Road Trip

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Road Trip

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 *%$#%ing fun they’re gonna need plastic surgeons to remove the smiles from our *&^%ing faces. –  Chevy Chase, “National Lampoon’s Vacation”

In the days before emission standards, mandatory seat belts and mini vans, there was the family station wagon.  This V8, 360 horse power gas guzzler was a modern day Conestoga wagon on steroids.  Over two decades, this car and others liked 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, 1000 miles, four motels, eight rest stops and one empty glass gallon Motts 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 jig saw 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 cent 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 jar.  In a flash, the bottle spilled a quart of urine onto the sleeping bag.  It was only 11am 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 hand held 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.

The Summer of Staycation

By and large, mothers and housewives are the only workers who do not have regular time off. They are the great vacation less class. ~Anne Morrow Lindbergh

2009 has been coined the summer of the “stay-cation” – a socio-economic shift wherein families remove the pearls of multiple vacation destinations and string a more frugal necklace of “econo-tivities” and close to home travel. In these uncertain times, many will reacquaint themselves with the simpler things in life – a club that one has joined but never has actually visited, a body of water that rests patiently within miles of their home or perhaps a return to a childhood vacation community where one expended the last gasps of a memorable adolescent summer.

In lieu of ladling additional debt on top of a chiiped beef breakfast of broken balance sheets, fractured assets and wobbly economic prospects, many families are rediscovering the joy of road-side motels, derelict cabins and beach houses with porches packed with a generation of sunburned sardines in sleeping bags. The stay-cation is a blessing for a society of spend now, worry-later Americans. Summers have evolved into chaotic ballets of vacation trips, sleep away camps, and travel sports only interrupted by the occasional few days home where we shake our heads at the carefully planted vegetable garden now rotting from neglect.

We patronize these less elaborate holiday trips as a sort of temporary inconvenience to be endured during hard times. The American dream includes improving on every aspect of the generation that preceded it. Yet, I wonder if the high voltage, sugar rush uber holiday has ultimately less long term spiritual nutritional value than the simple staycation. The truth is the staycation is an echo of a simpler time when families scrimped, saved and ultimately crowned, what mother’s considered an interminable three month heat wave of thankless servitude with one grand, end of August two week hiatus to a body of fresh or salt water.

It was in the long shadows of these bronzed final days of freedom, that many of us found a first kiss, a first vice or heard our first adolescent urban legend. It was sitting next to an outdoor firepit with toes buried deep in cool sand that we discovered our parents were once children and that our sibling was actually,  kind of funny. Like desert reptiles, sun engulfed us – burning, peeling and freckling our skin while emmersing us in a fortnight of sand granules that relentlessly found their way into every inconvenient orifice via one’s bed, ears, food and undershorts.

Those who grew up in the 60’s and 70’s know that summer is a narrow window to form even the tiniest callous on the hands of a soft suburban adolescent. Its ingredients included a seven hour family road trip in an overstuffed station wagon that looked like it was the get-away car from a convenience store robbery. It meant being wedged between packing cartons filled with an assortment of cardiovascular disease agents – white bread, Jif peanut butter, eggs, bacon, margarine, and Crisco vegetable shortening ( lard) to fry chicken. These vehicles were not travelling entertainment systems but lairs of carsickness, internecine warfare and misery. In these pits of dispair, one could just as easily get hit by the driver or a passenger seated next to you, as you could be slammed by another car.

The drive to reach your August destination was mere mood music for the main event – a broken down beach house with one toilet, an outside shower and futon beds for anyone under the age of 18. The vacation supplies included canvas blow up rafts that within the week would literally sandpaper the nipples right off your body. There were stiff fins meant for WWII Navy seals that would give you blisters across the tops of your toes after three strokes. There was a cooler – a monstrosity of a device weighing more than any family member except your father. Each year, it would be filled with ice and miraculously lugged two miles down to the beach like those large stone faced edifices on Easter Island. No one truly remembers how all the equipment was transported to the beach as the entire  walk was a sort of Bataan Death march where only under hypnosis could one possibly reconstruct the actual events.

The beach abode that looked so charming in the Polaroids turned out to be the unholy offspring of a Richard Scarry bunny house and Fawlty Towers. You would innocently open a door and be met by screams and curse words from an octagenarian who had been left behind by the family that occupied the hose before you.  The dresser drawers of ancient flea market furniture, were lined with curled floral paper that clung to the wood only at the location of a dark undiscernable stain. The tap water tasted as if it had been distilled through an old sock. Rarely was laundry placed neatly in a drawer. It was recklessly and delightfully thrown into a corner where it grew and growled over the course of a two week stay until it would be domesticated in a large canvas bag. Laundry Day was the equivalent to the Allstar break in baseball, a sort of hygenic timeout and initial light at the end of the tunnel for my mother. On this day, we would haul dirty clothes to a local laundromat where we would spend an exhilarating morning washing, drying, and folding while spying on damaged bachelors, aging debuttantes and lonely hearts as they showcased their unfulfilled lives and their undergarments on adjacent tables.

