Are We There Yet?
Sometimes I look back over my childhood and wonder how my folks managed to provide for us all. Then I remember what we didn’t have as compared to what I have now – what my family has now – and I realize, there was just a slightly different standard back then. I think I must be coming to that age where I am just at the beginnings of my first nostalgic phase of life. I hardly feel old enough yet to say, it was a simpler time back then, but, if I’m being honest… yeah… it was a simpler time. And, truthfully, I really didn’t mind… I didn’t know what we were missing, and, so, I just didn’t miss it.
We had a home that was more than comfortable for everyone in it, on more land than we could ever use, fresh vegetables grown nearly year round (this was Florida, after all) on a 1 acre garden plot, eggs from our own coop, grapes from our own vines, wild berries from our own meadows, fireplace fuel from our own woods, and all the books a pre-adolescent kid could ever hope to read. And, for me, at least, that was all I could have hoped for. That, and, the company of family and friends, which there was always plenty of to go around.
We had a TV, of course, and, I do remember what a big deal it was when we got our first VCR. My folks had been sensibly waiting for that particular newfangled technology to be out for a year or so in order to come down in cost from the over $500 pricetag it debuted with to something more reasonable, but, my grandmother liked to spoil our family, and sent one to us when still only a few homes we knew had one. We didn’t get out to movies much, but, when there was something big enough that just couldn’t be missed, Mom & Dad would find a way to make sure we all shared the experience. (Revenge of the Jedi was my first in-theater Star Wars, The Search For Spock my first Trek, and The Temple of Doom my first Indiana Jones… I still laugh at myself when I remember that they actually had to talk me into going to see Back To The Future.)
But we didn’t require all the electronic forms of entertainment that are available now to keep ourselves occupied back then. We didn’t need every latest piece of fancy gadget or gizmo to come off the line. I think all three of the brothers I grew up with (I have five) did get themselves a Walkman, but, I never bothered. Mom & Dad had a stereo system with decent speakers, a sizeable vinyl collection (sizeable, yes, quality… that’s a matter of perspective), and I can actually remember many family vehicles equipped with 8-track cassette players.
One such set of wheels in particular, a 1978 Chevy Suburban, was primarily responsible for providing our gang with a significant source of recreational merriment over the years. It was the family vacation wagon.
Mom and Dad liked for us to spend quality time together as a group, and, one of the best ways they found to do that, outside of holiday shenanigans, was to schlep our traveling tribe in this giant beast of a riding jalopy all over the country.
We had a fair amount of downtime annually, of course, but that wasn’t always even necessary. Our folks wholeheartedly believed that our private school education couldn’t hold a candle to the experience we would gain by seeing more of our nation, and, they prided themselves on having kids smart enough to learn something from it (and to be able to make up the work without any loss upon our return). After all, if the world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page,* then any old excuse would do. Every year, there was always somewhere to go – some cousin getting married, some nephew graduating college, some family patriarch celebrating a three score and ten – and we would load us all up into the baby blue & white rolling juggernaut across a better portion of the continent to get there.
Now, at this point, I should probably tell you that I don’t just come from a big family... I come from a big family of big families, where most broods of offspring range from between 3 - 6. And, man, can those folks get around! There’s hardly a state in the domestic 48 that isn’t represented by some member of our kin. So, on years that we were just tooling around for fun, anywhere we wanted to go, it was usually a pretty good bet there was someone we were related to along the way who would be more than happy to put us all up for a spell, and show us their town. A favorite in-law shuttled us around Colonial Williamsburg; a second cousin gave us the best highlights of DC; an Aunt & Uncle in Boston toured us through historical New England.
And, of course, we were the Floridian clan of the family for a while, the greater stopover for folks among our numerous band of brethren on the way to DisneyWorld or one of the many coastal beaches; until we got to Minneapolis, and became the wayside of choice for any parts of the bunch checking out The Mall of America, or other sites of the great white frozen tundra of the North American Midwest. Those were fun times, too, but, what sticks out to me most is all of us gallivanting state to state in the time-honored transport affectionately nicknamed by my oldest brother (who eventually inherited the thing after graduating high school) as “The Tank.”
As wide as it was tall – 6½ ft (2 m), and three times as long - 17 ft (5½ m), there was a lot of space for hauling kids, company, and all the crap that goes along with it. It weighed nearly three tons, and some days seemed to hold almost as much. We’d pull out the third row seat, and fold up the second row seat, leaving enough room for luggage behind the fourth row seat, and a place to sit for any aunts & uncles or grandfolks and other adult types who were along for the pilgrimage. The rest of us kids and cousins got to sprawl out on the bed. The five foot (1½ m) span between the front and way back rows was just large enough to lay down a mattress, every pillow our house could give up, a few blankets, a week’s worth of traveling snacks, and all the time-passing activities we could come up with. Pile on top of that anywhere from 4 - 6 kids, for somewhere between 7 - 28 hours, depending on the destination, and you’ve got a recipe that will either bring you all as close together as any family can be, or slowly drive you all a little nuts. (The jury’s still out for some!)
In 1985, with a favorite Aunt and cousin, we took a three month-long trek through the Appalachian Trail up the entire East coast, from Florida to Maine, stopping along the way at anything we cared to see. There was The Smithsonian Institution Museums (that took a whole week!), the Liberty Bell, Lady Liberty (sadly, I had to wait for another trip to get close to her… she was scaffolded up that year), the Walk of Independence and the Freedom Trail (another week there), and Plymouth Rock, among others, and we actually got to compare clam chowder styles from Manhattan, New England, and Maine in the same trip, just to name a few of those highlights.
In 1991, it was through the Black Hills from Minneapolis to Sturgis, by way of Rushmore, and any other roadside attractions, big and small, that tickled our fancy, including Wall Drug, Crazy Horse, and Devil’s Tower (that last one came after the rally was over).
On one trip, Mom read to us out loud, and got us through a fair portion of the Little Women series. We listened as a family to books on tape (mostly mysteries), discussing the stories as we went. We played games, sang songs, told jokes, and napped and snacked our way across most of greater America.
We must have looked like a veritable gaggle of circus clowns, tumbling out of The Tank by the dozens at wayside rests and family diners (from a configuration which I’m sad to say is no longer a legal form of highway cruising in most states)... a traveling travesty, to be sure. But I look back on the personal cultivation I gained from these expeditions as some of the greatest moments of my youth, and the memories of their adventures will last a lifetime.
As of today, there are only seven states I’ve never been to… but they’re on my list, and I’m counting down, ticking them off, one by one. There are more adventures out there to be had, and after I’ve conquered the Northwest corner, and the non-continental states, from there, it’s on to the greater globe at large. So look out world, here I come!
“No matter what happens, travel gives you a story to tell.” —proverb
LJ Idol | Season 8 • Week 8 – Topic: TRAVELING TRAVESTY
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