Canvas bags and two-headed rabbits

Summer vacations used to be more complicated. Today you Google your destination, pick your price range on a hotel, ask Map Quest to determine your route, and then pack your bags and take off. Time was, things weren’t so simple.

I can remember a gas station on the border of Missouri and Kansas that sold water-filled canvas bags made to drape over the front of your radiator to help protect your Buick from the Kansas heat. Why the heat would start exactly at the border was a puzzlement to my young mind. Then from 4 p.m. onward you’d start looking for a motel that actually offered air conditioning. Some establishments cheated and advertised “Air Cooled!” which met an army surplus fan near the window. My mother sometimes insisted that we get out and actually check the temperature of a room before we sign the register.

Swimming pools were another requirement since we Pike Countians probably didn’t have access to one at home. Many families today have to force their little ones into the pool. The kiddies are afraid of getting their iPhones wet.

Our routine was always the same. Dad and Mom would rise around 5 a.m., taking advantage of the less-trafficked two-lane roads, carry a sleeping little brother and I out to the car, and we’d wake up two hours later parked in the lot of a restaurant while the folks were eating breakfast. They’d bring us back milk and donuts and we’d be on our way. That was the routine, leave early and stop early while there the “Vacancy” signs were still out on the roadside inns. Leave your child in an unattended car today and you’ll be on CNN tonight.

Brother Keith and I were suckers for those cheap roadside attractions. “The World’s Only Two-Headed Rabbit! 129 miles!” “Nebraska’s Chamber of Horrors! 30 miles on the right!” “Snakes! Snakes! Snakes! And Free Popcorn! The Greatest Attraction in South Dakota!” Dad would always tell us that these things were mostly fake and Mom added that the places were quite often smelly, but Keith and I looked on longingly as we passed this wonders of the modern world.

And back in the pre-GPS days, simply finding your way to where you were going was the major event of the day. I know folks who say they simply take off heading west and know that they’ll eventually end up at the Pacific Ocean. This was not the case for Dad who planned a day’s drive like Patton invading Normandy. He knew exactly how far we’d be by noon and could time our evening’s arrival within minutes. He’d hand Mom the map and she’d pretend to read it, but he already had it memorized and he knew that Mom’s sense of direction was somewhat lacking.

I can’t watch Chevy Chase in the vacation movies without thinking of Elmer Bradbury’s narration of a family vacation. “You know, kids, Utah is just full of Mormons. You’ll see them everywhere!” “Hey boys! Butte, Montana, was the leading producer of silver and zinc once!” If we were going to visit a place then we’d by-golly better know where we were going and although I’d groan at the time I’m thankful for that information every time I go to buy a pound of zinc. And of course our family would stop at every state border, no matter the hour or the weather to take our family photo beside “You Are Now Entering Colorado!” Sort of like a dog peeing on a tree, we were marking our having been there.

Our family’s summer vacations took us to all 48 contiguous states plus Canada and Cuba (the week before Castro’s revolution started shooting American tourists) and sometimes we’d have to take a 30-mile sidetrack just to say we’d been in Mississippi or New Mexico. Toward the end of our travels we gravitated heavily toward Colorado as Mom and Dad were avid square dancers and there’s a square dance camp every 12 miles in the mountains outside Boulder. Keith and I would ride horses and hike while our parents worked on the fine points of “Alamande Thar” and the “Square through, pass through.” I like Colorado. When it rains you don’t get as wet riding a horse over the Continental Divide. I can’t explain that one.

And of course Interstates were few and far between as nearly all our traveling was on two-lane roads. Gosh, I miss that most of all. You could actually see the country through which you were passing. Signs said, “Meramec Caverns!” and “Welcome to the Great Smokies!” instead of “Exit 227” and “Fuel next exit.” Travel by air and you won’t see that much.

I do enjoy the convenience of modern travel, but I wonder if today’s families can say they’ve truly experienced Kansas when they travel across in their air-conditioned car while staring at their video games.

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