These 70’s trips were vacation for everyone except mothers. Moms were still trapped in that seam between female liberation and indentured servitude. There were rumors of vacations at hotels with maid service and spacious condominiums where children were sequestered in separate rooms like typhoid patients. However, most figured these were just exaggerations started by other female prisoners of domesticity to keep up morale. It would take my mother weeks to recover from these trips. Whether it was the toilet that had not been flushed since the Eisenhower administration, an indelible marker slash that looked as if it had been left by Zorro or the blood trail across the living room floor, this was not going to be the year that we would honor any of her house rules or get our security deposit refunded.

Yet, it was on these summer journeys that we learned how to crew our family ship. We awoke to days of bright, blinding blue skies and the anxious riffle of curtains as they would gust in the breezes of a new morning. We fell asleep to a sensation of constant motion having spent an entire day in the water – our dreams bracketed by the relentless pounding of midnight waves rising and falling below a gently sloped dune. We did not see these trips as a step down from anything. The vacations primary purpose was not to entertain us – – but to keep us together as a unit, expanding our understanding of one another – exchanging insights and mythology that only surfaced from that strange sodium pentathol brew of salt water, fresh air, adventure and fatigue.

It was not quite a complete summer trip unless we rediscovered the utter chaos of an Emergency Room trying to negotiate with a hospital administrator whom my father suggested had “the world’s smallest brain”, My mother quickly understood they also possessed a black belt in the nuances of the word “no”.

“Will my son’s broken wrist be covered by my policy?”

“No ma’am. We need your credit card”.

“Do you accept insurance?”

“No ma’am”

“Well then can you at least talk to someone from my husband’s human resources department about how his insurance pays direct reimbursement?”.

“Maam, I am not authorized to accept insurance. Our insurance person is at lunch. I have been told not to talk to other people.”

“I’m a person.”

“You are a payer.”

“What’s the difference?”

“Maam, I can only answer questions about this hospital’s policy as it relates to the costs of your son’s broken wrist.”

“What if I plunge this pencil into your eye socket? Do you think you can see me better – you know, as a person? “

While to some coddled kiddies and cocooned communities, this primitive form of holiday is a sign of the impending apocalypse, for a generation who grew up without seat belts, stuck in a purgatory of long, air conditionless station wagon road trips, it’s a return to the halcyon days of youth. It remains to be seen whether the staycation is merely a solid patch on an otherwise slippery, material slope or whether it is the first sign of spring in society’s discontented winter search for liberation from its never ending need for affluent diversion.

In the end, perhaps it is a second chance to discover that less is more – – and that the best things in life still remain free.

Except, of course, a broken wrist.

An Affair To Remember

A high-occupancy vehicle lane on Ontario Highw...
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An Affair To Remember

The car as we know it is on the way out. To a large extent, I deplore its passing, for as a basically old-fashioned machine, it enshrines a basically old-fashioned idea: freedom. In terms of pollution, noise and human life, the price of that freedom may be high, but perhaps the car, by the very muddle and confusion it causes, may be holding back the remorseless spread of the regimented, electronic society. ~ J. G. Ballard, “The Car, The Future”, Drive, 1971.

In 1960’s Southern California, rapid transit was considered ill conceived, inefficient and in many places, nonexistent.  Public transportation was considered by many Los Angelinos to be a painful, high risk last resort – – the bone marrow transplant of travel.  Unlike the great train and subway societies of the east coast, the new cities of the West had less infrastructure and little inspiration to replicate their past lives.  Voters shuddered at the thought of being one of many “trapped in the belly of a great iron beast” commuter train.    Private transportation meant independence. Self reliance was a value coveted by those who had emigrated west in search of escape from what Thoreau described as “lives of quiet desperation”.

 

The American West was now a more mature version its former self.  In the 1860’s, the horse was a prized possession. In the latter part of the 20th century, it was the automobile that defined the individual.   The car not only afforded us freedom but it transformed society.  With the advent of the freeway, suburban flight accelerated.  The person who once lived, worked and served as a strong thread in the fabric of an urban area would now labor all day in a metropolis and conveniently flee the chaos and social obligation for the bucolic white fences of a distant commuter town. Suburbia thrived and urban America began its decline.

 

Los Angeles was hardly a destination, it had no real center. It was a sprawling, ever-expanding ocean of houses, apartments and condominiums.  As residential prices soared, people would increasingly travel great distances to find affordable housing, choosing to comute vast distances to jobs in the aerospace and entertainment industries.  Years later, Southern California would spawn a new term, “super commuter” to describe the poor pilgrim who travelled at least two hours each way to work.  This led to millions leading double lives – – content in the bosom of their family each weekend and then reluctantly returning to the clutches of their automobiles each work week. 

