I did not learn much about vacations when growing up, because my family didn't much believe in them. We almost never left metropolitan Boston. I thought the constellations pictured in the encyclopedia were imaginary, like Greek mythology, because city lights kept the sky from getting dark enough to see more than a few stars.
The reasons we didn't travel abounded. We didn't have much money. We were a bookish family not given to exploring. All the relatives lived within a few miles of each other so there was no need to go far. If we wanted to see the ocean we could go to nearby Revere Beach (although I had to wear sneakers in the water because of broken glass). If I wanted to see a major league baseball game I could take the subway to Fenway Park, the best ballyard in the country.
My childhood did have one great adventure, though. My father took a job temporarily teaching in Florida, so into the car I jumped excitedly. We drove in New Jersey past New York City where I could see skyscrapers wrapped in mist: They looked to me like "the topless towers of Ilium," the poetic description of ancient Troy. We hugged U.S. 1 all the way south, stopping at a Stuckey's and then encountering palm trees.
My first great vacation began two days after I graduated from college in Connecticut. I satisfied part of my desire to see America by bicycling across the country to Oregon, where a job awaited me at a small newspaper. I learned that U.S. 20 across upstate New York, a straight line on the map, is actually a series of undulating hills for which I was not physically prepared. I learned that farm dogs in Wisconsin can be viciously territorial. I learned that the predominantly west-to-east winds in South Dakota are hard for both farmers and bicyclists to fight.
But the trip was a great character builder and also a great pleasure, for by the time I hit the Rockies I was physically ready for them. Snowcapped mountains and constellations really exist. America is vast and beautiful. When Susan and I began having children six years later, I was ready to give them what I hadn't had: lots of travel and lots of character building. And, of course, like all over-ambitious fathers, I made tons of mistakes.
Here are a few lessons learned; I'll list them without reporting the specific, sometimes painful detail that taught them to me. Children, like armies, travel on their stomachs. The best time to teach patience and perseverance is not when kids are hungry, the temperature is 100 degrees, and the place where we'll eat lunch is a long walk away. When visiting a zoo, do not think you are on a research expedition and must see every animal. After spending big bucks for some tourist trap or theme park, do not think that getting your money's worth means having to stay to the point where kids start getting hot and whiny.
The positives, however, vastly outweighed those negatives. When taking long car trips we'd typically start at 4 a.m. The kids with their pillows would sleep in the back, waking up to Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" just as the sun was coming up. We'd have Pop Tarts for the kids to eat in the car for first breakfast, before stopping a couple of hours later for a real breakfast-milk and cereal on the hood of the car when we were poor, restaurant meals later. No Gameboys allowed; we'd play alphabet games and others relying on observation, recognizing that a benefit of car travel is gaining a sense of what's going on outside the windows. Baseball cards every hour as rewards for good conduct helped.
Simple pleasures were the best. Playing tortoise-and-hare on the grounds of Duke University. Catching crayfish at a battlefield in Tennessee. Spotting turtles along the Natchez Trace Parkway in Mississippi. Canoeing in Oregon or throwing snowballs in June in Colorado mountains. Finding what we believed were perfect hamburgers in a little town in Oklahoma. Singing along with a Bob Dylan tape as we drove across Texas. All our children have turned out to be terrific travelers: They developed a sense that it's worth waiting through occasional frustrations, because interesting things are coming. (That's a good lesson for life generally.)
For parents traveling by car this summer, I have one vital question: Are you going this way only because you can't afford going some other way, and you think the travel is something to be endured? Or is car travel an important and enjoyable part of the vacation itself? Your attitude, and the way you back up that attitude with kind words and small incentives, is crucial.