Wednesday, March 24, 2010
When I was a teenager, I saw National Lampoon's Vacation on cable after it had already shown in theaters and was on VHS. A good thing, too, because as soon as we saw it, my brother and I would check that thing out from Blockbusters and rewind it countless times to relive the funniest scenes, commit dialogue to memory, catch little throw-away moments we'd never noticed before. Seeing Vacation was like watching a family trip of ours on video, just tweaked a little, with a funnier cast and more exaggerated shenanigans. No, my father never pursued an inexplicably flirtatious blonde in a convertible across the country, and no one's great aunt passed into the great unknown in the back seat of the family truckster, but we had our own mishaps, fueled by the same steadfast pursuit of having an enriching time, no matter if it killed us. This was my father's obsession, and the way he approached our vacations, with a dogged, teeth-gritting, white-knuckled determination, was something to behold. From the back seat of our station wagon, littered with awkwardly-folded maps and dog-eared travel guides, my brother and I saw the roads and highways rolling out from our starting point in Chicago's North Shore as captives and co-conspirators.
The earliest road trip I remember was when we went to the Dakotas, out to see Mount Rushmore and the Corn Palace among other things that didn't exactly rock my seven-year-old world. It was on this trip when my father first let us know that he was the type of traveler who would only stop for meals or refueling. There were miles that needed to be gulped up between Point A and Point B, and there was nothing that would slow him down. Not even carsickness among children accustomed to a very flat terrain. When my brother first warned as we rolled over another hill that he was starting to feel sick. my parents ignored him. When he reiterated it with more conviction, my mother turned around and saw his poor, green face, hands clutching his stomach, full of Grape Crush and potato chips. My father still would not stop. I watched in horror as she handed my brother an empty cup just in time. One would think that even a man possessed would pull over to dispose of the foul cup. Nope. My brother had to throw it out the window on the highway as my father tightened his fingers on the steering wheel. The cup's contents streaked all along the side of the car and I distinctly remember my grimacing father washing it off on one of his rare impromptu gas station stops. "Serves him right," my mother sighed. My brother groaned. I giggled.
There were other vacations together. One that most sticks out in my memory is the trip to Florida as a teenager. Again, my father was a maniac behind the wheel. He started to see himself as the noble captain of a doomed ship and his passengers, particularly his eye-rolling, smart-mouthed daughter, as his mutinous charges. My desire to return to school after winter break with the telltale sign of a warm weather sojourn - a tan, acquired through luxurious amounts of beach time - sharply collided with my father's insistence on day trips of tromping through swamps and kitschy museums. I can hear my father's voice, hectoring me as "insolent!" and " an ingrate!" as I turned up the volume on my Walkman from the back seat to this day. My brother spurred me on, amused by my reliably sarcastic ripostes and eager to be on my father's relative good side. My mother read her magazines. This was our last trip together as a family. I think we were all thinking the same thing as we boarded the plane back for Chicago: never again.
So now my family is about to embark on a little vacation of our own, just a long weekend away but all that we can manage time-wise. Despite some of these misadventures from the past, I am an enthusiastic traveller. So is my husband and it appears that my son inherited the bug, too. His first road trip was at three weeks of age, when he took in parts of the country from a backwards facing car seat; his memory of this time could perhaps be retrieved with the aid of regression therapy though mine is crystal clear, of the midnight meanderings through the hotel lobby, trying to soothe the alien newborn when my breasts weren't cutting it. So we wandered and shuffled and took escalators up and down, his giant eyes riveted by the bright lights, the shifting shapes. Did this plant a seed that grows over a lifetime of wanting to always absorb new sights, take in new surroundings? His favorite first toy I got him, other than Toby, his dog on wheels, was the shiny little red suitcase, also on wheels. I picked it out for him on a thrift store whim when he was two. He took to that little suitcase from the moment he first saw it. He'd fill it with clothes and books and a stuffed animal or two, then he'd wander around the house, pulling it behind him like a little jet-setter.
After a long traveling dry spell - other than the stray weekend here or there - I am hopeful that the embargo is over and we will be getting back out there again, exploring oceans and cities and mountains and cute little towns all over the darn place. I've got a pretty serious case of wanderlust. Despite those ill-fated family vacations of years ago, there is little I love more than throwing some packed bags in the car and just driving away. This weekend, I get to do it again.
I'm very grateful.