Picture the scene: a campground in Middle of Nowhere, USA. It is the dead of night, and at one particular site, there is no tent or camper set up, and no evidence of a campfire. No marshmallows. No lawn chairs. No clothesline. Just a solitary maroon van with North Dakota license plates. But wait! What is that thing on the picnic table???? The remains of a meal? A table cloth? Nope! That’s just my brother. Sleeping. Welcome to the Rutten Family roadtrip, early 1980s-style!
With the coming of Spring Break this week and its many possibilities, I have grown increasingly nostalgic about my family trips in the good-old days of my youth. I am sure I have, by necessity, blocked a lot out, but I cannot help but grin and giggle every time I think of our adventures in that maroon van (and the navy blue one that came before it).
What, you might ask, was going on inside that van to cause my brother to choose the cold comforts of a picnic table? Well, let’s see. In the back section, with the bench “sofa” folded down, you could probably find my snoring Mom snuggled up tight with my two sisters (my little sister could not sleep unless she was up against another body—tight against). In the middle row, where there were two bucket seats that swiveled and reclined, you could find one of my brothers snoozing with his no-sock-wearing stinky feet resting on the cooler that was chock-full of all of the nutrition my Mom could pack for such a cross-country adventure (read: Mello Yello and Coke). I was usually wrenched in the “aisle”—I use the term loosely—between the two seats or in the front passenger seat with the chair reclined back into the middle row—uncomfortably close to my brother’s aforementioned stankfeet—and my own feet up on the nearby footrest, I mean dashboard.
So, what were my other brother’s options? He could go with the driver’s seat with all of its spacious amenities, or he could sit in the other middle row seat, next to Stankyfoot and with me either under his feet or reclining my chair into his lap. I am guessing that by this point you are seeing his wisdom in forgoing those lavish comforts for a night in favor of the splintered wood and rusty nails of the picnic table. But just for a night. The next few nights, in the next few campgrounds in Podunk and Timbuktu, it would thunderstorm, and nobody goes out in a thunderstorm (right, Mom?).
That was us, night after night as we traversed this great country in that van. Every couple of years, my Dad would have a big convention to go to in the Summer for his job. One year it was Nashville, another time Boston. That was big stuff for a kid from North Dakota, so I was thrilled to pile into the van several days before the convention with my brothers, sisters, and Mom. And off we would go, just the six of us, hopped up on the Mello Yello (for the kids) and Coke (for my Mom).
Where was my Dad? Good question. My old man was no fool. He was not about to sleep in a car with six other people night after night. No sir. While we were schlepping our way across the land from campground to campground and hitting the nearest waterslide or historic site, he was hanging out at home until the day the convention started. Then he would hop on a plane and meet up with us at the airport. Same thing on the return. He would fly home and dine on a nice steak while we were eating McDonald’s for every meal—and I mean every meal—and sleeping on top of each other. A smart man, my Dad!
But how about my Mom!!! God bless her! That is no small feat to shuttle five lunatics across the country and back, fueled only by Egg McMuffins and Coke. There was no OnStar, iPhone, or TomTom, just an atlas and one cassette tape—Alabama’s “Roll On”–to get her down the road. I am absolutely amazed by this as I think back. That woman was a real trooper!
I have nothing but the best memories of these Mom-lead family roadtrips of my childhood. I have been in love with the roadtrip concept ever since. I have done many alone and others with friends, but my most frequent companion, even well into adulthood, has been my Mom. We have driven to and/or from New York City, New Mexico, Montana, Rhode Island, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC. I will save the tales of those adventures for another day, but suffice it to say that my Mom is the absolute best (and most bladder-challenged) traveling companion ever.
She is also the inspiration for the roadtrip bug I have been feeling lately. My kids are now three and five, just about to the age when they could appreciate a good old-fashioned roadtrip. When I think of trekking cross-country with them at this age, my mind tends to go directly to nightmares of chasing down rest areas while begging them to hold it, cleaning up spills on the seats, breaking up fights with the classic “If I have to stop this car!” and trying to keep them both in my sight as we walk through busy areas at stops. It seems too stressful. But then I think of my saintly mother in that old maroon van. If she could do it with five of us monsters, surely I can do it with two. My kids deserve to experience this part of my Mom’s great legacy. Alright, I am convinced: ROLL ON!!!
How about you? What is your favorite roadtrip experience? Open up your journal and let your memories spill themselves out onto the paper. What feelings does it bring up? Did you love the driving part, or were you bored? What music was playing? Were your best trips with family, friends, or alone? Where did you go? Who was the leader, and how did that affect you? If you have kids, are you passing on the tradition? Leave me a reply and let me know all about your favorite spots and memories. Tell me, are you up for a roadtrip down memory lane?