Nothing shouted summer to me as much as the chaotic excitement that a vacation looming in the future did. Some people flew to Europe, went to Disney World or spent their lazy summer days reading trashy novels by the pool. Many of my summer, childhood adventures involved that classic American experience of the family road trip.
By the time I was a teenager, I had visited a few exciting places with my family like The Grand Canyon. I am told the only thing I wanted to do was spit into it. Hey! Don’t judge! I was six at the time. It could have been worse. My parents never the less didn’t allow me to hack a lougie over the side lest I hit one of the tourists riding donkeys on the trails beneath us. We also visited Carlsbad Caverns when we took a trip out west so my father could look for work.
Unfortunately the most vivid memory I had of this trip was a concrete tepee we spent the night in. This was at Wigwam Village Motel located in Holbrook, Arizona, on Route 66. I slept on an army type cot just below the air conditioner. The tepee had to be air conditioned because Holbrook was located in the arid Arizona desert.
We took our summer vacation at a cabin that belonged to one of my father’s friends for a couple of years. This was located in the Adirondacks. Imagine a week without electricity, phone service or plumbing. Out of those, I only missed the plumbing. We had to haul everything we needed up a steep hill to a cabin that you couldn’t see from the road that passed in front of it. There was no mailbox and the only indication that there might be something there was a small gravel patch where you could park a car.
We loaded our car with all our gear and would drive there. I don’t remember much of what we packed. I reckon we had packed all the food and clothing we would need for the week. It wasn’t like there was a Walmart nearby. The two things that stick in my mind was a five gallon bucket with a toilet seat attached and lots of Lysol. Lots and Lots of Lysol.
The week’s entertainment consisted of catching bugs and snakes and playing in the small lake that was across the road from the cabin. I have never seen water as pristine since. I would catch minnows by hand and release them.
My parents took their jobs as Official Vacation Fun Planners very seriously, using a AAA trip planner (remember those?) and old-fashioned folding maps that you could get free in any gas station to meticulously plot out the ultimate two-week adventure for us.
Early on, a tradition developed. As traditions went, there were a few things I would count on each and every year. My mom would promise that we would pull out of the driveway precisely at seven a.m. However in reality, we would be lucky to finally hit the road by ten and only after my mom said “hurry up” several times to my slow-poke father.
We’d be packed like sardines in our aqua colored, Ford Ranch Wagon, surrounded by suitcases and the infamous bucket. We would have lunches of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and at twelve noon on the dot, wherever we were, we would pull over and eat lunch while my father would try to figure out our exact location, maps spread out over the hood of the car, just like the navigator on a ship.
Sure, getting to our destination was the entire purpose of being on the road, but my parents saw the merit in making little side trips along the way. A few times on every vacation, we’d stop at some tourist trap to see the alligators or a historical spot. It was an excursion within a trip. An opportunity to see something different. My mother was good at spotting those out of the way places and she just couldn’t steer clear of the opportunity to see, do, or learn something new.
I used to keep an eye out for the “Burma Shave” signs with their hokey humor. A series of one sentence signs along the road with a humorous saying on them. There were many sayings. The one I do remember went, “Said Farmer Brown” “who’s bald on top,” ”I wish I could” “rotate the crop.”. the last sign always said “Burma Shave.” It was a few years before I got this one.
I didn’t understand the real reason for the family vacation until years later when I started taking trips with my own children. I can see now that my parents were trying to create memories for us, the kind of memories that lasted long after we got back in the car and drove away.
My parents must have seen it as a way to bring history and adventure to life for me. But these trips are also our family’s history. It’s the story of our journey, our past and the story of our family. We were making our own history and placing the historical markers of our lives along the road.
I live in the city now but on a quiet street. At night, I can hear the hum of the highway from our bedroom. It calls to me and begs me to take a road trip again.
Lead image: diannehope