Essential family travel — I didn’t know how much I’d long for it or how to classify it until the past year of pandemic living.

I think many of us have hit our wall of limited to no travel or large gatherings and we need connection. On a recent NPR podcast, I listened to Dr. Emily Landon, an infectious disease expert at the University of Chicago, say in regard to visiting loved ones, "I think that actually counts as essential travel at this point, from a mental health standpoint.”

Dr. Landon couldn’t hear me applauding her statement from the prairies of rural North Dakota, but I agree. Family is essential. Travel to see your loved ones if you’re able.

Family connections create memories. While I understand COVID-19 precautions, once family members were vaccinated, I planned a purposeful weekend birthday gathering among my in-laws, sister-in-law, our daughters, my husband and me.

To read more of Katie Pinke's The Pinke Post columns, click here.

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This month, my husband also took his parents to their first high school basketball game of the winter, a regional championship game where a nephew of my in-laws coached his team in a win to advance to the state tournament. My husband and I are taking a break from our usual workdays to take our daughters to state basketball games in Minot, N.D., and to the North Dakota State University/University of North Dakota football game in the Fargodome. We’ll have our first hotel stay in more than a year. While our travel won’t take us across state lines, my kids need shared family experiences again and a break from the stay-at-home routine.

Government guidelines and expert advice aren’t required to sell me on the fact family experiences are essential. Most of our shared experiences this past year have consisted of outdoor sports or indoor board games, such as Catan, Ticket to Ride or the card game Monopoly Deal, my daughter Anika’s absolute favorite to beat me in most evenings.

If you crave connection and new experiences away from home, plan a trip now.

Book the vacation. Pack a bag. Hit the road. Board the plane.

A pandemic changed the course of how we live our lives. We’re not going back to exactly the way things used to be. I’ll always keep bottles of hand sanitizer handy, and we’ll wash our hands longer and more frequently. I might always wear a mask on an airplane. The COVID-19 pandemic gave me time to carve out what I want to focus on most in life, more freedom to root myself in shared family experiences with those I care about the most in life.

Look ahead to summer months. Plan the long weekend adventure now. Our family plans to head west to Medora, N.D., for a much-awaited visit to the Medora Musical and visit to Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Buy tickets to the baseball game you longed to attend last season. Do not skip out this summer. Go, experience the game in the ballpark with a hot dog in hand.

Schedule the family gathering you missed last summer. Call your kids, siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles and forever friends you missed the most this past year.

Our kids joined a new 4-H club last fall. With a long-awaited return to showing at a county fair, they’ve been walking their beef heifers this winter and have a few static projects to finish this spring. If you have kids or grandkids in 4-H, mark the date on your calendar for the county fair to attend.

Attend the class reunion or small-town summer festival. Book your flight to go home or if you live near the location for the reunion or festival, volunteer to take on a role in planning it.

Family experiences qualify as essential travel in year two of the COVID-19 pandemic. Decide what is best for you, your loved ones and family. Follow precautions and what you need to do to feel and stay safe. This year, mark your calendar with a few family times you missed in 2020. Shared family experiences are essential.

Pinke is the publisher and general manager of Agweek. She can be reached at kpinke@agweek.com, or connect with her on Twitter @katpinke.