The family vacation of a lifetime

Would you be willing to trek 13,000 miles across multiple countries? Now, imagine that your kids are with you. That’s exactly the journey that the Kirkby family went on recently. Adventure-seeking parents Bruce Kirkby and his wife Christine Pitkanen brought their two sons, Bodi (age 7) and Taj (age 3), along for an atypical family vacation. They traveled “surface only” — by boat, car, train, horse and on foot — en route to the Himalayas.

“Travel is so often destination oriented, but to us, the journey mattered just as much, or even more, than the destination. We could have flown to the Himalayas, but we wanted our children to experience everything in between; that great tapestry of cultures and languages and countries that would be missed from an airplane seat,” said photojournalist Kirkby.

“We also wanted to show our boys that everything on the planet is connected,” added Kirkby. “The world, especially for a young child, can seem infinitely large. Tracing a journey from our house to the other side of the world helps them see how the things we do at home affect others far away, and visa versa.

“Finally, Christine and I both love adventure and travel, and wanted to share that passion with our boys,” he added.

As a travel writer and photographer, Kirkby was used to traveling alone, but the addition of his wife and young children posed some obstacles for the seasoned globetrotter.

Travel Channel, www.travelchannel.com, cameras followed the Kirkby family documentary-style on their incredible journey to a remote Himalayan region. The typical travel challenges arose, like sickness from altitude changes, missed trains, and unfamiliar food.

Traveling light

“We prepared very carefully, as we had to be light. We took only the bare essentials — a few sets of clothes, one book each, first aid kit, etc. As parents, the primary thing we focus on each day is making sure the boys get enough food and sleep. If those are taken care of, the children can handle almost anything. But if they lag behind in either, travel quickly becomes difficult.

“There were times on the journey — when trains arrived four hours late, or every dish we were served was hot with spice — that meeting these needs was difficult, and required ingenuity.

Honing math skills

“The boys have been traveling all their life, so they were almost ‘at home’ on the road. There were meltdowns of course, but probably less than at home, because spending so much time with their parents tends to calm them, especially Bodi,” said Kirkby. “We rewarded them for good behavior and helping with family tasks by giving them each a small amount of change in local currency. They loved trying their hand at bargaining — and the math they learned in the process was amazing. They both returned home with a sack full of trinkets and mementos from around the world that they still play with today. Allowing them to buy their own things, with their own money, gave both of them a sense of control in the crazy journey — and brought both an immense amount of joy.”

Any extended travel with children takes great preparation, and the ability to travel with only the “bare essentials” is a skill that even the average family going on a week-long vacation could appreciate.

Accommodating special needs

However, the Kirkbys are not the average family. One of the bigger challenges the Kirkby family faced during the journey was autism. The oldest child of the Kirkby family, Bodi, is on the autism spectrum, and that had a significant impact on the family’s travel decisions and preparation.

“A child on the autism spectrum craves predictability and routine, so we showed Bodi a visual schedule of the coming day each morning,” says Kirby. “There were unexpected shifts in plans at times, which were hard for him. He also needs quiet time and space, which can be difficult on crowded trains and streets. We brought ear-phones and music to help calm him in these situations. Overall, we find travel calms Bodi, which may seem counterintuitive, but the basic routine of getting up, moving, eating, then sleeping stays the same, day after day, and was something he could lean on.”

Choices have to be deliberate when traveling with a child on the autism spectrum, and the unexpected nature of travel — with delays, cancellations and constant changes — somehow have to be preempted to ensure the child remains comfortable.

The Kirkbys’ experience illustrates that the key to adventure travel as a family is balance.

Mixing travel, fun, and rest

“Balancing travel with local exploration and relaxation. We need to make distance, but also wanted to ensure the boys didn’t get exhausted, so we needed to make sure every few days we had the chance to play in a pool or by a lakeside, and not always be driving or in a train,” says Kirby. “We were traveling for three months — aboard ships, trains, ferries, cars, jeeps, and even yaks. On a journey of that length, it becomes important to mix fun with travel. So we tried to follow every long day of moving with a day of exploring — stopping in unexpected and unplanned places, like Gorakpur, India, where we found a hotel pool and pizza after a punishing 10-hour drive.”

Adventure-seeking parents have to meet in the middle with their kids, for both safety and enjoyment. The key is to remember that it is the family’s journey and not just your own.

The world as classroom

Many parents are hesitant to unplug, but to leave everything behind takes much determination. There are responsibilities with home and work, and if children are school-aged that poses another concern.

“Bodi missed three months of school, and people frequently ask if we were worried about this, but at his young age, what he experienced in that time seemed incomparable to the tiny bit of school he’d miss. We did buy a basic workbook, but his teachers told us not to worry, that he’d be just fine.”

Do it yourself

Although the Kirkby family documented the trip for the purpose of the series, “Big Crazy Family Adventure”, it is just as simple for the average family to plan a “mini adventure” themselves. Travel expos like the New Times Travel Show, nyttravelshow.com, offer many resources for families to gather.

For more individualized assistance, travel agents that focus on adventure travel or family travel are the route to go. Start small with an adventure weekend, and then on to an adventure week. Dream together and dream big as you plan your journey together.

Shnieka Johnson is an education consultant and freelance writer. She is based in Manhattan where she resides with her husband and son. Contact her via her website: www.shniekajohnson.com.

The Kirbys on their trip across the world.
Bruce Kirkby