 

In age of Aquarius, affluence was a luxury automobile.  One could airbrush their circumstances with the purchase of a Cadillac or full sized sedan.  Fathers drove the “nice” car and would occasionally allow their spouses to drive their vehicle but only under strict supervision.  The matriarch got stuck with a rolling landfill, “ the second car”  that often looked and smelled like a refugee camp.  Like so many of his generation, my father adored his car and maintained it with a pathological zeal.  He scrupulously recorded his mileage and changed the oil more often then he changed his children’s diapers.  He required his sons to clean his rolling palace once a week with a special chamois, “shammy”, cloth made from animal skin no larger than a handkerchief.   Washing the car with the shammy was the equivalent to cleaning the Meadowlands with a toothbrush. He countered that the factory paint job was rubbish and only the soft shammy could preserve the color. Nothing was too good for his four wheeled girlfriend. 

 

Dad preached that how one maintained their car spoke volumes about their self discipline, respect and personal hygiene. An unattended dent or scratch was a sign of moral and financial decline. We did not realize it but we were at the tail end of a golden age of transportation where cheap gasoline and an endless horizon line of superhighways, freeways and expressways beckoned Americans to drive everywhere.  We were a society of open spaces and vast distances.  The long scenic stretches of American interstate such as Route 66 and the Pacific Coast Highway symbolized the unrealized potential of a nation still growing into itself.  To a Southern Californian there was nothing more satisfying than driving one’s car – – to the store, to work or just down the driveway to get the mail.  Everything was accomplished with one’s motor vehicle. 

 

Our passion for automobiles may have been brought on by excessive exposure to the sun, lack of rain or attending one too many Burt Reynolds’ Smokey and The Bandit movies.  Our need to drive everywhere and often by ourselves, was seen as a birthright and a necessity given the vast distances one needed to travel between planned communities and urban centers.  My theory on our obsession was simple – – half of us may well have been conceived in the back seat of a ‘59 Dodge Lancer.  Whatever the impetus for our relentless preoccupation, we were initiated at an early age to believe that four wheels trumped two legs. At birth, we were handed a pacifier and a Match Box or Hot Wheels racing car.  Those infants that did not choke on the toys, graduated to watching Speed Racer cartoons and riding go-carts.  We had more bootleg copies of Motor Trend than Playboy and spent hours debating the superiority of Mustangs over Cameros. Yet, our amorous obsession eventually became an unhealthy addiction.

 

The energy crises of the 1970’s shocked us and confirmed our deep dependence on our cars and the dark, narcotic sold by exotic sheiks that fueled them.  We drove, drove and drove more.  We jammed our roads so much that we created pollution called “smog“( smoke and fog) which when inhaled made you feel like you had smoked five packs of filterless Camel cigarettes.  We had “smog alerts” at school and were told to stay indoors because of poor air quality. We determined that we must wean ourselves from our transportation habit.  We promised to abandon this destructive affair with cars for the honor of energy conservation and the environment.  We grudgingly got rid of our two ton concubines and launched a generation of economy cars that consumed less gasoline.  We watched as HOV lanes condemned the solo driver to sluggish traffic.  Secretly, we despised these changes longed for our beloved Rubenesque, full figured vehicles who were now transforming into waif-like, Twiggy compacts.  We loathed taking Amtrak and Greyhound. We convulsed under automotive abstinence.  We walked, took the train and carpooled.  It was a dark time in the Force for the motor headed Jedi.

In the 90s and into the new millennium, we quietly rekindled our affair of consumption. As with all serial recidivists, we could not stay away.  We did not want to think about the consequences of fossil fuels.  We ignored the signs of global warming.  We rejected the Kyoto treaty. We tolerated what we felt were egregious pump prices of $ 1.75.  We denied that we were actually undermining ourselves.  We went back to purchasing massive gas guzzlers and rationalized that tougher emission standards and engineering advances had again made the affair possible.   

But suddenly, the jig was up.  The world went sideways and we were caught en flagrante dilecto with big cars and no protection.  Most of us can no longer even fill our car at the gas station as the pump is programmed to cap out at $75.  There’s no avoiding the truth.  We are going to have to leave her for good this time and return to tin cans and public transportation.  We may even lose GM and a few other enablers along the way. For this reformed Californian, it’s still all a little inconvenient.  Yet, I know it’s only a matter of time before there is standing room only on every train and I am cramming my oversized body into an undersized Mini, Prius or hybrid.

It’s finally over but we had some good times, didn’t we?  It was an affair to remember…..