My family didn’t travel much when I was a kid, but once in a while we loaded up the ol’ Vista Cruiser and headed out to explore America’s vast highway system (still somewhat of a fascination in the 60s). I have great memories of my sisters and I fighting over who got to sit in the rear-facing back seat where the Freightliner badge on the truck tailgating us could fill our entire field of view. I’m pretty sure that the back seat had seatbelts, but I seem to remember that they were always wedged under the seat far enough that little hands could do nothing to extract them. In those days, safety wasn’t a law, it was a choice.
I fondly remember my father using the age-old “stop that or I’ll pull over right now,” when his three pre-teen kids were out of control; “we’ll get there when we get there,” in response to our incessant nagging; and forcing us to “hold it in” until we reached the next gas station. I also keenly remember my mom not believing that my father’s erratic driving was making us sick to our stomachs until we actually puked in the car. Ah, the good old days . . .
One memory that I will have until Alzheimer’s kicks in is the visit to the AAA to plan the trip. We’d walk into the AAA office where a nice older person (well, old compared to me) would ask us about our route and preferences and then would pull out half dozen maps with various details that he/she thought were worth pointing out. They then highlighted the route, their recommendations for places to eat and stay, and all of the noteworthy stops that we should make along the way. We’d walk out of the agency feeling that we had just gotten expert advice and with an armful of documentation, most of it folded in the classic map style origami that we would never be able to reproduce.
The enjoyment of following the trip along with the map was half the fun. The level of detail, the indication of small roads, towns and villages and the feeling that it was really about the journey, not the destination, was what made it terrific. Our next stop was in “roughly 30 miles” or at the interesting old diner “at mile marker 241.” Not “you will arrive at your destination after making a slight right turn in 13.42 miles.”
I suppose that the AAA still offers the same service, although I assume they just print out online maps like we do ourselves from Mapquest or similar. My guess is that the expertise that pointed out the unique roadside attractions, though, is all gone. It, of course, came from experience. In those days people took Sunday drives just to see what they could see. Places were discovered, not targeted. We rarely do stuff like that any more – we get into our cars to go someplace.
Like most memories, I’m sure this one has aged like a fine wine – it’s only gotten better with time. I guess that if I truly longed to relive the trip planning experience, I’d try to recreate it. These days, though, Mapquest isn’t even direct enough for me. I find myself saying to friends and family, “don’t tell me how to get there, just give me the address.” I plug it into my GPS system, indicating that it should find me the fastest or shortest route, and blindly follow the roads and turns that it indicates. No interesting diners, unique little shops or picturesque small towns. What a shame, really.
One of these days, I hope to slow down a bit and just take a Sunday drive. Maybe I’ll stop at the AAA and get a map. A real one that doesn’t bark orders at me and that I can curse at when I can’t refold it.