An estimated 34 million Americans will be travelling this Labor Day weekend. This year, we are among them. Which means there will be at least three guarantees: my husband will curse at traffic, we will have a great round of the license plate game (so far sighted: RI, CT, MA, NY, SC, MN, FL, Ohio and Maine), and we will reach our destination feeling stiff with sore butts, backs and knees.
As soon as cars were reliable enough and large enough to cart people across state lines, we Americans found ways to pack far too many bags, belongings and people into a vehicle and get on the road. No matter the destination, be it family or friends or camping or hotels, we all have to get there first. Some times enjoying the journey, other times seeing it as a necessary evil.
The preparation before departure is at least half the battle. There are clothing and car ride activities to pack, house and dog sitters to arrange, trip plans to confirm, and cleaning to do (yes, ok, I’m one of those who does this so I can come back to a clean house). Then the round of last minute questions: “Where is the camera?” “Did you pack sunglasses?” “Are the plants watered?” “Do we have all the chargers for our electronics?” (Because Lord help us if we are completely disconnected for 3 days!).
As an adult who now assumes the role of Commander mobilizing the family army before departure, I’m impressed and a bit amazed at what my mom and dad must have gone through to pack up a family of six for each road trip, which we did a few times a year.
I remember logging a lot of hours with my brother in the “way back” of the station wagon, back in the day when it was considered safe to either put the back seat down and lay back there, or sit facing backwards. To avoid having to take too many pit stops, my mother limited our liquid intake. She would pass around grapes to “quench our thirst”, and by the time she got them out of a bag to share, they were warm and unappetizing. If too many of us complained about either being bored or thirsty, around came ONE can of soda to share. None of us wanted it right after my mom, because she left lipstick on the rim. Now that I think about this, I never saw Dad sip from the same can. Smart man. Perhaps as the driver he had hidden access to his own supply of grapes or water.
To save time and money, mom, a true Real Woman, would pack lunch or supper in coolers, and we’d stop along the way at a picnic table at a rest stop. We even had a couple favorite places to stop, which became part of the tradition for certain trips.
I was lucky and always had the ability to read while riding in the car – perhaps growing up on these trips meant we all developed an immunity to car sickness. So most of the time my nose was buried in a book, or I’d write long entries in my journals. But we would also listen to stories, sing, and Dad would point out fun things to look at out the window.
As I got a bit older, and started driving for myself – back and forth to college or to visit family and friends – I had that youthful endurance to drive for hours without needing to stop or take a break. However, in those days the cars we young adults could afford to drive were basic models with no a/c, so we drove with the windows open. My brother and I used to say that you knew you’d had a successful trip when you arrived at your destination sweaty, deaf and windblown.
Certainly now some things have gotten easier. Cars are more comfortable. Highways are smoother and more plentiful. Speed limits have increased. We have accessories and electronics to keep us occupied (my son on his mini iPad, me on my laptop). We have GPS systems to tell us how to get where we are going. Although I’m a bit sad about the fact that we’ve lost the adventure of unfolding a paper map and finding our way by following lines and numbers. I used to love going to AAA to get the latest maps for whatever area we were headed. Truth be told, I still use paper maps from time to time – partly for nostalgia, partly because I have an odd love of maps, and partly because I’m afraid my son will never learn how to read one.
And yet, with all these modern conveniences, some things don’t change. We are still closed into a small space together for several hours, finding ways to occupy our time, and getting into conversations that may not have happened otherwise. We have time to think, to play games. When we take breaks from our activities to gaze out the window, we look at other cars and their inhabitants, wondering about their stories and their destinations. We see new sights, other parts of America, and we can let our imaginations roam. I recently admitted to my son that when I was young, I’d look out the car window and imagine a little cartoon stick figure running along side the car, leaping and jumping over guardrails and rocks. He said “no way! I do that too!”
So the customs of road trips continue. God willing, we all will reach our destinations with limited delays, arriving safe and sound with stories to tell and sore bottoms to stretch. And when we return home it won’t be long before we start planning our next journey.
But for now, it’s time for me to get out some grapes to share. Yes, mom, the tradition lives on.