Family Vacations: Then and Now

Here we are in the midst of American summer, the prime family vacation period. With hot dogs scorching on the grill and the smell of Coppertone in the air, I couldn’t help but hark back to those summers three and four decades ago when my family and millions of families like ours took to the roads for a summer vacation. It was impossible to resist the temptation to compare those long ago days with the family vacations of today. Perhaps looking back can help make your upcoming vacation just a little better for your entire family.

First off, let’s consider the road conditions that existed, say, 40 years ago, when millions of us Baby Boomers were actually young. In 1959 the Interstate Highway System was in its infancy. This unprecedented frenzy of road-building was initiated on June 29, 1956, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid-Highway Act of 1956, which authorized its construction. Sometime later the system was formally named the Dwight D. Eisenhower System of Interstate and Defense Highways, and, as its name suggests, the Cold War was more than coincidental to its creation. At the time it was believed that its 42,500 miles of rigidly similar super-highways were necessary to help counteract the Communist threat.

Prior to the Interstate system America’s roads and highways were a catch-as-catch can affair. Built and maintained by state and local governments, the highways were designed much more for local traffic than for cross-country travel. Because of this road trips in the era before the Interstate were an exercise in trundling through small towns, stopping at umpteen stoplights, and dodging the constables in scores of small hamlet speed traps. From my own memory banks I remember trips from suburban Chicago to Traverse City, Michigan, taking the better part of two days. That same trip can now be made comfortably in about six hours.

Of course, what we have gained in speed, we have lost in local color. That trip to the summer vacation home would take us past the roaring steel mills of Gary, Indiana, and up the sand dune-dotted eastern shore of Lake Michigan. Late that afternoon our family would pull into Grand Rapids, Michigan, zig-zagging through the furniture factories to make our way to a Veteran’s Hospital, where we would pay a visit to my Dad’s great uncle, who had served his country in the Spanish-American War.

In other travels, I vividly remember waking up in the backseat of our 1951 Chevrolet to see the big red-orange ball of the sun emerge over the eastern horizon as we haltingly made our way to Dayton, Ohio, a trip we were making non-stop. And then there was the leisurely afternoon we spent outside a gas station in Springfield, Missouri, lolling on the streets of a strange neighborhood, waiting for the installation of a muffler that had fallen off.

These memories have become the victim of the super-highways. Though they have been a boon to commerce and to family travel, the Interstates have brought with them a uniform dreariness. And the Interstates have separated the travelers from the communities through which they travel. When you’re on an Interstate highway, you roll forward virtually unaffected by the environment around you, because they were designed to do that. In fact, the term "super-highway" denotes a controlled access roadway with at least four lanes of traffic separated by direction. These highways limit access, thus improving safety and permitting higher speeds, but they also distance the traveler from the cities, towns and rural areas that surround them.

This same mentality has also affected the destinations to which we travel. Where in the past, the objects of our travels were often dictated by family considerations and personal interests, now our family vacations seem more likely to be centered on homogenized theme parks and other structured "destinations."

Again, this makes family travel simpler, but one might argue that something has been lost in the process. One of my friends vividly recalls a memorable trip that included a visit to Kokomo Opalescent Glass, a stained glass window factory. Watching the glass being poured and talking to the foreman who loved his craft and was eager to explain it were opportunities that don’t come watching animated characters frolic at a theme park.

Another acquaintance of mine told me one of her favorite memories was a tour through the Kellogg’s cereal plant in Battle Creek, Michigan. Watching the industrial process that culminated in the boxes of cereal that appeared on her breakfast table each morning had a authentic feel that is impossible to duplicate in today’s fantasy lands. A lawyer friend of mine said he gained his first taste of the law when his family stopped to visit a small town courthouse square and discovered a trial in progress.

In one way, however, there is no doubt that family travel is far better than it was 40 years ago — vehicle safety. Today’s cars, minivans and sport-utilities are far safer and more reliable than the family sedans of the good old days. And today’s laws regarding occupant safety have helped immensely as well.

Four decades ago as our family traveled about the country my brother and I rode in the backseat, completely unrestrained by seatbelt or child safety seat. Often my parents would place items in the footwells in front of us, turning the backseat into a playpen, and my brother and I would while away the time reading books, staring out the window and playing round after round of "the license plate game," which consisted of spotting license plates from other states before others in the car could. Sometimes my grandfather would start a story, then stop and pass it to one of us who had to continue the narrative until he or she handed it on to the next person. It was a joyous way to expand our imaginations, but it’s a pastime long lost to CD players, Nintendo and in-car VCRs.

So while there is no doubt that in-vehicle safety has improved immensely in the 40 years since may of us were young, one has to ask what intangibles of wonder, imagination and community we have lost in the process. The good news is we can have the best of both worlds. We can have the convenience speed and safety of the Interstate system and still have the opportunity to get off the endless bands of concrete and into the landscape. We can have the carefree fun of visiting a theme park and still have the chance to visit a factory, courtroom or church. And we can have the safety and reliability of today’s cars, minivans and sport utility vehicles complete with their state-of-the-art entertainment systems and still talk to one another and teach our children lessons of life that we feel are important to them.

This summer, don’t just drive carefully, drive thoughtfully, too.

-- Jack R. Nerad