“On the old highway maps of America, the main routes were red and the back roads blue. Now even the colors are changing. But in those brevities just before dawn and a little after dusk—times neither day nor night—the old roads return to the sky some of its color. Then, in truth, they carry a mysterious cast of blue, and it’s that time when the pull of the blue highway is strongest, when the open road is beckoning, a strangeness, a place where a man can lose himself.”—William Least Heat-Moon, Blue Highways: A Journey Into America (1982)
Summer vacation in our household always meant one thing — ROAD TRIP! Once the crops were in the field and growing strong, our family loaded up the station wagon and set out on adventures far and wide. Like other things in our household, these trips were a combination of exceptional planning and whimsical free-wheeling. Each year, the vacation had a specific theme or destination in mind, carefully chosen to balance fun and education, new experiences and landscapes with manageable adventure. But if we saw someplace fun to stop or a roadside attraction worth a look, we took the time to stop and enjoy the moments the road trip provided for us.
Take, for example, the summer we decided to tackle Civil War battlefields. Not content to sample just one or two, summertime that year was an in-depth historical journey across the eastern and gulf coast map of the major Civil War events.Gettysburg, Bull Run and Fort Sumter rolled into Andersonville as we headed to our southernmost destination of New Orleans. It was there that I rode in my first taxi, forever remembered because I left a treasured shirt, hand-painted by my mother, in the back of it, only to find it returned to the hotel later by a very kind taxi driver. New Orleans also marked the first time I ever tried to eat a lobster served whole instead of just by the tail. The kindness of strangers came through again as a very patient waiter took extraordinary amounts of time to teach me how to break apart the thing, as well as the parts to avoid!
On our way back north to home, we stopped for one night at a hotel in Vicksburg. As we were loading up the car the next morning, I went exploring in the parking lot and stopped when I saw a familiar license plate. In our small town, cars changed quicker than license plates, so I grew up learning to remember plates not vehicles. My parents were unconvinced that life could be so random as to have two families from the same small town happen to stay in the same place hundreds of miles from home. I stuck to my guns, insisting that my parents ask at the desk, and I was right! We had a quick breakfast together and caught up on local news we had missed while on the road, then headed out onto separate ways, the start of their vacation and the winding down of our trip.
Some of our other memorable excursions included a long journey to the southwest, complete with my brothers scaring my mother at the rim of the Grand Canyon, a dust storm in New Mexico, and visiting Carlsbad Caverns. One year we headed northeast to New England, another west to California, and yet others to the vast open spaces of the Dakotas or across Canada.
With four kids across a thirteen-year age span, my mother was a genius at making sure our vacations went as smooth as possible. Each child started the vacation with a large paper grocery sack full of wrapped packages, one for each day on the road. At some point each day, at a time of our own choosing, we could open a new present, something she had picked especially for each of us, to entertain us. Silly and small, these daily surprises kept us entertained and engaged, whether it was an egg full of Silly Putty, a new coloring book, or a book to lose ourselves in as we covered the long miles each day.
In order to prevent arguments over money, food, and souvenirs, each child also got their own daily allowance of money to spend. Mom’s rule was pretty easy – each child had a set amount to spend, we could spend it however we wanted, but when it was gone, that was it, we were done. If I wanted that “I-have-to-have-it-or-I-will-die-right-now” item, it was mine as long as I was willing to sacrifice that amount of my budget. I still remember one of my brothers carefully guarding his daily expenditures to indulge in a very large steak for dinner one night on a trip through Texas. And if my sister wanted a hamburger for breakfast and eggs for dinner, so be it. It was her money to spend.
I learned a lot across the miles on those summer road trips — patience, cooperation, budgeting, the sheer pleasure of the open road– hanging over the back of the front seat, map in hand, navigating the blue highways over and around the miles, and finding adventure where we could.
Thinking back on those great summer road trips makes me want to head out on a summer road trip adventure.