Remembering Road Trips

May 25, 2015

Few things in life are simultaneously as rewarding and annoying for a family as a long road trip.  While preparing (both physically and mentally) recently to hit the open road with my family, I found myself reminiscing about my childhood experiences on American interstates.  Although I probably wouldn’t have said I enjoyed these trips at the time, I have very fond memories.

When I was a kid my family never flew, but rather always opted for the (extremely) close companionship that a road trip in a Japanese compact sedan offered.  Although he held no official certification or title, my dad was a MRTD (Master Road Trip Driver).  It has taken me over forty years, along with many trips where I was at the helm with my own wife and kids, to fully understand the awesome abilities my dad possessed.  He could eat a cheeseburger, hold a coke between his legs, read the map in his lap, and blindly spank me and my sister’s legs, while barreling down the highway at nine mph over the speed limit (because ten over gets you ticketed), using only his left knee to steer.  Or at least this is how I remember it – something tells me my mom was assisting. 

Despite being an incredibly multitasking driver, my old man was typically grumpy on the road, at least for the first hundred miles or so.  My mom, our co-pilot, would do her best to keep me and my sister calm, quiet and patient.  This, however, was not an easy task with two youngsters who were extremely excited about reaching a destination that was many hours, if not days, away.  This was in the early 1980s when kids didn’t have a phone, tablet, or laptop to keep them occupied.  We couldn’t text our friends, watch epic fails on YouTube, or use an app to make fart noises.  Hell, in the early days, we didn’t even have a Walkman to listen to.  My sister and I were crammed in the backseat of a 1979 Honda Accord (or something very similar, but newer, as the years passed), and many times the most entertaining thing to do was competing to see who could annoy the other one more.  Unfortunately, the most annoyed person usually ended up being my dad…

“No more talking, period,” my dad would declare about seven minutes into most trips.

This didn’t phase my sister, who would then proceed to find a way to make me laugh – and make sure I got a blind spanking.  I never minded the spankings, though.  My dad could never get an effective angle from the driver’s seat, and he wasn’t really trying to make it hurt, anyway.  If he wanted it to hurt, the car would have been pulled over.

Our road trip meals were usually something from a drive-through, to make sure we maximized time.  My sister and I would each get a burger, but often shared fries and a drink, to maximize money.  We may have wanted a little more to eat (and we probably got an earful for dropping crumbs), but I recall these cheap meals in the car always tasting great and being much more fun than eating inside the restaurant.  After some food and an hour or so on the road, my dad would loosen up and repeal the silence mandate.  This is when we started having some fun.

We loved when it rained, because my dad could make it stop!  My sister is three years younger than me, and for years my dad had her convinced that he could briefly stop the rain by snapping his fingers.  What she didn’t realize, of course, is that he snapped just as we went under overpasses.  It was truly magic to my sister, though.  This trick worked great years later on my own kids.

We played the alphabet game, where we raced to find each letter of the alphabet (in order) in the words on signs and billboards we passed.  This was really a game for my parents, but my sister and I always thought we had a chance to win.  Sadly, no one wants to play this game these days.  It sure seemed fun back then.

My sister and I played “slug bug,” looked for license plates from far away states (it was so cool to spot Alaska plates), and sometimes just took in our surroundings.  Kids don’t appreciate it at the time, but road trips allow you to really see and experience America.  We witnessed mirages in the desert, were gripped with fear driving through mountains, rolled through areas of extreme poverty in the South, and saw incredible mansions on the West Coast.  We stayed in very nice hotels and rather dirty motels.  We drove through tiny college towns and the largest cities in the country.

We listened to oldies on cassette tapes, which today would truly be “golden oldies.”  Bands ranging from The Beach Boys to CCR to The Kingsman.  One of my favorite childhood memories is the four of us belting out every word to all eight and a half minutes of Don McLean’s “American Pie.”  We sang along to this on every trip.  I think about this whenever I hear the song now, and it makes me both happy and a little sad.

Eventually we would all grow tired and agree that some peace and quiet would be nice.  I remember my sister and I lying in opposite directions in the back seat (the importance of seat belts wasn’t stressed quite so much then), as we watched clouds move across the windows.  The hum of the engine and the occasional thumping of the tires slowly lulled us to sleep.

In retrospect, I understand the significance of these road trips.  It was a small slice of my life, covering a span of only seven years or so, but it was a time when my family was together, which I don’t remember happening a whole lot in my childhood.  My parents divorced when I was thirteen, and suddenly there would be no more family trips.

My dad, sister, and I did go on one more road trip after the divorce.  Oddly, I don’t recall our final destination on that trip, but I remember many things that happened while on the road.  I was certain for miles that we were being followed by a biker gang (I had flipped off one of the bikers, but I don’t think he actually saw me), my dad left us in the car when he stopped at a liquor store in East St. Louis (it was the only place he could find Coors Light, and we were only alone in the car for a minute or two), and, as usual, we listened to great music (my dad bought me my first Led Zeppelin album on that trip).  It was a great time, but it wasn’t the same without my mom.

That was the last road trip I took with my family.  Shortly after, I hit that age where I thought I was too old and cool to go on a family vacation.  My dad remarried and started flying for most of his trips, anyway.  Things were never really the same, as they never are at some point in all of our lives.  Funny how that happens.

If your family is squeezing into a car to travel, consider yourself lucky.  Not only because you are able to take a trip, but because you are getting to spend valuable time together.  Ask your kids to turn off their devices (or at least remove their earbuds) for a while.  Try to take it all in and remember the details.  The time together may seem like a chore now, but it has the potential to mean a lot…somewhere down the “road.”