Illustration by David Fitzsimmons / Arizona Daily Star

Some words you just can’t use any more once you become a parent.

Like ... “vacation.”

After you have kids, you don’t really get those any more — at least not the kind you used to take when you did what you wanted and went where you wanted. A more accurate term? “Taking the show on the road.”

Admittedly, things are easier now than in those early parenting days when we schlepped strollers and car seats and a Pack ’n Play, the travel-ready 21st-century version of the playpen, which, little known fact, is short for penitentiary.

More often than not, we just drove up to Phoenix, the only place brain-meltingly hotter than home, to stay with the in-laws for a change of scenery. The accommodations were nice and so kid-friendly we didn’t have to bring as much stuff.

We did San Diego a few times, too. Ah, that first trip — with kids — to the popular Zonie stomping ground was one for the books. I have razor-sharp memories of No. 2, then an adorable but obstinate toddler, who could not have cared less about Shamu and trained dolphins and all that SeaWorld stuff and instead preferred to repeatedly climb up and down these same two steps over and over and over and over and over again.

Good times. Well worth the $78 child admission price.

This year, in the quest for an economic escape from the heat, we trekked to Northern California, my husband making like a long-distance truck driver and pushing through 13 hours of driving until we arrived in the land of blissfully balmy days, nonexistent parking, $4.50-a-gallon gas and the kids’ beloved cousins.

The trip, speaking as the person who didn’t drive, wasn’t bad, except for a stretch in which we thought a dead skunk by the side of the road was emanating noxious fumes. Turns out it was the aroma of ranch-flavored Wheat Thins, delicious but they make you smell like a garbage dump. Helpful hint: Choose unscented snacks, like pretzels, for long road trips.

The cousins, six in all, wasted no time bonding over their shared love of sleeping in, lounging in pajamas, watching TV and turning the family room into their own sort of anti-climactic personal amusement park, Slothland. No high-powered flume rides here. They draped themselves across the couch and left shoes and socks and Nerf gun darts strewn everywhere while they binge-watched Food Network. We left home for this?

After we dragged them off the couch — a task that usually took about an hour, give or take another hour — we had actual adventures at Monterey Bay Aquarium and attempted surfing in water so cold just looking at it induces hypothermia. We hit a Giants game (against the Diamondbacks) in which the wrong team managed to hit not one but two grand-slam home runs, and I missed it all — even though I only nodded off once in the fifth inning. Blame it on that perfect warm weather, or the fact that baseball is super-boring.

Anyway, Slothland was cool and all, but the kids were anxious to see a real amusement park — and I shaved only 10-15 years off my life expectancy while driving on I-880.

At California’s Great America, the thrills began right at the gate where each and every visitor was scanned with a handheld metal detector. No. 3 refused to climb onto Drop Tower, a ride that plummets you 22 stories in 4 seconds, and yet he ordered sushi at the snack bar, infinitely more dangerous than any ride. We laughed as an announcement crackled over the PA system that a heat advisory was in effect. It was 80. Oh, Californians! They’re so cute.

When we could pry the kids’ eyeballs away from the DVD player or a book or the mini Etch A Sketch — seriously, why can’t they just sit in the car and stare out the window like I did when I was little? — they enjoyed the scenery. Still, I can’t help but wonder if we shouldn’t try and save even more money next summer by just snapping on the TV, turning down the a/c — and see if they notice we haven’t left the house.

Contact Kristen Cook at or 573-4194. Cook is wondering how her middle child has made it all the way to 12 thinking the Rice Krispies elves are Snack, Crackle and … Pat.