Road Trips

While autumn is my favorite season, summer’s not too bad either. I suppose I think fondly of summer because it used to be the time when I got to sleep late, laze around the house, play kick-the-can with my friends until it was too dark to see, eat popsicles, catch fireflies, and celebrate my birthday. We don’t have fireflies in New Mexico and my orthopedist doesn’t want me playing kick-the-anything, but otherwise I can still treat summer – at least the weekends – as I did when I was a kid. One big difference for me between then and now: vacations.

My family did not take vacations – ever. Most summers my mother and I would spend several weeks with my grandmother and aunt, but my naval officer father didn’t take time off from work – ever. The closest thing we had to a family vacation was the car trip from one duty station to the next. Those were not relaxing “let’s go look at the big ball of string” escapades. The car was packed the night before and we got on the road before sunrise. My father wanted as many driving hours free of other travelers as possible. These were the days of the two-lane highways, where getting stuck behind a dawdling driver could be a teeth-grinding, steering-wheel pounding, and ultimately, risk-taking experience.

It should be no surprise that my family had a cadence, a military precision to these roughly bi-annual excursions. Breakfast (bought the night before) consisted of sweet rolls and milk for me, coffee for them. A mid-morning rest and gas stop usually included a small second breakfast. Fast-food restaurants weren’t as ubiquitous as they are now, but we did have quick-service cafes. Lunch was timed to the next gas and rest stop. The end of the day’s driving was 12 hours after we started. By the time I was 10, I was campaigning for motels with pools; and if there was one 12 hours after our morning departure, I got my wish.

Our cars had bench seats, AM radios, and wing windows. They did not have air conditioning until I was about 14. No seat belts, either. After my sister married when I was five, I had the back seat to myself. I read my way across big chunks of America. I also colored, counted birds on the wires, looked for red cars, and whined when we couldn’t leave our route to visit the string, cave, Indian village, alligator farm, gorge, or any national park.

You would think those early experiences might sour me on road trips, but they didn’t. I love to get in the car and go somewhere, anywhere. I’ve spent most of my adult life in the western U.S. and we have a lot of territory out here to drive around in. Over the years, I’ve developed road-trip patterns and preferences of my own. Lots of music: first AM, then FM, then cassettes, CDs, and now XM. Frequent food: two types – fast food and car food, the latter of which is best when the passenger feeds it to the driver. Side-trips: any sight that cares enough about itself to have a big, honking highway sign deserves a detour.

Not all our vacations these days include a long drive, but many do. I can usually manage to squeeze some driving in even when the main conveyance is a plane or train. We once circled Puerto Rico by car and then drove back across the middle of the island from south to north. We spent a week in Virginia Beach before driving to New York for a wedding. I’ve put hundreds of miles on rental cars by flying into Tahoe and then driving to San Francisco and by taking the train to LA and then driving to Paso Robles. I guess early habits die hard, and maybe I’m doing a little bit of getting even with the past by making today’s journeys at least as important as the destinations.