“I found out long ago, It’s a long way down the Holiday Road” – Lyndsay Buckingham
I’ve been dreaming of adventure. Of striking Costa Rican Views I’ve never seen, of elaborate theme parks that don’t exist, of lost islands and zoos and museums with secret passageways and false walls. I always dream of adventure, especially in the depths of an Indiana winter, when I’m as far away chronologically from a summer road trip as I ever care to be. Because I’m from the vacation generation, one of the children of baby-boomers. And baby boomers remember a time when every family that could financially swing it, and sometimes those that couldn’t, found a way to get in the car and drive around the country every summer.
It was tradition, it was expected, it was the American way. My mother remembers frequent trips in the car to Cape Canaveral and National Parks as a child. My Dad recalls his father having to drive off road through creeks in the family station wagon to get to relatives in Tennessee and Kentucky. He also says that World War II changed everything, that people, people like my grandparents on both sides, came back from military duty abroad changed, feeling that the borders of the world were not so concrete anymore. Exploration was in. Both my parents remember highways jammed with wood-paneled station wagons and chalk full o’ kids. Lucky for me, they saw fit to repeat the cycle.
I blame it on the vacations, this sleeping wanderlust of mine. This inability to escape my restlessness. As a kid, my parents were so insistent about taking us on vacations, and even when they couldn’t come, of letting me go on trips with other family members. Later on trips with a high school youth group to Mexico and by the time I was an adult, to Europe alone, Bulgaria and Romania for four months. But it was the childhood vacations; those are the ones that must’ve somehow written on my developing neural pathways, “You love this!”
Travelling was my favorite thing to do as a kid, and maybe that’s because we did it so often. If I were to make you a postcard that explained my childhood, it would be a snapshot of the view looking toward the windshield from the back seat of our station wagon. The second backseat. Yes, our car was so huge, it had two backseats, sort of the way most vans are laid out today. My mother’s short red hair on the right, my father’s cropped black hair on the left, hands on the steering wheel. Their silhouettes lit from behind by headlights as they turned to talk to one another on the long nighttime drives home from grandma and grandpa’s house. My three older sisters all leaning their heads on each other’s shoulders at uncomfortable looking ankles, snoozing away, flattening their carefully crafted eighties hairstyles held together with Aquanet. The aerosol scent of it mingled with the breeze from the open windows and the plastic smell of cooled vinyl.
My favorite game of “pretend” was to make-believe that anytime we were all in the car together that we were running away. Maybe it had a little something to do with the fact that my sisters used to tease me by saying I was left on our family’s doorstep as an infant by gypsies. Even though I knew it was a joke, I do recall just a touch of anxiety. What if the gypsies came to take me away? I didn’t want to leave my three sisters and two parents, not even if the roving band of entertainers were my blood relatives, not for all the free tambourines in the world. So I figured while we were on the road, I was safe and sound where the gypsies couldn’t find me.
I’m sure my sisters would tell you another story contrasting my idyllic vision of the six of us on wheels, that I teased them endlessly from the back seat of our giant red Vista Cruiser. That I sang too loud with the headphones from my Walkman on just to annoy them and that I probably liked the fact that they were in a confined space and couldn’t get away from me. They had to spend too many hours with me in the back seat holding my head on their laps when I was car sick…and I was always car sick. They may mention to you that I crawled all over them like some sort of a living blanket with a hundred knees and elbows when it was cold and that I hung all over them making it worse when it was too hot, when our legs would stick to the vinyl seats like a fruit roll-up to the wrapper.
Maybe it was those vacations that set my tastes for life. Once you get a glimpse of life on “the road”, so to speak, nothing is ever quite as much fun as being on it. In the midst of travelling, you’re only ever so many hours or miles away from the next activity. Two hours until the St. Louis arch. Four hours from the Mississippi riverboat. And so on and so forth.
My earliest memories of road trips are a blur of Floridian rainstorms, colorful Mid-Western museums, air conditioned theme park rides, and hotel rooms all over America. In 1995 when I was twelve, we saw the Arizona desert, in all the various shades of sand that it had to offer. We took fossil tours and saw dinosaur footprints and Montezuma’s well and the Grand Canyon, and while we were at the Grand Canyon, an Imax movie about the Grand Canyon. We were nothing if not thorough. We took horse rides and camped and drove and drove and drove. Almost anything that looked like fun, we got to try.
On the way home we stopped at a hotel in Oklahoma that looked like a pink castle. Mom was desperate to stay there for the novelty of the thing. While Dad checked us in, Mom and I went to take care of what was always the most important business, we scoped out the pool. It was sad. Oh, it had water. But it also had bits of detritus sunk to the bottom and floating at the top. Our favorite was the lone piece of bread floating in the water with the single ant crawling around on top, which was much more interesting than the waterlogged cigarette competing for our aghast. We tried to find a way to push the bread to the edge of the pool to free the ant from a watery grave…I don’t remember if we were successful. I hope we were. Even moments like these had merit, it was the lottery-like thrill of choosing a hotel at the last minute.
