My sister sent me a great book last year called “Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe’s America.” It’s a very entertaining book, and my favorite part is the author describing his attempt to get his family interested in Lincoln history by bundling them in the car and going on a car trip, following the old Lincoln Heritage trail. He states that the Heritage Trail (which includes, oddly, some non-Lincoln sites in the states involved) was an invention of the Illinois, Indiana, and Kentucky tourist industries, in an era when gas was cheap and families took vacations together.
Alas, today gas prices prohibit even the most determined families from driving hundreds of miles in the car to see the country. Such a shame! My sister and I can’t imagine childhood without the annual vacation. Our trips were on a tight budget - our father didn’t make much money - but he made sure he saved enough to pay for an annual 2-week trip and enough film to record it for posterity.
For Joy and me, our trip started months in advance, when we spent our free time writing lists of everything we wanted to pack, from clothes to accessories to books to games to the old salon-style hood hairdryer, which we to this day can’t figure out how Daddy got in the trunk. Soon we’d see envelopes in the mail from AAA, and it wouldn’t be long before Daddy would be sitting down at the table at night, studying their recommendations and trying to find out which motels would give us discounts for what. As the trip grew nearer, the anticipation became almost unbearable. Finally, the night before the trip, Mama would stay up practically all night frying chicken and making the ingredients for our picnic lunch, a tradition on the first day. She also had to wash clothes and pack for Daddy, and then worry for the next couple of days if we had unplugged the iron and locked the house. We never could understand how vacations just made her tired, when they energized us!
When my husband Ed was young, his family took fewer trips, but their trips were a lot different. They traveled to one destination and stayed there for a week, for instance, in a nice hotel. In contrast, we tried to see as many things as we could in the time allowed, and the motel was not for luxury, but for a clean place to sleep, so we could rise early and try to cram in another full, glorious day. We ate one meal out a day, and the rest of the time we went to a local grocery store and filled our cooler with the staples - Vienna sausage, bologna, cheese, bread, crackers, pork and beans, cereal, maybe some fruit, RC cola (or whatever was on sale), and a little container of milk (enough for cereal), tuna fish. We had a “goodie bag” of candy and snacks, a transistor radio, Travel Bingo, and songs and word games to keep us occupied. Most nights we had a pool and TV at the motel. What more could a kid in the '60s and early '70s want?
And the things we saw! National parks, state parks, local parks. Museums, historical homes, old mills. Washington, DC (with a fit, sunburned Ted Kennedy graciously stopping to chat and appear in our home movies). Philadelphia. Toronto. Colorado. Niagara Falls. Florida beaches. Mountains, rivers, lakes, streams. Everything to do with Lincoln - birthplace, childhood home, lawyer's office, the house in which he married, the church he attended, Lincoln Memorial, Ford's Theatre, the room in which he died, his tomb, and his chair on the fatal night (that's in Dearborn, Michigan!). Along the way, Stuckey's travel stops and wonderful tacky gift shops at each location. Our destination didn't have to be famous to make memories, either. We interacted with a talking myna bird at one motel. Watched Mama eat brains at a restaurant for breakfast. All of us got sunburned once, and Mama put wet tea bags on us as her home remedy. (What did we expect? We used baby oil for suntan lotion!) The trips became so wonderful and memorable that I started to keep journals.
We knew the trip was coming to a close when Mama took her house keys out of her purse to hold them for the last 200 or so miles. It was always good to come home, drop the home movies film off to get developed, see the cats again, and enjoy the rest of the summer. It wasn't long, though, before Daddy was already planning the next incredible trip.
The days of $12 motels for a family of four and 35-cent-a-gallon gas are gone. So are the opportunities for so many families to recreate what we took for granted. But every spring about this time, I start remembering those old family vacations, and I smile. I can almost smell the chicken frying in the kitchen.