Thursday, August 28, 2008

Road Trip

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who take driving vacations and those who don't. Let me preface what may turn into a bit of a rant by acknowledging that during a summer when gas prices topped $4.00 a gallon, any vacation was a luxury (thanks, Mom and Dad).

So now that you know I'm not a total brat, I'd like to say that vacations just aren't what they used to be. I vaguely recall flying to foreign countries, sailing on the crystal clear waters of the Caribbean, and dining in ridiculously expensive restaurants in some of the world's best big cities. Though the memories are distant and few, I know I was there because I have the pictures to prove it (OK, non-digitized slides, so you'll have to take my word for it). 

Now, vacations are all about driving. I was raised in a family that traveled almost exclusively by car. We took wonderful vacations all over the eastern US and well into Canada, and my parents took great care to make the road trip part of the vacation. I don't know how they did it. Perhaps it's because we weren't going to visit anyone, we were just traveling.

I really like to drive and my four kids are topnotch travelers, so when my parents lived in Michigan, I thought nothing of throwing everyone into the car and driving the 268 miles to their house on Pleasant Lake (exactly 4.5 hours door to door). My parents now live in Florida and we have made the trip from Chicago to The Villages about a half dozen times. I know my folks are happy there in the Sunshine State, but no matter how you slice it, 1,200 miles is a looooong road trip. We've tried everything to make it better:  
  • Interstate all the way (through IN, KY, TN, GA to FL; or through IL, KY, TN, AL to FL) — relatively efficient, but excruciatingly boring.
  • Staying over one night with two full days of driving — the most straightforward and least taxing, but still boring.
  • Staying over two nights and trying to do something "fun" along the way — cuts into the time you have to visit and it makes it feel like as soon as you get there, it's time to go home.
  • Driving straight through starting at 2:30 in the morning — not as bad as it sounds, but pretty exhausting (and it made my father a nervous wreck worrying about us).
Part of the problem with driving between Chicago and Florida is that it's impossible to avoid Tennessee. My apologies to all you Volunteers, but the fact is that I have never been to Tennessee without encountering some form of weirdness. It's not that anything is ever completely wrong in Tennessee, but nothing is ever completely right, either. A couple of examples:
  • We stopped at a grocery store that had a tattered sign on the conveyor belt that read: "Belt broken. Please push groceries forward by hand."
  • We stopped at a hotel and ordered a rollaway bed. When it was delivered to the room, the springs meant to hold up the bottom half of the mattress were missing. When I pointed this out to the gentleman from housekeeping, he took off his belt and jerry-rigged it saying: "There, that ought to hold you for the night."
  • We stopped for drive-thru fast food and it took 54 minutes.
While we're at it, you should also know that it is impossible to get through or around Atlanta without encountering at least one major traffic jam. It doesn't matter what time of day or what day of the week it is, if you get within 100 miles of Atlanta, you will lose at least an hour to gapers' block.

How, you may ask, do we keep from going crazy during this long journey? That I can tell you in one word: tradition. Our traditions are ancient and, truth be told, we have no idea how they started, but they always include at least these three things: Egg McMuffins for breakfast, plenty of books on tape (or rather, CD) and listening to the entire soundtrack of Fiddler on the Roof at least once.

Along the way, we've had more than our fair share of adventures: a blowout on I-65 near Elizabethtown, Kentucky — at midnight, in the rain; having to replace a damaged car-top carrier in the parking lot of Sears in Merillville, Indiana — in December, in the rain; and locking my keys, purse and cell phone in the car — first time ever, thankfully not in the rain. 

This year's excitement came in my parents' driveway when I put the key in the ignition of my car and it would not turn. I jiggled the key; I tried turning the wheel; I tilted the steering column; I tried the remote start; I even read the manual. Nothing worked. One tow, four days and $319 dollars later, I had a brand new cylinder and could turn the key just fine.

Not all of our adventures have been disastrous. On one trip home, we were stuck in a traffic jam — Kentucky, this time, on I-65. Nothing was moving for miles in either direction. I'm a patient driver, but I hate just sitting in traffic, so we decided to go off route. 

We were deep into the story of Tom Sawyer on CD, just at the part where Tom and Huck are rafting out to Jackson's Island on the Mississippi, when we somehow found ourselves driving through Mammoth Cave National Park. It was beautiful wending our way through the twisting roads of this magnificent forest. Along the way, we came upon a strange sign that read: "Road Ends in Water." I had absolutely no idea what that could mean, so we continued on over a hill when, sure enough, the road ended in water — the Green River, to be exact. 

I was just about to turn around when I saw a man at the lip of the water waving us down to him. We crept down the hill to find that he was standing on a small cable ferry. He guided us on board and ferried us across the water to where the road started up again on the other side. I swear, during those few minutes aboard the cable ferry we felt like we had joined Huck and Tom on their log raft and it was pretty cool. You just don't get experiences like that on the Interstate. On the other hand, it took us an hour and a half to go fifteen miles, we were more than happy to return to I-65 and its 65-mile-an-hour speed limit.

I'll admit that our adventures have taught us a few things. My kids have learned that there is nothing we can't handle (after a momentary freak-out, of course). They have all become expert at reading a map and looking for alternate routes. And we have heard some classic tales on CD that none of us would ever have plowed through in print (Swiss Family Robinson, Five Little Peppers and How They Grew and The Borrowers, to name just a few).

Let's end by taking just a moment to honor the two most important accessories for a successful car trip: a cell phone and books on tape. Don't leave home without them, and look for my tips for painless road trips on my HubPages soon. Share your favorite road trip adventure by clicking here.