But vacations weren’t just for recreation. They were for discovering the world, this place my sisters and I were going to have to inhabit for the rest of our lives, before we even understood what that measurement really meant.
I saw the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Smoky Mountains in 1993 when I was eleven with its dense green forests and trickling waterfalls and its kitschy souvenir stands. We drove over and around the twisty mountain passes that offered the strange thrill of knowing that you just might tumble off of them at any moment , past the tiny useless wooden guard rails. Tracing the edges of cliffs with our four tires meant that we were really on an adventure, with the very real possibility of death and danger lurking just on the other side of the yellow painted line that bordered the road.
On that same trip, we visited Gatlinburg’s branch of Ripley’s Believe It or Not that terrified me to hysteria with its Chamber of Horrors that contained replicas of medieval torture devices. I buried my face in my mother’s side, pressed it into her clothing hoping that it would absorb my tears. I couldn’t stop crying, even though I was embarrassed. Until that moment, I didn’t know that humans tortured each other. Not outside of Edgar Allen Poe movies. When we got back to the car, to make me feel better, my cousin Eamonn, along for this trip, showed me a trick. He opened his art box and all the crayons had melted together. He had removed all their wrappers first, so now it was one giant rectangular rainbow crayon. The novelty of it pushed my fresh knowledge of torture into the back of my mind. Now when I see a story on the news about a horrific act of human cruelty, I swear I can smell hot crayons.
Florida was my favorite, it had the best weather. The most dramatic and the most different from my Indiana home. Rain every day and air that smelled different and best of all, though not weather related…lizards. There were tiny green lizards everywhere, and I was always desperate to catch one, but I never could. I spent my time spotting them there at the age of seven in 1989, while my family was touring a vacation home all of us knew we weren’t going to buy. I think we got something free out of the deal, but I don’t remember what. I just remember the slick salesman in a blazer driving us around bungalows in his golf cart.
On that vacation, I got to sit in a hot tub for the first time and try to stay awake while my sisters watched Johnny Carson. But best of all and most importantly, I got to go to Disney World for the very first time. We also went to Busch Gardens on that trip, where my Mother’s straw hat caught the breeze, flew off and into the gazelle pen, where it made the animals jump and scatter. Mom’s version of the story now goes that they ate it for lunch. I don’t remember if it’s true.
On the way home from Florida, we stopped at the Cincinnati Zoo, where they had an underground exhibit that showcased bats. You could enter it through a wooden trap door in the floor and climb down a ladder, or take the plain old front door if you didn’t feel like playing along. My Mom and sister Heather opted for the trap door with me. They had to duck their heads a little while we walked past rows and rows of bat cages built into fiberglass walls shaped to look like a cave. The bats, to me, just looked like cute little mice with wings. We tried to leave the exhibit, but walking away, I felt a strong pull to stay. So I snuck back as my mom and sister walked ahead of me to enjoy a few more minutes with the bats before my absence was discovered. I remember pressing my fingers up against the glass of the cages, wanting desperately for there to be no boundaries between the bat and myself. I wanted to pet it, and in all likelihood, at that age I probably wanted to hug it and squeeze it and call it, “George,” too. When Heather found me, I could tell I was in a little bit of trouble…but she still let me leave through the trap door.
My husband and I take trips every chance we get now. I think we’d join those senior citizen bus tours if we thought we could get away with it. But for now, we take rental cars to Florida and Texas and sci-fi fan conventions across the Mid-West. (Renting cars keeps the wear and tear off of our glamorous 2001 Ford Taurus.) We drive to the places we once were separately as children and the places neither of us have ever been together as adults. Any reason to drive to a wedding or a family event states away, is our chance to take the show on the road.
For us, being on the road feels like being at home. It’s what a family should do, and not only does Jake indulge me, he feels the same way. We’ve done some downright stupid things to make road trips happen. Squeezed in long drives that were nearly impossible in the time limits we were given. From Indiana to Austin, Texas and back within three and a half days just to see if we liked the city enough to possibly move there. We were only in Austin for twenty four hours, and the long stretches of ghostly highway there and back again felt like some kind of sadistic video game. Both of us had several near misses with deer leaping from the sides of the road into the path of our rental car in the middle of the night. On another occasion, we drove ourselves and my mother down to Louisiana for a family wedding, also factoring in no time for sleep (mostly because none of us had the money for a hotel). On that trip we tried to catch some sleep in a Wal-Mart parking lot and we were verbally assaulted by a babbling bag lady claiming that we had stolen her space and that she was going to call the cops on us.
There’s something about wandering the country, giving ourselves a chance to look at as many places as possible where we might settle down someday. In a way, with each trip we take, we’re asking ourselves, “Is this home?” But for me, there’s something else. It’s the thin layer of glass between me and the bat, it’s the insignificant guard rails between myself and the sheer drop, it’s the fact that when you’re out in the world, there’s no use pretending that it’s not a dangerous place to be. What better way to create a family than to face the world as it is, one tourist attraction at a time?