I am amazed at what my friends call a vacation. They talk about going to the beach; staying in a condo; eating seafood; and, generally, lying around for several days. They talk about how great it is to relax in the sun and read books. I know that many people think this is the perfect idea of fun and frivolity. I think it is hell on earth. It’s hot. It’s sweaty. Sand gets everywhere. Seafood is not meant to be eaten for a solid week. But most of all, sitting around all of that time is mind-destroying. I need to see something besides the same waves coming in from the same horizon before eating the same crab legs while wearing the same lobster bib. And I know whose fault it is that I think this way…
My dad dreamed of being a truck driver when he was a kid. He did not reach his dream but did become successful in the business world. With his dream of being a trucker dashed, my dad made sure that he ventured on that endless black ribbon by taking his family on road trips every summer. Other families went to the beach. We picked a cardinal direction, usually west, and headed out for a couple of weeks of constant changes in hotels and landscapes. My dad’s motto was “never burn daylight”, so we went from daylight to dark touring the country and checking out the scene. My mom even packed a cooler with sandwich stuff and drinks, so we could eat on the move. We were the real Griswold’s, and nothing from a movie can come close to what we experienced.
Because of my dad, I had visited all 50 states by the time I was 24. I developed a love for history from visiting the places where history happened. Some of my greatest memories are from the road, but it wasn’t all pleasant. Spending that much time in a cramped vehicle led to funny events that weren’t very funny at the time.
1. The Great Winnebago Trip – One year my dad got the bright idea to rent a motor home to drive cross-country. It started out good enough with my dad driving while the rest of us whooped it up in back. However, problems soon arose. The Winnebago broke down. And it broke down again. And it broke down again. In fact, it broke down all the way to California and back. It ended up with three fuel pumps that my brother had to hose down every time we stopped. The trip is legendary in these circles and can’t be accurately depicted here, but a few things stand out.
On a Saturday night, we broke down in Amarillo while heading west. The next Saturday night we broke down in Amarillo on the way east. The same mechanic worked on it both times. My mom took his picture. In between those two stops, we broke down in the middle of the Los Angeles freeway. We also broke down in a blasting zone. There was also the time we broke down in Needles and watched them fry eggs on the sidewalk. That was the last motor home.
2. The “My Mom Lost Her Mind” Trip – We spent the night west of the Colorado/Kansas border with the plan to drive to St. Louis the next day. Road trips are a loop, and the turn home was always seen as the home stretch. My mom was driving as we neared St. Louis in a rain storm. It was then that we discovered no rooms at the inns. St. Louis, big city that it is, was completely booked. My mom drove on. And drove on. And drove on. We tried to get her to stop, but she held a death grip on the wheel and wouldn’t listen. Her eyes got wide as she focused on the road. Ignoring the pleas of myself and my dad, she drove all the way home. We drove from Colorado to Tennessee in one day.
3. The “Speed of Sound” Trip – In junior high, my teacher asked us to write an essay about our summer. I wrote about our road trip, and she gave me an F for making it up. My mom had to call her and explain that it was all true. Simply, we drove to Virginia and toured the sights around Washington. We saw Mt. Vernon, Monticello, Arlington Cemetery and the Smithsonian. We then drove to Philadelphia and saw the history made there. Next, came New York (which I will discuss in more detail in #4), and a drive up to Niagara Falls. After the falls, we went into Canada and reentered the United States at Detroit. There we toured the Ford Museum. All of that took five days.
4. The “Tour of New York” Trip – Technically, this is the “Speed of Sound” Trip, but it deserves its own number. By this time, I was the official navigator and map-reader, and this was my job as my dad drove through the streets of New York City. He wanted to see Central Park, so I got him there. As we went through the park, I set the map to the side and looked around. When we came out of the park, we began to notice a degradation of our surroundings. Cars were on blocks. Windows were smashed out of buildings. It looked like a war zone. I picked up the map and told my dad not to stop at any cost. Don’t stop at red lights. Don’t stop if someone walks in front of us. My dad was driving his Cadillac down the street that separated Harlem and the Bronx. His orders were to drive to Yankee Stadium as fast as possible and get on the interstate.
5. The “That’s A Big Hole” Trip – Like a lot of people, my dad always wanted to see the Grand Canyon, and he made sure to stop the first chance he got. We parked the car and walked to the edge. As we stood there my dad declared, “That’s an awfully big hole.” We replied that it was. Then, he asked, “Ready to go?” In unison, we said, “Yes.”
Everyone should see the Grand Canyon once. It’s one of those things that makes the American landscape what it is. But, I’m not impressed with it. I think that it may be too big to appreciate, but it is not my favorite natural wonder. My nephew camped in the bottom last year and said it was great. That may be true. Riding the mules or flying over in a helicopter may be great too. However, I would rather see a lot of things than stand at the edge of the Grand Canyon and look into a big hole.
I know. All of this sounds terrible, and you are thinking that we would have been better off at the beach. However, these bad experiences were few and far between and gave us great stories to tell at family gatherings. The road trips were great bonding experiences and gave me the opportunity to see things that many people do not. For that, I am eternally grateful. Therefore, I am going to end this post on a positive note and list my favorite historic sites and natural wonders. I owe my parents for the love I have for these places.
My Favorite Historic Sites
1. The Little Big Horn Battlefield – I have mentioned this several times in other posts and will not go into great detail here. Just know that this is the one place where I can mentally take myself back in time.
2. Alcatraz – The first time I saw it the prison wasn’t open for tours. The second time it was and proved to be an amazing experience. You haven’t done anything until you have stood in Al Capone’s cell.
3. Biltmore Estate – This is the largest privately owned home in the United States. Built by an heir to the Vanderbilt fortune, it is the perfect example of Guilded Age decadence. No castle in Europe has anything on this.
4. The OK Corral – Tombstone, Arizona is the quintessential tourism laden ghost town. It looks kind of hokey today, but it held an important place in Old West history as the location of America’s most famous gunfight. As a bonus, Ben Traywick, who is from my home county, is the unofficial Tombstone historian.
5. Pearl Harbor – Technically, I did not see this on a road trip. Even my dad couldn’t drive to Hawaii. However, this is a historic site that everyone should see. Walking onto the Arizona Memorial is a spiritual experience.
My Favorite Natural Wonders
1. Monument Valley – The banner at the top of this blog is a photo I took at Monument Valley. Those buttes have been shown in countless movies and have long been symbols of the American West. It sits in the Navajo Nation and serves as a reminder of what they lost in the United States’ drive toward Manifest Destiny.
2. Yellowstone National Park – There is so much in the park that it is indescribable. Therefore, I will boil it down to my favorite thing. There is nothing like waking up in the Old Faithful Lodge; walking onto the porch; and, seeing buffalo walk through the steam of the geysers.
3. Sequoia National Park – Imagine trees sold old that they started growing when Jesus supposedly walked the earth and so large that they look as if they had been constructed. That is the best way I can describe this park. I will leave out the time I got lost in it when I was two.
4. Bryce Canyon – This is a canyon filled with rock formations called “hoodoos”. They fill the landscape and make you feel that you have landed in another world.
5. Denali National Park – We did not drive to Alaska, but Mt. McKinley is the most amazing thing I have ever seen. We were lucky enough to view it on a clear day and see the peak. I have no idea how big the mountain is, but I know that it filled the landscape from miles away.
There you have it. My road trip adventures. Isn’t that better than a beach?