Cigar smoke, a cramped compact car and seemingly endless hours of driving are my three most vivid memories of family vacations taken 30 years ago. The Maryland Eastern Shore was the usual destination, although we’d sometimes mix in trips to Indianapolis or Vermont, depending on the season.
Once we arrived in Texas, trips to San Antonio, Galveston and New Mexico entered the rotation. The car was slightly larger but we were still all together, in one place, with only each other for entertainment. We played a form of BINGO that had to do with street signs. We’d try to get comfortable enough to sleep, which was never easy with a bench seat and not enough room in the backseat for growing legs. There were never enough stops or distractions to satisfy us kids. For our family, most trips were not really about the stops along the way. The goal was to get where we were going as quickly as we could. But there was always the journey, and the feeling of doing something together as a family, no matter how confining or uncomfortable the surroundings.
How different vacations have become since then. Not the journey part because for our family, at least, the goal is still reaching the destination sooner than later. What has changed, though, is the style in which we travel. Children are now able to pass time by watching movies, playing video games or listening to their own music through headphones. Parents can sit up front, in the comfort of their individually climate-controlled seats and listen to satellite radio or CDs as the miles pass. And although that certainly makes for a more comfortable traveling experience, it does nothing to create the feeling of togetherness.
Not only have the conditions we travel for vacations changed, but the way we plan our vacations has most certainly gone through a transformation. The days of driving past motels looking for neon vacancy signs have fallen by the wayside. Now families can book entire vacation packages on-line, ordering meals, scheduling shows and even checking out the view from the room they’ve reserved. Resorts now package everything from tickets to rooms to shuttle rides to driving directions on a single Web site. All this in an effort to create no-hassle vacation experiences so families can focus on fun and “quality time” rather than logistics.
Experts who monitor trends in culture point to our generation’s pining for nostalgia. Almost forgotten towns along the fabled Route 66 are finding themselves welcoming a new generation of tourists as today’s parents retrace, or attempt to re-live, their own family vacations. Additional evidence of the re-focus on Route 66 and its history can be found in the Pixar movie “Cars” which was actually based on real people and places found along the nearly 2,500-mile highway that runs from Chicago to Los Angeles.
Some of the reason for the resurgence in the Route’s popularity, and road-trip family vacations, lies in the fact that it brings back memories of family vacations where the entertainment, or lack thereof, was shared by all. Those were trips when parents talked to their kids and each other. Adventures in finding restaurants, motels and gas stations were part of the experience. Stops at historic sites, no matter how significant the site or brief the visit, were an opportunity to talk about the past. Children were forced into the position of trying to see the world as their parents did, and many times adults were allowed to see the same places with the perspective of a child. That is what the journey is about, and rediscovering it together should be the focus of any vacation.
Bill Crist is associate publisher of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Wednesday. He may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.