The American vacation | Columns

There were an estimated 61 million cars on the road in 1960, compared to 286 million last year. One friend calls this “increased traffication” — I think he says this so he can watch me cringe. (It’s right there with ESPN’s “physicality.”)

A vacation now consists of rushing to the airport, waiting through TSA tedium, and then sitting in a clenched position on the plane, waiting for a little bag of pretzels. The alternative, traveling on the interstate for hours, is about as much fun as putting your face in a campfire.

It wasn’t always like this. There was a time when traveling by car was an event in itself — a time when cars didn’t have washed out computer names like AMG GT, RAV4, ILX, CT5, or MX5. No, circa 1960, when people wanted to drive cars of distinction and strength, they drove a Cobra, a Stingray or Continental, or maybe a Riviera — or an Impala. A Camero. And, of course, (use a deeper voice here), a Barracuda. Cars had personalities then.

My Dad owned a station wagon in the late ’50s, but it was at least called a Suburban, and it was blue. (Now it would probably be called a Plymouth XL47.325 Q6V).

I was in first grade at North Frederick Elementary when my father was infected with wanderlust. I suspect that this had less to do with a nomadic yearning than the fact that he and my mother were cooped up with four kids in a 1,500-square-foot cinder block house on Edgewood Church Road, but once he made a decision and had a goal, he was off to the races.

Dad had Esso send him maps with the highways highlighted in orange magic marker. He drew out our itinerary on taped-together pieces of paper, creating a large oval that hit 33 states — and we were going to do it in 30 days (that’s all the time he could get off work at Fort Detrick).

All of this in the heat of August.

We left very early one August morning so we could get across West Virginia before any of their citizens awoke. My 16-year-old sister had the back right seat where she could scowl out the window and reign supreme. The three boys rotated between the back middle and left, and the choicest of positions — the floor. A rear-wheel drive car had a hump in the middle of the floor, but if you curled up just so, you could put your pillow and ear on it and listen to the miles sing by. My sister started sulking even before we started since there were no iPhones then for her to communicate incessantly with friends. She became a professional pouter by the time we hit Kentucky.

Younger brother was OK so long as he had his red cowboy hat and silver cap gun. Older brother was fine so long as he was picking on his two younger brothers (I was the middle child). Dad was OK so long as he had his big cup refilled with coffee from every Howard Johnson’s he saw. Mom found her Zen corner while we drove and she never said much, except to police the back seat.

Dad had made a plywood roof rack luggage holder from scratch. Mom figured out how to pack a tent and camping equipment — along with a large cooler, in the back — and so long as she remembered the mosaic of what to pack where, we were fine. I recall that she only screamed twice out of frustration. The luggage holder was a work of art, but no one was athletic enough to get on top and load it, so we had to park very close to picnic tables for packing/unpacking. Mom quit saying, “Stay away from your father right now” after about a week. Kids learn quickly.

To make things a bit more interesting, Dad also decided to take our Pug, Moola. She hadn’t gotten this much attention in years, so she loved it. This was a tactical error on Dad’s part.

The Midwest is actually pretty boring from a car ride point of view. Miles and miles of grain and windmills. We counted cows and then windmills to pass the time. Mom got the hang of camping at night and fixing breakfast with coffee in the morning. Scattered motel rooms meant weekly showers.

The Rockies were spectacular and we played in snow at the Continental Divide. Our car couldn’t ascend Pike’s Peak; Dad was not a risk taker. A flat tire in Grand Junction. The huge disappointment called the Petrified Forest (“Where’s the forest???”) in Arizona. Las Vegas doesn’t really hold much for children, and we crossed the Mohave Desert at night with a water bag in front of the car’s grill to keep the engine as cool as possible. We played license plate bingo to pretend that we weren’t worried about dying of thirst.

Finally we got to Knott’s Berry Farm in California — a kid’s paradise. Then the redwood forest where we drove through a tree where people who had never heard of Green Peace had carved a big hole for cars. Even as a kid, I wondered what the tree thought about a giant chain-sawed hole through its torso.

Disneyland was our “real” destination. Mom went with me on the Matterhorn roller coaster. once. She screamed a lot. She did not drink alcohol, but I suspect she could have started when the ride was over.

Then, onto Mount Rushmore, the Corn Palace in South Dakota, the Hoover Dam and Ghost Town USA, where I met Jon Provost (aka Timmy Martin of “Lassie” fame), my childhood hero, and realized that he was a jerk in real life: He couldn’t have cared less about signing autographs for little kids. This was a difficult life lesson for me.

By the time we had been through Yosemite and were headed home, Dad decided, oh, around Oklahoma, that there was nothing much else to see. eighteen-18 hour days then became the norm, and we rolled into Frederick late one night — right on schedule.

We had seen America by car, without air conditioning, eating and camping out of the trunk. We often followed Route 66 and Route 40 because there were no interstates then. We met a lot of nice Americans, most of whom were extremely helpful and curious about us when they saw our license plates. We learned that gas for 32 cents a gallon was “highway robbery” and that my mother didn’t like to be called sweetie or dearie in Howard Johnsons. I found two ticklish spots on my sister and learned how to “frog” punch my brother. The night skis were amazing.

I hold this vacation in high regard. It took guts for my father to even attempt the trip, but he filled my head with fond memories for a lifetime.

My sister, on the other hand, remembers very little about the sites except that she hated them all.

“Well, except for Disneyland. …Maybe.”

The author writes from Frederick and notes that this was his first vacation outside of Maryland. The family was grateful to get back to their modest home and to Frederick.

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