fb-pixel Skip to main content

A Costa Rican getaway turns into a 17-hour road trip to Texas

Sometimes you have to try really, really hard to enjoy the journey.

My family finally made it to Costa Rica and ate dinner on the beach during sunset. Maddie Browning

One in a series of stories about how travel doesn’t always go as planned.

You know that cliché, “It’s about the journey, not the destination”?

When Southwest Airlines canceled the first flight of our two-flight journey to reach Costa Rica for our family vacation, we put it to the test. We set off on a 17-hour car ride from Lone Tree, Colo., to Houston to catch our second flight. We weren’t sure that one would take off, either, but we were determined to find out.

Let me set the scene: It was 6 a.m. My dad walked into my room to gently wake me up. “Maddie,” he said. “Our connecting flight to Houston was canceled, so we have to drive to the Houston airport today, or we have to cancel Costa Rica.”


I immediately went through the three stages of sleep-deprived-upsetting-news-grief: confusion, panic, nausea. We discussed our options for a couple of minutes, but there was really no debate: We were going to fight like hell to make that flight.

My parents headed to the airport and waited in the car rental line for more than three hours with other wary and upset travelers. They felt bad taking one of the limited cars when so many people were stranded because of the problems plaguing Southwest Airlines at the time . But they also missed the beach and deserved a vacation, so they grabbed any car they could find, which ended up being a black Honda CRV with not-very-comfortable back seats.

My brother, Jake, and I gathered supplies while they were gone, piling chips and drinks next to the suitcases. When my parents got back, it was almost 1 p.m., allowing limited wiggle room for our 10 a.m. flight the following day.

We all started the journey with a strangely positive spirit, and dad praised our optimistic attitudes. I passed around drinks, and we tried to figure out what to do for the next million hours. (Given somewhat recent news about Adnan Syed’s vacated conviction , we decided to listen to the first season of Sarah Koenig’s podcast “Serial,” from 2014, outlining the case.)


Every three to four hours, we changed drivers and their front seat companion. Jake sat shotgun with my dad when he drove, and I sat with my mom. Our official role was to keep our parents awake. But around midnight, Jake was failing at his job, drifting in and out of sleep.

Actual tumbleweeds crossed the highway in front of us, some big enough that you could hear a loud thwack as they hit the front of the car. There wasn’t much to look at aside from wide open spaces, industrial plants, and the occasional small town. It really seemed like it was us against the world, desperately clawing our way to the coast.

While my dad and Jake tried to curl up in the backseat, my mom and I were practically holding our eyes open in the front seats at 2 a.m. My mom insisted on chewing gum to keep herself awake, but for some reason we only had the holiday version of Hubba Bubba Bubble Tape. I tore off fresh pieces for her every hour.

Jake and I knew this journey would be excruciating, so before we left, we did some research. We found one potentially thrilling stop on this excursion: our first trip to Buc-ee’s . If you’ve never heard of Buc-ee’s, think Wawa of the South. If you’re still confused, it is essentially a convenience store/gas station that people are really passionate about, complete with a mascot and aisles of merchandise with Bucky the Beaver’s face on it.


My mom and I were able to sleep intermittently for about an hour in the backseat before we were woken up by my dad saying, “We’re here,” as we pulled up to one of the Buc-ee’s locations around 4 a.m. A fun fact about me is that when I’m really tired, I get super nauseous. Of course, by this point I was exhausted, so as my family walked around looking for the ideal Buc-ee’s merch, I ran to the bathroom.

I emerged from the stalls still not in a good place, but ready to rally. Buc-ee’s also proudly displays many different types of jerky, so I fast-walked past the display case trying not to gag. I grabbed a Dramamine pill and shirt with Bucky on it (it says “Go little rockstar,” which is funny, considering) and we were on our way.

From left to right: my mom, me, my dad, and my brother standing outside the infamous Buc-ee's convenience store. Maddie Browning

We pulled into the car rental station in Houston at 6 a.m., determined to persevere. We unloaded our stuff onto a bus and set off yet again toward the airport. Walking up to the Southwest ticket counter, I held my breath. It would either be a week in Costa Rica . . . or a week in Houston. We hesitantly set our passports on the counter, and when the ticket attendant handed us our boarding passes, we all sighed from relief.


We’d made it.

Our gate had a Chick-fil-A, so Jake and my dad rushed over for Chick-n-Minis and coffee. I didn’t want an encore of the Buc-ee’s incident, so I tried to curl up and fall asleep until the plane boarded.

When we finally touched down in Costa Rica, we thought the traumatic car rides were over. Little did we know it was just the beginning. We were handed the rental car keys and sent on a path up winding, unpaved mountain roads, teetering above thousand-foot drops. A local affectionately called this jarring experience a “Costa Rican massage.” Thank god we’d sprung for full insurance coverage at the rental place.

Maddie Browning can be reached at [email protected] .