I felt a lot like Clark Griswold, though in my opinion my wife is much better looking than Ellen, as I helped load up a minivan and prepared for a vacation.

I was asking myself some difficult questions as well. Had I really planned a vacation that would be good for my kids? Should we be going as my father recovered from major surgery? How strictly should I stick to my plan for our next few days?

We took off on the road. “Holiday Road” played in my head for a few minutes as we pointed ourselves eastward on U.S. 50. I had a plan. Stopping at some surprises along the way, and a visit to the birthplace of Laura Ingalls Wilder was on my mind.

We drove. We drove a little more. And then, in true Clark Griswold fashion, I announced we would be stopping at a “surprise” roadside attraction. My children were kind of tired, and it was appearing that a better choice would be to press on for another 90 minutes to get to our final stopping place of the night.

But, like Clark, I wanted share something special with my kids. We stopped in the little town of Colfax, Iowa. It had been about than 25 years since I had been there. The last time for a high school football game I was covering. That was a very cold night, if I recall correctly.

I paid a woman behind a ticket counter for our family to see “Trainland U.S.A.” A collection of electric trains that completely fills a basement, with parts of the layout representing different parts of the United States. The kids were excited. They loved pushing buttons, finding Kansas and taking as much of it in as they could.

My youngest actually said he did not want to leave. He plopped down on the floor and defiantly issued the notice he was going to stay there forever.

Score one for Dad. A good surprise for the kids.

Ninety minutes later, we pulled into the driveway of my first cousin, once removed, who lives at the end of the road in Iowa. I mean that literally. His driveway, that is at least a half-mile long and contains a bridge over a small creek, is the last one on the maintained road.

It was here that even more fun for the kids would be found, and likely some of the most cherished memories of the trip were made. For me, it was the place that brought me to tears more than once — as not only were my children going to see the places I went when I grew up, but they were going to experience what life was like for me as a child.

I opened the door of the van, just yards from the hog pens. The smell of the hogs immediately entered the van. My eldest responded predictably.

“What is that smell?”

My response was almost as predictable.

“Son, for me, that's home. And around here, that smell is the smell of money.”

Within the hour my children were howling in delight as they threw cracked eggs (collected from a hen house containing about 10,000 chickens) at the pigs. For the pigs, it was supper. For my kids, it was as fun as could be. For days I would hear my daughter talk about “hitting a pig in the butt.”

We relaxed on the farm that night. The next day we went to my hometown, picnicked in the park and saw the house I grew up in. We drove past where my grandmother lived, and visited the graves of some extended family.

Then we returned to the farm, where the kids rode along in the tractor during soybean planting and met their third cousins. After dinner, the kids played in the yard and explored the farm without a care in the world.

Those hours on the farm are still talked about by the kiddos. They want to go back in the fall for harvest and to see everyone they met.

It was amazing to me on this trip what the kids latched onto. They latched onto my cousins and family friends in Wisconsin. They latched onto seeing some cool spots along the way.

Mostly, they latched onto our family being together 24 hours a day. That is a rarity, and they loved it. When I went back to work, the kids struggled with the separation.

I will channel my inner Clark again, hopefully soon, to plan a vacation. But as I do, I will reread that last paragraph — because that family time is what it should be all about.  

— Chad Frey is the managing editor of the Newton Kansan. He lives in Newton with his wife and three children. He can be reached at cfrey@thekansan.com