journey of a lifetime. Photo: Debbie Dujanovic

On day three, and a few wrong turns later, Mom and I made it to Canada and spent many hours inhaling our glorious destination, Banff National Park.

We hiked, we talked, we laughed, we took pictures, we felt overwhelmed to have a front-row seat to heavenly places we’d never seen before and don’t know if we’ll see again, at least not together.

We birdwatched on a sunset backdrop, gasped at lakes and rivers in Idaho, snapped selfies along wildflower-laced trails in Montana, and accidentally wound up in Oregon and Washington to take in a barrage of red barns and windmills for hundreds of unplanned miles.

My unexpected revelations

By about mile 1,900 on our drive back to Utah, something else hit me: the thing about a one-on-one car trip with your parent is you get to spend hours on end listening, uninterrupted by life outside the car.

It’s just the two of you, barely any cell service, an occasional wrong turn that gives way to more forgotten tales and remember-when moments, which turn into uncontrollable fits of laughter, and leave you both with a million memories.

When I dropped my mom off at the Salt Lake International Airport for her return flight to Phoenix, I told her how special it was for me to spend hundreds of miles by her side. She kissed me and told me how special it was to her as well.

As I caught a glimpse of her smiling face, I remembered that it’s been almost 30 years since I’d pulled out of my parent’s Arizona driveway that December morning in 1990.

Three decades later, a 2,100-mile road trip with just Mom and me had unexpectedly replaced the image of that empty goodbye I’d unknowingly carried with me for far too long.