Last year’s Fourth of July was … not great. I didn’t make plans to do anything, and when my daughters started asking me around 8 p.m. if we were going to see fireworks, I had to tell them no. They were both disappointed, and I felt horribly guilty, and we ended up huddled on the back steps getting eaten alive by mosquitoes and trying to pretend that the bottle rockets our neighbors were shooting off were even remotely exciting. 

“I’ll do better next year, girls; I promise,” I said.

So this year, when I realized I had off four-and-a-half days in a row, I made an impulsive decision to drive up to St. Louis with my kids and celebrate the Fourth with my best friend and her two daughters.

“Oh, that’ll be so much fun,” she said. “We always do the Fourth of July carnival and the parade and then we watch fireworks in the back of my husband’s pickup truck in the grocery store parking lot.”

That, I thought, sounded perfect. What an idyllic Midwestern slice of delicious Americana! A carnival? A Fourth of July parade? Fireworks from the back of a pickup truck? Come on!

I got off work at noon on Friday, so the plan was to load up the minivan and hit the road by 2 p.m., stopping somewhere past Memphis to stay overnight and then arriving in St. Louis Saturday morning.

My dad, who knows a thing or two about road trips but nothing whatsoever about the internet, told me that he remembered a Holiday Inn just over the Arkansas border that had “a good breakfast and clean bathrooms.”

“It’s OK, Dad,” I told him, thinking how quaint he sounded. “I already reserved a room in Blytheville, Arkansas. I got a good deal online.”

“Is it a Holiday Inn?” he asked.

“No, it’s just a hotel. But it got three stars on Priceline.”

“Does it have a breakfast?”

“Uh, I don’t think so? We’ll get food, though. Don’t worry.”

“I don’t trust a hotel that doesn’t have a breakfast.”

“OK, Dad. But it’s already paid for. It’ll be fine.”

(This is known as foreshadowing, folks.)

The first few parts of the plan (off work at noon, load up the van, drive) went fine, although I should’ve realized we were in trouble when Georgia asked, completely without irony, if we were “there yet” before we even made it to Amite. I had to stop more often than usual to allow for kids’ bathroom breaks and we actually stopped for dinner at a sit-down restaurant, so we didn’t make great time, and when we got to our hotel in Arkansas, it was after 10 p.m., and we were all exhausted. I just wanted to be done.

The hotel, however, was in the world’s sketchiest neighborhood with a bustling liquor store across the street; all the rooms opened up off of the parking lot; and the exceedingly questionable hotel clientele was blasting music, yelling at one another, and revving their car engines. There was a definite meth-and-prostitution vibe. The chain lock on our room door was broken – like as if the door had been kicked in before. And cell reception was so bad that I couldn’t text or call my husband to let him know we'd arrived. My smartphone was just a useless brick. I don’t often feel unsafe in New Orleans, but I felt very unsafe here. The owner (who was in his pajamas during our entire initial transaction) was so unfriendly that I didn't even feel safe checking out; we immediately just put our bags back in the car and left.

“Sorry, girls,” I said. “We’re going to have to keep driving.”

Then Georgia threw up. Then we got lost. (I am the kind of person who gets lost even with GPS.) Then Georgia threw up again. If you know me at all, you know I don’t deal well with vomit and I get weirded out in rural areas, so all of this was basically handcrafted from my nightmares.

When I had cell phone reception again, I called my husband in tears, and he managed to reserve … wait for it … a very nice Holiday Inn with clean bathrooms and a good breakfast about an hour up the road for us.

Lesson learned: Dad, 1; Priceline, 0.

Once we got there, things improved moderately. I mean, yes, I locked my keys in the car, ended up at a party full of my former in-laws on what would have been my 14th wedding anniversary, and had to say goodbye to Ruby for the rest of the summer (she is staying with her dad) – but I also got to visit the town where I went to college, hang out with some dear friends, and eat bratwurst wrapped in a soft pretzel.

As for the actual Fourth of July activities – the carnival, the parade, the fireworks – it was also a mixed bag. Georgia hates carnival rides and cried hysterically on the one relatively tame one she went on, but Ruby loves carnival rides and burned through $40 worth of tickets in about 20 minutes. Ruby played a few games and won a stuffed animal for Georgia, which made up for the “scary” ride, and they ate food on sticks, and I lost at least 5 percent of my body weight in the form of boob sweat, but it was an overall nice time. Fun. Wholesome. The stuff memories are made of.

The parade was less of a hit – any NOLA kid is, by definition, underwhelmed by a parade in another city.

And the fireworks? Georgia had to potty about halfway through, so we missed the finale, and she’s decided she doesn’t really like fireworks all that much anyway.

This was not the vacation dreams are made of, but we did make a lot of memories. (Not great ones, just memories.)

Next year, I think I’m staying home and watching bottle rockets from my back steps.