The Last Road Trip
A Farewell to Another Generation’s
Traditional Family Vacations
Rocco Satullo, your tour guide to fun!
The all-American family vacation harkens images of the Griswold’s out on the open road trekking cross-country in a station wagon to the sound, Holiday Road. And it repeats with each generation. It’s a rite of passage that comes and goes in about a 12-year period from when the kids are old enough to remember something to old enough to fly the nest. But it goes by in the blink of an eye. Thousands of dollars are spent seeing places like Disney, Yellowstone, and countless other destinations and attractions. Littered along the way are tourist traps and roadside gimmicks to lure the weary family to break up dad’s power-drives to get somewhere special.
In the end, what does everyone remember? The moments between geological wonders and architectural gems. The unexpected.
After a dozen years of summer vacations, we decided to take one more before our daughter heads off to college. Some call this the senior trip. In all likelihood, it marks the end of an era. Never (most-likely) will just the four of us be packed in a car for two weeks forced to get to know each other better. It isn’t always rosy times, but even the meltdowns are remembered, fondly. Every trip, I’m good for one earning the nickname – Travel Dad.
“Uh-oh, Travel Dad just got behind the wheel,” could be uttered from the backseat when I cuss out loud at a traffic situation.
Alas, it really is about the journey and not the destination. Here are some of the more memorable experiences our family had together over this blip in time. I’m sure our stories are your stories or at least they’ll get you talking about yours, too.
Our first real vacation had us flying on a small, bumpy flight with one row of single seats on one side of the plane. I sat in front of my six-year-old son and behind him was another six-year-old. The seatbelt sign was on. We descended before our stomachs. That’s when I heard two remarkable imaginations echo through the hollow tube with a play-by-play for everyone to hear. “We’re going to crash!” One boy yelled at the other. “Ah, that was close.” “Holy moly, there’s an alligator on the wing.” The plane bucked in the air and then tilted to turn. “The alligator is gone, but seaweed clogged the engine, and now it’s smoking.” I tried to squeeze my face in between the back of my seat and the metal wall with desperate “SHHH” noises, but these two were on cloud nine all the way down.
On a long driving day, we approached a small town I had read was one of the 100 you had to see before you died. The distance was deceiving, and it came in and out of sight as we rolled over hills and turns for about 10 minutes nearing it. Coming closer, we “oohed and ahhed” looking for a place to pull off and snap some photos. In town, I had stopped and started at a few signs and lights before a flashing light caught my attention. When I found a place to pull over, it was revealed in short-order that this popping mad policeman was in slow pursuit of us for …miles. After he spits his displeasure and ripe words at me he returned to his cruiser to write my ticket. That’s when my daughter wondered out loud if I was going to prison.
In a desolate part of the country, I was proud to have found a motel close to a remote national monument that Triple-A didn’t even know existed – and for a good reason. Our cinder block accommodations overlooked nothing for as far as the eyes could see. There was a cluster of filled-in bullet holes head-high in the door. The “inn-keeper” fetched my son his bead (cot) from a shed and when she turned to leave, I asked for the room key. She said there was none. There was a pause between us before she turned away, laughed, threw her arms in the air and said, “Besides, where ya gonna go?”
There’s nothing like hiking to the top of a mini rock mountain searching for Petroglyphs when lighting strikes. What had been a careful ascent due to the multiple “Beware: Rattlesnakes” signs became a mad dash for the car. The winds and rain whipped up, but we managed to get to our four-wheel shelter before the brunt of it nailed us. Winds still churning albeit it not as powerfully, I rolled down my window trying to get a better look at an anomaly headed our way. “Roll up the window!” my wife screamed, but before I could, a wall of sand slammed into our faces and all over the car.
I withdrew some cash before stepping out of our hotel and into the early morning sun …and the chest of a homeless man. He asked for forty-nine cents or some odd number like that. I only had twenty dollar bills. When I said that I couldn’t help now but certainly would later, he yelled and threatened, “You won’t always be together,” waving his finger at my children in a threatening manner. Now I know he probably wasn’t playing with a full deck, but I couldn’t help myself. I stopped, turned around and said, “Did you just threaten my family?” He proceeded to shout at me and called me this and that for an entire block. He crossed a street, so we walked a bit more before we crossed. But first, I paused to see which way he was going to head on the other side. He turned and scanned my side of the street until he found me. Then he waved me over in sharp motions as if to say, “Bring it on!” I laughed to myself, and we walked away.
After police confiscated all of our water before entering a building (plus snacks, sunscreen, you name it), we walked for miles from one site to another on a record hot day all over a city. But if you ask anyone in our family, what was the best thing you ever ate on all of your trips, the answer is unanimous. Frozen lemonade from a food truck. We scrounged up just enough coin to splurge on one five-dollar frozen lemonade. The four of us lined the curb, each taking a spoonful of heaven and passed it down. We were that desperate and elated.
A cottage stay put us on what amounted to a cul-de-sac street in the woods with every cottage in the cluster having been rented out by college kids, partying like there’s no tomorrow. Every cottage except ours and one other, kitty-corner from us. Ours was remarkably soundproof so as long as we could sleep, I wasn’t complaining. But kitty-corner family had this to say, “In the middle of the night, my worst fear came true,” said kitty-corner dad. “Someone was banging on the back door yelling, ‘let me in.’ I yelled back, ‘You better get out of here, this isn’t your cottage, now go away.’ To which the drunk on the other side pleaded, ‘Come on dude, stop mess’n with my head and just let me in.’ This exchange repeated a few times before the stranger at the door fell silent.” He couldn’t open the door in the morning because the college kid had passed out against it.
While waiting at a street corner, a strange sight grabbed our attention. A lady was walking backward ever so casually at a pace somewhere between not too fast and not too slow. I quickly reminded the kids (and myself) not to snicker when she neared. We missed our “walk” sign and stood still, gawking, as her back-side passed us and now shown her front side. She kept walking backward, looking at us, us looking at her. She crossed a couple of streets as if she had eyes in the back of her head and finally turned a corner, all the while walking backward. When she finally tuned out of view, we looked at each other and said in unison, “Well, you don’t see that every day.”
The stories go on and on. There’s the time we were trapped on a back road trying to navigate through a herd of wild bison. There’s the coffee cart sermon from a crazed vendor talking about end times as he waited on a long line of snickering, but caffeine-addicted customers. The coffee was to die for by the way. Then there was the white-knuckle Cliffside drive up and down a mountain dirt road. Oh, and who will ever forget those black flies and cockroaches! Falling off a horse charging through the water was a good one. And there are the slap-happy moments where you laugh so damn hard you think you’re going to be asked to leave a restaurant. But the time together always leads to the most memorable times of all – conversation that tighten bonds in ways that only a family vacation can.
My favorite memory was from a generation ago when I was the kid. My mom was reading a plaque inside a museum aloud to my sister and me. We lost interest just like Dad and faded back. Filling the void came interested tourists hanging on my mom’s dramatic reading. Soon, we couldn’t see Mom because a whole horde of folks gathered around her. When she finished, she turned to see the sea of people gathered around her. Without missing a beat, she waved her arm and said, “Now if you follow me over here…”
And so it goes, the all-American family tradition. Happy travels to you and yours.
By Rocco Satullo, author of a memoir and novel