4 Things A Young Father Should Remember When His Eagerly Anticipated Family Vacation Skids Off Course

4 Things A Young Father Should Remember When His Eagerly Anticipated Family Vacation Skids Off Course
And how to create memories of things other than the burning money.

I always like packing the car before a beach trip. It’s like a game of Tetris, and if I have extra room when the packing is done, I’ve won the game. I won Tetris this year: This was going to be a great trip.

At 4:30am Katie and I woke up, made coffee, and loaded the girls in the car. By 5:00 we were on the road. Ten miles in, it started to rain. That’s fine: It’s a long way to North Carolina, and I had my wife and my babies all strapped in safely with their blankets, stuffed animals, and pillows. And after all, we needed the rain.

We hit Maryland…still raining. And now the rain was starting to annoy me a bit. My eyes were getting tired, and hydroplaning every so many miles will raise anyone’s adrenaline. That being said, by the time we reached Virginia, rain, pouring, sheeting rain.

We made it to North Carolina, and the clouds disappeared. With just over two hours left, the sun was shining, and everyone was excited. The last six hours had been worth the stress because this was going to be a great trip.

I was going 80MPH on 95S and the gas pedal went limp. I looked down at the dash screen and saw the check engine light and this message: “TRANSMISSION PROBLEM. PULL TO SAFETY IMMEDIATELY.”


I managed to coast the car across two lanes of traffic onto the shoulder. Two of my girls started crying.  My wife said, “Pull down the hill so we’re not so close to the highway.” I couldn’t. Once I’d stopped the car, it wouldn’t go back into gear. I turned the car off, let it sit for a few minutes, turned it back on. Nothing.

I told my wife to get on Google maps and find the nearest Acura dealership. They’d be able to diagnose the problem fast. Meanwhile I checked the manual to see what this warning light was all about. I’m pretty car savvy, so the check engine light gave me hope; maybe it was just an O2 sensor. But the transmission warning…I’d never seen that before.

We took an Uber to the dealership. The tow truck showed up with the car about 45 minutes later. We sat in the dealership for two hours, waiting for them to diagnose the problem. It was a Friday afternoon, and they were busy. I was thankful they were even willing to look at it.

Finally the service manager came out: “Well it’s not good. Your fifth gear isn’t syncing correctly, and everytime it misses, it’s going to throw all of these codes that will shut down the car. It might not happen again for another 100k miles, or it might happen again in another 100 feet. We just can’t know.”

A new transmission would be $8500…no. But I also couldn't put my girls back into a car that I knew was unsafe.

They gave us a loaner for the weekend, so we could get to our beach condo and have a few days to unwind and come up with a plan. We got the kids to the sand, the water, the sunshine. It’s what they needed.

I spent the weekend researching what happened, and I found that a new or rebuilt transmission probably wouldn’t fix the problem because this was an electrical issue that was the subject of a class action lawsuit against Acura. Monday morning, we made the two-hour drive back to the dealership to return the loaner, traded them our car, and bought a Volvo. 

We spent the rest of the week focusing on relaxing with our girls. Beach, arcade, ice cream, dinners out, finding seashells. Everything went smoothly. And then our great trip was over.

The morning we left, we had to stop back at the dealership to pick up the second key for the new car and have them correct a swirl in the paint. They told us to expect to be in and out in thirty minutes. We were there for two hours. On the way home, there were accidents on 95N and 495N, so an eight-hour trip turned into twelve.

children's drawing of traffic

We walked inside and found that our whole house reeked of dog pee. Stains, matted fur on the hardwood floors. We had hired a dogsitter, so this didn’t make sense. We pulled up our ring camera footage and saw that the dog sitter let the dogs out front. We only let them out back. She also didn’t stay out and watch them, so not only were they not relieving themselves outside, they were also just wandering around in the street unsupervised. We spent the next two hours and the rest of that weekend deep cleaning the house.

On Sunday, I decided to wax the new car. I noticed a bulge in the sidewall of one of the tires. Internal damage. It must’ve happened on the way home, a rock or a pothole. You can’t drive on a tire with a bulge on the sidewall – it’s a recipe for a blowout. The next day, we spent $1000 for four new tires.

Here are my takeaways from our great trip…

The Best Laid Plans of Mice and Men Often Go Awry

I’d planned the timing of this trip perfectly. I’d packed the car perfectly. I’d even spent the few months before the trip saving up $1000 in cash so that while we were there, I wouldn’t have to worry about money.

Then I had to put money down on a new car, take on a car payment, come home to a destroyed house and buy four new tires. None of this was part of my plan, but making plans and having control over what happens seldom go hand in hand.

There was a lot of frustration on this trip, but a great deal of that frustration was born out of things simply not going the way I’d thought they would go. This was (and remains) a strong reminder for me that I have to roll with the punches. And I hate that expression…but it’s true.

Focus on What Matters in the Long Term

In a moment of distress, it’s easy to focus solely on the problem at hand. Sitting in that dealership, all I could think about was how much all of this was going to cost us. A legitimate concern. But there were two long-term issues that were more important: We needed to make decisions that were going to keep my wife and girls safe moving forward, and we needed to have a family trip on which the girls could have something to remember other than the stupid car.

When it came time to buy the new car, we chose the newest, safest one we could afford with the fewest miles. It was top of our price range, but we didn’t just need a car to get us home from North Carolina; we needed a car to last us the next 7-8 years.

We try not to talk about money in front of the kids anyway, but once we got down to the beach, we didn’t talk about the situation with them at all. We talked about the sand, the waves and which exhibit at the aquarium was their favorite.

One day at our beach condo, my youngest, Everly, jumped into the deep end of the pool without her floaty vest on. She’s five; she was excited and not thinking. My step-daughter, Ellie, was already in the deep end and pulled Everly up. In that moment I realized that literally nothing else mattered. The car broke down. Oh well. We had to get a new car. Oh well.

My kids matter. My wife matters. Everything else is secondary.

You Can Still Choose to Have Fun in a Shitstorm

child drawing of family having fun in a mess

I’m a guy who tends to dwell on the negative. Even after we got the car situation sorted out, I had a hard time settling into vacation mode. I kept thinking about the stress of the whole thing, the money, and…the money. If I stay in this place long enough, I start feeling sorry for myself: Being an adult sucks. Why do I have to deal with this? How come nothing’s ever easy? Knock it off.

The truth is, things don’t happen to me: Things just happen. That’s life. At a certain point on that trip I had to actively decide to let go of the stress, the frustration, and the anger and just have fun with my kids. We rode waves, collected shells, ate more ice cream than should be legally allowed, and I made a conscious decision to be present.

Give Your Dog Sitter Really Specific Instructions


Very little about our vacation went the way I wanted it to go. We spent too much money, had to get a new car, and came home to a total disaster. But if we’d gotten into an accident, if Everly hadn’t made it out of the pool unscathed, I’d be writing a very different story. It seems reductive to say Hey, it could’ve been worse, but in this case, it’s true. I’m allowed to get frustrated, but I also have to maintain perspective. Everything is ok, and all things considered, it was a great trip.

Mike Henson

Mike Henson is a literature teacher in Hershey, Pennsylvania. He enjoys shooting 35mm film, restoring vintage straight blades, purchasing too many American-made goods, and spending time with his wife and their three daughters.