4 Things I Learned From a Trip Gone Wrong

This past weekend, Maya and I were seeking refuge from a cold day in Jasper by tucking into the Parks Canada Visitor’s Centre. Endless whining-turned-crying suggested her feet were cold. No wonder: she had kicked off her winter boots and had only her socks to break the cold wind. Beyond finding warmth for us, my mission there was to find a phone because my cell had just died two seconds after texting my husband: I need help. Will call a taxi if I don’t hear back in 10 minutes. Poor guy had no idea what I was referring to and, like any loving father, reverted to near-panic mode.

Halfway to Jasper, we had a messy clean-up to do, so to speak, and took a break at Tangle Falls, Jasper National Park. Photo Meghan J. Ward.
Halfway to Jasper, we had a messy clean-up to do, so to speak, and took a break at Tangle Falls, Jasper National Park. Photo Meghan J. Ward.

As my little girl vacillated between complete hysterics and gleefully tearing brochures off the wall, I fought back tears and scanned the room for a phone. I was done, finished, kaput. This was the third day of our trip to Jasper, and most of it was spent trying to keep the peace with my 20-month-old. Something was just ‘off’ and because she couldn’t explain it, and I couldn’t figure it out, it unravelled into a heaping mess of tears, frustration and crying of the “kicking and screaming” variety. I was afraid the next meltdown would happen at the Visitor’s Centre. I had walked 25 minutes there, but knew I wouldn’t get Maya back to the hotel in one piece. Either Paul would need to pick us up, or a taxi would do the job.

Maya ran around a corner and as I pursued her a woman stopped me in my tracks, took one look at me, and said, “Hey! I read your blog!” Bewildered, I reached my hand out to introduce myself and find out who she was. In the back of my mind I wondered who she expected to meet that day. The Meghan she encountered had circles under her eyes the size of dinner plates, unwashed hair tucked under a beanie, and stress oozing from every pore. I was underfed, over-caffeinated and struggling to keep it together. Was I even coherent? In the midst of my crisis, however, this woman, Tricia, had offered me a glimmer of joy in my day. (If you’re reading this, Tricia, please let me know!)

This photo needs no caption. Photo Meghan J. Ward.
This photo needs no caption. Photo Meghan J. Ward.

I won’t give you a play-by-play of the rest of our time away, but if “toddler vomit on car seat”, “unrolled toilet paper x one million”, and “uncooked pizza delivered to room just as baby goes for a nap” mean anything to you, I think you’ll get an accurate picture. It was fairly disastrous at every turn, and while now things are back to normal here in Banff, I can safely say I hit some of my lowest points of motherhood in Jasper.

I tell you this story for a few reasons. One is to stay true to my goal of being more honest with you about the ups and downs of parenthood. Another is to say that, despite all of our experience, travelling is particularly difficult while Maya is this age. She is fidgety, endlessly and wonderfully curious, unknowingly self-destructive, and attached to her parents. Paul was leading a photography workshop all weekend, and every time he had to leave it would set Maya off on a downward spiral until I could get enough sleep into her to reboot her system a bit.

A moment of joy at the local laundromat. Photo Meghan J. Ward.
A moment of joy at the local laundromat. Photo Meghan J. Ward.

The last reason I tell you this story is so that perhaps you can learn something from what I just went through. I’m not kicking myself for the mistakes I made, but I have been reflecting on what I could have done differently. This will sound like a lot of “should have,” “could have,” or “would have”, but I may as well share these lessons so that you can benefit. I will certainly be applying them the next time we need to travel with Maya.

I should have:

…removed Maya from the environment that was triggering the reaction. For some reason, she went goofy in the hotel room, and that eventually turned to out-of-control. When things got hysterical, I should have tried to change the scene for her and help her forget about what was bothering her.

…brought a warmer system for walking outdoors. I thought I had it covered, but I should have brought the bunting bag; it is a far easier system than layering clothing. I grew frustrated picking up mitts, hats and boots from the pavement as Maya took them off and threw them down.

…considered more factors, such as teething or a sore tummy. At times I was reacting to Maya as if she was simply ‘acting up’. Yes, part of it was an overreaction on her part – call it the emotional confusion of a toddler. But I could have kept my emotions more in check if I had also attributed her behaviour to something symptomatic.

…reconsidered the trip. This trip was not essential for me to go on, and as appealing as it was to get out of Banff for a few days, my gut was telling me it would be too much for us. It’s a matter of weighing the challenges of travelling with Maya right now with the ‘idealized’ version of the trip in my head.

Playing in the mini train gives me a glimpse of the little girl I know amidst of weekend of tough toddler battles. Photo Meghan J. Ward.
Playing in the mini train gives me a glimpse of the little girl I know amidst of weekend of tough toddler battles. Photo Meghan J. Ward.

