"This is no longer a vacation. It's a quest, a quest for fun. I'm gonna have fun and you're gonna have fun. We're gonna have so much ... fun they're gonna need plastic surgeons to remove the smiles from our ... faces." -- Chevy Chase, "National Lampoon's Vacation"
In the days before emission standards, mandatory seat belts and minivans, there was the family station wagon. This V8, 360-horsepower gas guzzler was a modern-day Conestoga wagon on steroids. Over two decades, this car and others like it transported more adventurous families to more domestic destinations than any commercial airline.
A mixture of concern and excitement sparked with the ignition of the Chevy Impala wagon. Like the crew aboard the Pequod, we knew that with each mile, we would be further indentured to the whims of our Captain Ahab who would not rest until he could safely guide his ship into the parking space of a distant motel.
The trip would span three states, 1,000 miles, four motels, eight rest stops and one empty glass gallon Mott's apple juice bottle. There were no bathroom stops until we reached our destination for the day; that's what the Mott's apple juice jar was for (I am not making this up). The captain of this craft felt he could make better time if his sailors used a make-shift urinal. The process of relieving one's self was a tad humiliating as it involved crawling into the back of the wagon and trying to hit a target the size of a lacrosse ball while being heckled by three spectators. Where's the Flomax when you need it?
The luggage was secured to the automobile's roof rack with a gray canvas cover and rough hemp rope. The cargo was tied with angry knots that would have confounded Houdini. The back of the car was a jigsaw puzzle of cardboard boxes filled with groceries, clothes and odd supplies. A sleeping bag cushioned the ground between the boxes offering a place to lay down -- if you happened to be a midget or contortionist. On any given day, a child would be unnaturally curled in breech birth position between the boxes.
The anxiety was palpable. It was dawn and in the cool twilight, each child felt ill and out of sorts. Privately, each boy was confronting his "Four Horseman of Travel" -- our possessed driver, the eventual need to pee, the endless purgatory of Interstate 5 and the most fearsome specter of all -- carsickness. My brother was so afraid of getting sick that he once threw up before we even got out of the driveway. Dad pumped the brakes harder than an organist during Handel's Messiah creating a sensation not dissimilar to being on an Alaskan crab trawler on the TV show "Most Dangerous Catch."
"Dad, can I please put down the window?"
"Go to sleep. I've got the air conditioning on." He directed his comment toward my mother. Secretly, he would have loved to open the windows to the 100-degree heat, but my mom hated July in central California. He did not like what air conditioning did to his mileage. Every time he filled the car with 35-cents-a-gallon Shell gasoline, he copiously recorded his mileage on an index card and tucked it back into his glove compartment. I never understood his fascination with the Impala's miles per gallon. One thing was certain, he hated using the air conditioning and always turned on the recycled "economy" air before yielding to our protests about the car's heat.
My older brother was always first to barf. He tried to roll down the window but his scrambled eggs hit the top of the windows and sprayed back toward the middle seat. We all screamed and tried to move away as if an alien had burst out of his chest. My Dad swerved, pulling over to the shoulder of the road, a skidding plume of flying pebbles and dust. In the rear of the car, my youngest brother had been covered with a towel trying to go to the bathroom in the Motts apple juice jar. In a flash, the bottle spilled a quart of urine onto the sleeping bag. It was only 11 a.m. and the vehicle already smelled like a Metro-North urinal during the evening commute. Yes, we were on "vacation." My father looked as if he might spontaneously combust. About this time, my mom took control; taking out a moist wash cloth and paper towels. She turned around to calmly administer Dramamine and housekeeping service.
We were probably on our way to a cheese factory or perhaps to see the world's "largest ball of string," a sight that the AAA Road Guide insisted was a "must see." Just the notion of a detour adding time to our journey made me dry heave. The only antidote to nausea was a restless Dramamine-induced sleep or some sort of mental distraction. The boredom of road trips and the constant need to avoid thoughts of motion sickness required us to play games such as trying to identify license plates from different states. Kids living on the East Coast might regularly see licenses from multiple states. However in a state the size of California, an Oregon, Idaho or even Nevada plate was a big deal. Hawaii, Maine and Alaska plates were the rarest according to my brother and as such, not a day would go by that a boy emphatically claimed that he had seen the someone with plates whose mottoes read: The Aloha State; Vacationland; or North to the Future.
Lunch was at roadside parks or rest stops. Our rations were PBJs that bled through the white Wonder bread to form soggy clotted tarts. Grapes and Cheetos followed, chased by warm Shasta Lemon Lime soda. We lodged in motels with two queen beds for a family of six. Kids slept on the floor or in roll away cots. Within minutes, our room would be transformed into a refugee camp. We would head for the green, over-chlorinated pool that was usually surrounded by a metal fence and worn chaise lounges. We swam until we resembled shriveled Shar Peis. As we crawled from the water, we squinted through chlorine burned eyes that produced an odd chemical halo if you would gaze directly at an illuminated light.
Despite the chaos and drama, we loved these adventures. My parents understood that these trips were critical building anchors in our restless lives. We looked forward to each summer and begged my parents for more. Food tasted better on the road. We slept deeper, read more books, used our imaginations and stimulated parts of our brain that had gone dormant under the prosaic routine of the school year. These trips were in fact, treasured times together. The family road trip required patience, teamwork and stamina -- all attributes we could not achieve on our own.
Someone once said that "a family vacation is much like love and childbirth -- anticipated with pleasure, experienced with discomfort and remembered with nostalgia." Even to this day, driving is still boring. "When will we get there?" remains the eternal question from the back seat. However, road trips are no longer the equivalent of a buckboard wagon lurching across an endless prairie. Starbucks has replaced Stuckey's Diners. Interaction has been replaced by a tangle of white earphones and handheld electronic devices. Vacations are silent passages where each person is a self-contained entertainment system. Yet despite its metamorphosis, the family car vacation remains a rite of passage. As kids mature earlier and earlier and seek to fly the nest, the road trip is an important touchstone reconnecting family and reinforcing the ties that bind us.
As for me, I love our road trips. Although it was years later that I realized that not every family required their male occupants to relieve themselves in a jar. And yes, I still have to close my eyes when drinking apple juice.
Michael Turpin's new book, "T-Rex By The Tail" is available at Elm Street Books and Zumbach's Gourmet Coffee in New Canaan.