Sunday, August 7, 2016

Car Travel - Then and Now

Car travel has changed dramatically since the days when my family drove cross-country on our summer vacations.
With the trunk of our new 1962 Ford Galaxy packed tight, a stack of board games in the backseat between me and my sister, and mom armed with a Shell Road Atlas, we took to the highway.  Weeks perusing dozens of glossy brochures preceded our departure.  Most of them were now stuffed in a brown grocery sack at Mom’s feet in the front seat. There was no Internet to research our destination or MapQuest to chart the course.  
These trips always started filled with optimism, which usually lasted until the first pee break, about an hour down the road.  “Didn’t I tell you to go before we left home?” was Dad’s rhetorical question.  Of course he told us, but my sister’s breakfast orange juice would not be denied.
There weren’t a lot of four-lane super highways in the early 60’s.  Travel was on two-lane roads, winding through every small town between home and our destination.  Signs foretelling fast food restaurants at each upcoming exit did not exist.   In fact, fast food was rare then.  My dad would seek roadside caf├ęs advertised on billboards 50 miles in advance.  A ten-year-old could starve waiting for Kelly’s Shiny Diner to appear on the horizon.
There was always at least one point where we’d get lost. Mom would have the road atlas unfolded in her lap, flapping like an unfurled flag as Dad shouted out passing road signs.  An argument would usually ensue before we pulled into a gas station to re-chart our course. Kids today don’t appreciate how iPhones and navigation systems have improved family harmony.   
My sister and I got along pretty well on these trips, even without video games, which were yet to be invented.  We’d make lists of the states found on license plates, challenge each other to find roadside objects, and play Old Maid.  However, we were ten and eight years old.  The silence wouldn’t last 1,000 miles.  It was usually around mile 300 that the first, “I’ll turn this car around right now!” would come bellowing from the front seat.
We knew Dad would never reverse course. He was driven by a timetable in his head--St. Louis by lunch, Joplin for dinner, hotel in Kansas City by nightfall, etc.  I think most men were like this, but my dad was fanatical.  I dreaded getting stuck behind a slow-moving truck.  It usually meant skipping the next restroom break to make up for lost time.  Hang on bladder!  
Dad loved to calculate our gas mileage on vacations.  Cars back then were the size of whales and had huge, inefficient V-8 engines, but then, gas was only 38 cents per gallon.  At each service station, Dad would fill up and then provide the number of gallons pumped and odometer reading to my mother.  She would do the calculation.  “Seventeen point eight,” she would announce. “Not bad. Up a mile per gallon,” Dad would proudly reply, and our journey would continue.  
I assumed gaining one mile per gallon was a huge windfall.  It wasn’t until my math skills improved a couple years later that I realized we were talking about 50 cents per tankful.  Today’s cars calculate gas mileage and display it continually.  I’m glad this technology wasn’t around in the 60s.  It would have robbed my father of one of his simple pleasures.  
We always made it to our destination and back home with the car and the family intact.  Memories of our time on the road eventually faded, replaced by happy photos of the vacation.  I’ve often wondered if today’s families could survive similar ventures.  Somehow, I doubt it.          

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