Growing up the only road trip my immediate family of four ever went on was to Orlando Florida, from Queens New York. My grandparents had given my parents money to take a vacation to Disney World for my 10th birthday and their 11 year wedding anniversary. My parents loaded up our silver Cutlass Supreme and created a pseudo-bed in the backseat by filling the area where our feet went with pillows.
Thirty minutes into the ride, as we crossed the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge into Staten Island (two years before we would move to Staten Island permanently), I cautiously declared my nausea to my father. Looking back three decades, it seems possible my nausea may have been anxiety/panic related since I have since been diagnosed with panic disorder and from a young age my fear had exhibited itself as nausea. I told my dad I had to puke and he pulled over under the majestic steel structure of the bridge and yelled at me and my mother as she held my hair back, her hand on my forehead asking me if I was actually going to throw up. Cars zoomed by and I wanted to barf so badly to feel the relief from the pestering nausea but instead, I bucked up and just climbed back into the backseat bed next to my four-year-old sister. He warned me he would turn around and go right back if I said anything again. Somehow, though, this successfully scared the crippling nausea right out of me.
I don’t remember anything eventful from the 24 hours in the car spread over the next two days. I don’t even remember the hotel we stayed at in the middle. After a week in Florida, our plan was to do the two-day drive again. My father was the only driver (my mother wouldn’t get her driver’s license for another five years) and at the halfway point of the drive, he wanted to keep going. By the time he was ready to pull over to sleep, it was four hours from New York and he chose to keep going. The way he tells the story, he felt like Superman who could just plow through. To this day, he touts this as one of his big accomplishments; how he drove straight from Florida to New York, just stopping for gas and to pee.
There were no stops at any roadside attractions on the way or fun food snacks in the car. My mother didn’t load up a Tupperware full of Crayola adventures and electronic games and dried fruit like I do for my kids. My entertainment was “look out the window.”
My husband, in stark contrast, grew up in the Midwest where all of his vacations until he was 18 began on the road and mandated many hours to any getaway destination. His father, who wasn’t as concerned with “making time,” (note: my husband once called my father a “Nazi of time” to his face), stopped at fun attractions like the world’s largest ball of yarn. Their family stayed at hotels with swimming pools with ice machines down the hall. They ate their meals on the road at Denny’s and IHOP and were entertained in the car with “yes/no books,” coloring books, and mixed cassette tapes in yellow walkmen.
My husband started dragging me on his photographic expedition road trips before our daughter was born. It wasn’t the paradise I longed for in Bora Bora or Tahiti, but our ten-state road trip through Chicago, Yellowstone National Park, Montana, and Wyoming were mind-blowing. I didn’t understand the lyrics to America the Beautiful until that road trip helped me see it. Also, he hoped his highlights of the beautiful USA tour would loosen me up and allow for more road trips in the future.
The first one we took as a family of four with me in the mother role was two months after our daughter was born; our son was eight years old. We went to New Hampshire and Maine for two weeks. Our car was a double-stuffed Oreo cookie filled with a stroller, a bassinet, a breast pump and the entire seven books of Harry Potter series for my son, who was still book-bound in his pre-iPad days. Every three hours, we’d pull over and the boys explored some side of the road nature highlight while I nursed the baby girl easily and we went back to driving. In retrospect it was our easiest trip; with 50% of our children happily satiated with a nipple or a pacifier.
The next big expedition we did was when the girl was two and the boy was ten. This time, we were off to Seattle, Portland, and the Oregon coast. I had panic attacks most of the time and spent 50% of the time looking at Yelp reviews for places to eat after I had spent 200 hours finding 10 different hotels within budget yet without bedbugs. I needed two years off before the next road trip.
The time after that, the girl was four and the boy was twelve and we spent 16 days on the road: New York, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Louisville, Nashville, Asheville, Charlotte, Richmond, Baltimore. I wanted to pull my hair out a lot but handled it better than the Seattle trip. However, I did not want another trip for a long time.
It’s true what they say about the trip being the journey but they never warn you it happens in slow motion. A road trip is watching something in slow motion unfold. You witness your background morph with the road; from rural to urban and back to rural again. Landscapes evolve, citizens’ accents change, and the style of cooking shifts. (Note when you say you don’t eat meat in South Dakota, they will be very understanding and offer you chicken salad.)
In contrast, plane travel is like stepping into a time warp or black hole and magically arriving in a new place and time. Who wouldn’t rather enter a digitally-induced hypnotic state, and emerge on the other side, unwashed and slightly dazed, but no worse for the wear.
As a road tripper, I do feel safer (even with the abundance of distracted drivers flooding our roads) in the confines of my own car, four wheels on the ground rather than flying through the sky by some pilot I hope is not on antidepressants or anti-anxiety meds or a combination of both. Then there’s the additional hope we’re not taken down by terrorists or by a mysterious virus floating through the recirculated air.
I had a profound moment on the 16-day road trip two years ago. I had this heartwarming feeling that my whole world was traveling with me in this tiny box, navigating the roads of America. My little family, a mere speck seen from airplanes, stayed together for 24/7 for over two weeks as we shared the voyage, the world, the people, the foods. I came to the realization that creating memories isn’t about collecting a scrapbook of scenic vistas, iconic buildings, and delicious ice cream. The essence of a road trip is being together together through it all; the annoyance, the bickering, and the frustration which accompanies every snapshot. It’s life on one side of the equation plus love on the other. In the end, it equals a greater understanding of places, a deeper connection with your family, and life long memories of togetherness.