So, there you go. A trip gone wrong – completely wrong. But tonight I’m thinking of some of my nice moments, like watching cartoons with Maya in bed in the morning; playing in the park and climbing into a miniature train; watching her win over people at the tables next to us at the restaurant; and, finally, watching her sleep very soundly at the end of our hard days. Compared to the baby we used to travel with, who struggled to get through the night, having a toddler who slept through all three nights was a big win. At least there’s that.

For more photos from this trip, check out my Instagram feed.

Have you had travels go wrong? What happened and what did you do to overcome your challenges?

Author: Meghan J. Ward

Meghan J. Ward is an outdoor, travel and adventure writer based in Banff, Canada, and a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. Meghan has written several books, as well as produced content for films, anthologies, blogs and some of North America’s top outdoor, fitness and adventure publications. She has a forthcoming travel memoir (Fall 2022), to published by Rocky Mountain Books.

24 thoughts

  1. Nice post, very relevant as my daughter hits 21mths. Distraction seems to be key for her – that and acknowledging if she seems to need just a little longer to transition from nap to going out, if she just wants some hugs, and sometimes just letting her ride it out as she fluctuates fom one extreme emotion to another within moments (quite funny when i step back and observe). I find the hardest thing at this age is that a walk takes longer than it did a few months ago, now there seems to be more cajoling and reasoning…and i find by a long shot the worst days are when i am feeling stressed about time or work or whatever baggage is sitting on my shoulder…i’m certain she picks up my energy and responds with the same negative energy? An excellent time for me to practice deep breathing and letting go of expectation! Thanks for the honesty…

    1. I agree with you, Michelle, that our little ones feed off our energy. I was trying to be so careful! But, seriously, what do you do with a hysterical child who is very close to hurting herself? And she’s not the cuddly type, so hugs and kisses don’t soothe.

      Tiredness also contributes a great deal to my inability to cope, but it’s a vicious cycle. Really, I needed some help – I bet Maya would have been fine with someone else watching her. Anyways, all lessons for the next time we need to travel.

  2. Can I ever relate to this! Not necessarily the same problems but the realization that the trip I pictured in my mind is NOT aligning with reality. We had our own little epic last time we travelled out east to visit family. Turns out our kiddo is a huge fan of routine and didn’t appreciate a change in scenery. There was little sleep to be had for everyone and unfortunately the baby wasn’t the only one who had meltdowns! Lesson learned for me was that if our home routine is still in the works (ie introducing solids, dealing with teething), adding travel into the mix is too much stress for our little one 😦 Learning to be more flexible and let go of expectations (or be more willing to adjust them) has been the lesson of the day of late.

    1. Oh, Sarah, that sounds awful! I had a meltdown, too, as I was walking Maya back to the hotel on another day. I actually saw a banner in a window announcing a new baby girl and I was like, “you’re excited now – just wait and see!” 🙂

      We have had some successful travels, especially when we are visiting people who are familiar to her. I’m not looking to the next few plane rides, though.

  3. As you know, my son is not one anymore, but it is still a struggle sometimes. Different struggles, but hard nonetheless. I am feeling exhausted these days and I can relate to your story – with the difference that now it happens mostly at home, as when we are traveling the changes in scenery is mostly beneficial to him. You are not alone – and I need to hear that more than anything else! 😉

  4. I cannot express how relieved I feel when I come across these stories. I had to deal with many of these in the past and unfortunately it doesn’t really end. People always see pictures and tell me how lucky I am to have nothing to ever worry about on trips but it is so completely false. I get the bad trips the meltdowns and so on. Now at 4, my daughter and I have learned so much from travelling and backpacking together. And it’s all about the learning experience and how we adapt to different situations. And as much as I feel for you and sad you had such a bad experience I am just relieved to see I’m not alone out there. Thank you so much for sharing 🙂

    1. I think it’s important to share these kinds of stories with each other. Our society tends to do us a disservice by improperly preparing us for parenthood. Commercial institutions would like us to think that various products can help in any situation, but sometimes there is just literally nothing you can do! I suppose part of it is accepting that there are challenges in every stage. Each is a phase but new challenges will emerge.

      You are definitely not alone!

  5. I can totally relate to a trip not going as I envisioned it. One of the things that I have learned repeatedly over the years is to let go of my expectations and be more open to going with the flow when exploring with kids at this age. FWIW – I find the 18-24 months stage to be the most challenging by far when it comes to adventures/travel. It wasn’t until my 4th and 5th kids that I felt I really had a handle on it – apparently I’m a slow learner 😉

    1. My goodness! This morning I was just thinking “I don’t think I can handle more than one.” Seriously, I think my life would be over! 🙂 What’s interesting is that I had nothing planned on this trip and very low expectations. Still, nothing seemed to work – no amount of time playing in the room, being outside, exploring local parks, yada yada yada…something was just off, and as soon as we were home (even on the way home) she was fine. I suppose there are situations we’ll never be able to explain, eh? Please continue to fill me with motherly advice!

