Summertime, and the family road trip is calling. A niece’s wedding in California last month gave my family an excellent excuse for a rambling five-state car trip. Like my parents before me, we packed our car to the gills with luggage and kids and hit the road. As an added note of nostalgia, my youngest brother, my old backseat companion, joined us for the first leg of the trip. This time, he got to sit up front with the driver, my husband. Me, I was stuck in the back in the middle between those with longer legs … just like the old days.
When I was kid, every four years or so my parents would cram us into the family car, and we’d barrel east from Idaho to Washington, D.C., at 75 miles an hour (faster through Wyoming). No seat belts. For days in the car, we’d steep together in a funky, bickering family stew. It was great. And I wanted to recreate the experience for my own kids.
Of course, conditions inside the car have changed. For instance, back in the day, my dad’s rudimentary air system only cooled the front seat … a little. We in the back had to rely on the dregs of highway wind let in from a vent window. My kids, on the other hand, actually got to comfortably control their air temperature and fan speed from the back seat. My brother and I used to count license plates and slug each other in the arm for entertainment. My kids had an array of musical genres at their fingertips thanks to our fancy car radio and their smartphones, but mostly they just slept in their seats with their necks in awkward positions.
I actually felt a little sorry for my strapped-in, air-conditioned children with their access to satellite radio and iPhones. Having never spent more than a few seconds at a time unbelted in a moving car, my kids may never know the nirvana of a deep, deep, drooling sleep, slightly overheated and fully outstretched in the backseat. Nor will they experience the magic of curling up in a back window ledge, hypnotized to a slumber by the passing Midwestern sky.
Outside the car, the American landscape still enthralls, and the memories made with family still shape us and endure. Like I did in my childhood car trips, my kids celebrated every state border crossing we made. As a young car tripper, I remember staring up at Mount Rushmore with that “this-is-kind-of-cool” attitude. I recognized it in the way my kids looked up at Mount Shasta and posed for photos with that icon in the background.
With my childhood car trips, we’d arrive at our aunt’s house in civilized Washington, D.C., as Wild Westerners shaking off trail dust and packing illegal fireworks. Over the course of our stay, my firecracker-loving brother usually blew up a good portion of our cousins’ toys. We’d go to the village of Port Royal, Virginia, to visit my grandmother and play at the shore of the Rappahannock River. One of my favorite memories is of my late cousin Kenny teaching me to skip rocks across the waves.
I imagine when my kids remember this family trip they will think of how they danced at their cousin’s wedding until the DJ went home. How they performed a choreographed number with the bride and their other female cousins to the song “Cool” from “West Side Story.”
I hope they’ll remember being parked in front of Elmer’s in Roseburg, Oregon, laughing as my brother and I sang the theme song to the “The Beverly Hillbillies” perfectly at the top of our lungs. They’ll remember standing at the edge of Lake Tahoe, beautiful but diminished by drought. And, ironically, running from the lake to the car in the pouring rain. They’ll think of swimming at a Reno casino, and picking wildflowers and sage at dusk in Idaho.
And in the end, like I used to, they’ll remember the tug of home and call of the familiar at the close of a long, eventful trip. For all the photos taken, the memories gained, the family hugged and reconnected with, there is deep sweetness in returning.
After all, to borrow the words of a famous traveler, “there’s no place like home.”
Kellie Purce Braseth is strategic communications director at the city of Olympia and a member of The Olympian’s 2015 Board of Contributors. She may be reached at email@example.com.