Road Trips in Childhood

It’s odd the things you remember.

I grew up in a family that took road trips — during summers and during school breaks. What a young child remembers from early life travel, and what that same child does not remember, can be intriguing.  I hold a very eclectic assortment of memories from those hundreds of miles and sometimes long hours spent in the car.

Probably my earliest memory, at about age three, is of a “trip” to visit my Uncle Arvid and Aunt Grace.  They lived in a Chicago suburb, Oak Park, and I’ve been told that, during that visit, we spent a day at the Brookfield Zoo.  I have absolutely no memory of that day at the Zoo.  In point of fact, the only thing I can remember from that early childhood adventure is the fact that the space between my aunt’s house and the house next door was very narrow –– about the width of a cement sidewalk.  I remember the hemmed-in sensation I had when walking between the houses.  And since I grew up in a house on a hill with a lot of space around it, perhaps my memory of the lack of space is understandable.  Still, one would think the wild animals at the Zoo would have left some impression on a three-year-old!

The next road trip I remember was a trip east, first to Niagara Falls and then on into Canada and New England.  By this time I was 7 years old.  On the first day out from home, we crossed Lake Michigan on a ferry boat.  The Lake was very rough that day.  My sister and I had taken seasick pills, my mother had no problems with all the pitching about, but my Dad got seasick and retired to the car in the hold of the ferry. The fact that one of my parents got sick and that we kids didn’t was apparently memorable.

I do remember more of our visit to Niagara Falls on the next day, but the most piercing memory of that experience is not of the mighty Falls itself.  Rather, I have a sharp memory of how much I wanted to ride on the Maid of the Mist — the little boat that takes you into the mists below the falls — and how crushed I was that we were not going to do that.  The lure of those big yellow rubber raincoats and hats, passed out to each tourist for the ride on the Maid of the Mist, was powerful.  

One purpose of this 1946 journey east was to visit a great-aunt — my grandfather’s sister — in Toronto.  I have only one very strong memory of our visit to this great-aunt’s home.  I had gone out into the fenced-in backyard to play by myself, while everyone else stayed in the house.  When I decided to go back inside, I discovered that the door that I had exited through was locked from the inside.  I distinctly remember being overwhelmed by an acute sense of despair and the fear that I would never, ever see my parents again.  I also remember, but much less clearly, the relief I felt when someone came out to check on me and let me back in.

se-gotland-classic-car-on-road

We continued on into New England on this 1946 trip — and I have memories of visiting the homes of American writers such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Louisa May Alcott, and Edgar Allen Poe.  We toured the house used by Hawthorne for The House of Seven Gables, and what I remember is the spookiness of the secret staircase.  I also remember touring what was called a “Witch House” in Salem, Massachusetts, a reflection of the witch hunts of the late 17th century; the guide on the tour was totally into his role and I was terrified by him, his witch stories and the witch stuff in the rooms.

Two years later, we took a major family road trip further down the east coast.  I had my first (and last) taste of rabbit stew at historic Williamsburg, Virginia, and we toured George Washington’s beautiful Mount Vernon and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello before heading on south to visit relatives in Augusta, Georgia.  There lived an aunt, uncle and cousin Hardy Allen — a boy between my sister and me in age.  Hardy Allen had a tree house, which looked fascinating, but which was full of boys who were neighborhood friends.  I remember my sister and I standing around awkwardly — not knowing quite what to do — and certainly not feeling any friendliness emanating from the tree house gang.  My memory is that the gang stayed up in the tree house and we stayed on the ground.  Eventually, somebody must have moved!

Our routines of travel included stopping at every historical marker that showed up on the wayside.  My Dad was a history buff, and battlefields and monuments from the American Revolution and from the Civil War were mainstays of our eastern trips.  We stayed at what were called “Tourist Homes”  — a little bit like B&Bs of today, except there was only one “B” — bed, but no breakfast.  As I recall, in the late afternoon on each day of travel, we drove around whatever town we were in and looked for “Tourist Home” signs to find our place for the night.  Curiously, I have virtually no specific memories of those Tourist Homes.  What I do remember is one dark rainy evening, when we were still without a place to stay, we ended up at a place that advertised small cabins for tourists.  We stayed in one of those cabins for the night — a small room with two bunk beds.  One would think that the novelty of seeing my Dad scramble up onto one of the top bunk beds would be memorable — but it was not.  What I do remember is that there was no plumbing in the cabin, and we had to get creative to take care of some of our daily needs!

I basically loved those road trips and they were important to me.  We purposely carried on this tradition with our own children during summers and school breaks — taking road trips east, west, and south.  And our son John now takes road trips at least once a year with his family, sometimes combined with air travel but almost always with a portion of the journey in the car.  A few years ago he and his family went to Niagara Falls as part of a road trip to visit our daughter in upstate New York.  As we talked about their adventures afterwards, both granddaughters were excited about seeing the spectacular Falls.  And, guess what!  They actually did take the ride on the Maid of the Mist — yellow rubber raincoats and all!

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