  6. In three weeks, we are heading on our 3 week trip to Fiji & New Zealand. My son will be 17 months… perhaps luckily he is a late walker so isn’t yet walking steadily on his own for more than a few steps at a time, but who knows how he’ll be by then! Hopefully we have planned enough flexibility to cope with whatever happens… Eeeek….I’m trying to be Zen and not worry… I am glad that you keep showing the good and the bad that happens, as it is always nice to know you’re not the only one. I’m going to try to remember the “change the environment” tip for when things go bad. It’s easy to forget that one for me, for some reason!

      1. Oh yes, I definitely get the Seinfeld reference!! I use it often. I have seen your guide before, of course looking at it now helps since I have a much better idea of where things are after a few months of research & reading. We have about 10 days on the South Island where we are renting a car–we’re sorta skipping through the North Island, taking the train from Auckland and only spending about 5 days total there. Then ferry to the S. Island and fly out of Christchurch. We have absolutely nothing booked for our time on the S. Island, which is slightly nerve-wracking for me, but seems the best way to do it as we have no idea what is reasonable to do. I want to go to the Nelson/Abel Tasman area for sure (sun!) but after that, there is so much to do and not enough time, and I don’t want to spend the whole trip in the car. All I know for sure is that I can skip Milford Sound without any qualms as it sounds a lot like where I live! I’m glad to hear that the holiday park cabins were decent to stay in. I have to look into those more. Wasn’t there a place that you stayed that was miserable? Can you mention where that was??

        1. On the South Island it was the holiday park on Lake Ruataniwha near Twizel. We used it as a stopping point between the Akaroa Peninsula and Wanaka. In general, the Top 10 Holiday Parks were above par. Kiwi Holiday Parks really varied in quality.

          If you don’t want to spend the whole time in the car, I suggest planning a really light itinerary. It takes ages to get anywhere in New Zealand! But you could put in a few long days between destinations and enjoy more time there. If I may, the Coast Road on the West Coast is absolutely stunning (Punakaiki and South from there). 10 days isn’t a huge amount of time, but if you could cut down through Mt. Aspiring NP and then make your way over to Christchurch, I highly recommend it! We had 14 days on the South Island, which included 4 days in Wanaka and otherwise about 2 nights in each place we visited.

  7. I’m remembering a wild little trip to Quebec City with a 6 month old and a 3 year old in the winter time a few years ago.The little one cried several times in the night, and I nursed him over and over all through the night just to keep him quiet! I hardly slept a wink. There was family and a wedding party that needed sleep and we were all in the same B&B. The 3 year old was restless, curious and all over the place, and everyone took turns following him around the building to keep him safe. 😃 sound familiar?! Your wedding! And to top it all off, in the insanity of getting everything packed and remembering the diapers, toddler toys, bottles……we forgot ALL our wedding clothes. The wild crazy disasters are remembered fondly. I loved your wedding. I’m sorry your trip was so crazy. Love to you, Paul and Maya

    1. I do remember that, and I remember thinking I wish I could help more, but I was the bride! You handled it all so well. I’m so lucky to have a sister who is going through all this before me. I do remember hauling Jacob all over Quebec City the morning of the wedding!!!

      1. Chubby Jacob on your back while we went to retrieve our wedding clothes. Epic way to start a wedding day. 🙂 What a great trip that was. Hard to believe he now gets himself dressed and pours himself cereal/milk before I’m even up most mornings now… xo

  8. Hey Meghan, this is Tricia who you met in Jasper 🙂
    I was honestly so surprised to see you there and was on a mission of my own that I think I was barely coherent! Maya was very smiley and while I could tell you were frazzled but I was attributing it more to the fact that you were just accosted by someone who blurted out that they read your blog :). I wish I could have helped more, I had a phone and a car there and toys and books and snacks but who am I to you but a stranger! I agree with the previous poster that I found 18-24 months the hardest to travel. My son who is just 3 is getting to be relatively predictable with travel but even my 6 year old can throw a wrench in our travel plans. In fact about an hour after we met you I had both kids in tears that they were too cold and uncomfortable and tired of walking :). It was very lovely to meet meet you and if you’re ever back in Jasper I would love to get together for a walk or something, so we can really meet 🙂

    1. Tricia! I’m so glad you wrote (I love the power of the internet). Seriously, I would have thrown my arms around any stranger who could have helped me in that moment. Perhaps I should have been more honest when we met. 🙂 If I find myself in Jasper with some time I’ll let you know!

  9. I’ve been there done that – a long time ago but your description brought back lots of bad memories. My kids were not good young travelers but eventually it got better and we did a ton of traveling & camping. Hang tough and don’t beat yourself up.

  10. Wow! I just wrote a similar post about our 1000 mile road trip and after two straight days of driving with a make & break camp in between, how difficult it was to find myself in the tent-filled parking lot that was Shenandoah National Park in freezing temps and high winds. *sigh* So much fun!

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