Growing up my parents planned and executed great family summer vacations. They were often two weeks in length which allowed time for a tightly wound family of six to relax and leave their ordinary Illinois lives far behind.
We rode horses twice a day through the Grand Tetons on a dude ranch in Colorado, camped in Yellowstone National Park, relaxed in an remote lodge on Deer Isle, Maine, or stayed on my grandfather’s dairy farm in New Hampshire. Maybe we fought during these trips but I don’t remember that. I remember my mother and father happy and adventurous during these travels. My mother managed to give the four children more space by creating a special section in the way back of the station wagon where we took turns reading comic books. She came up with games like the first person to see a bear gets a lifesaver or counting license plates from other states and endless rounds of car bingo.
We ate in lobster pounds on the Atlantic salt marshes or rustic taverns with churning water wheels in the lobby and fancy dining rooms with cloth napkins stuffed into the water goblet. My father had worked for AAA National and then moved to Allstate to begin their motor club. He understood the meaning of service. If a waiter was serving more than twelve people he or she was being over worked and the clientele was being underserved. He could enter a hotel and within seconds determine if the stay was going to be satisfactory.
“This place is a dump,” he observed seconds after arriving at a northern Michigan summer resort.
It didn’t look like a dump to my eyes but he knew. My father liked American meal plans. He never wanted to camp and on drives between stays he had a knack for finding great out of the way and notable restaurants. If circumstances were out of his control and subpar accommodations were all that was at hand, my father let even strangers feel his pain.
“I’m here at the Midway Motor Inn,” he said into the room phone to the person on the other end. “Not one of your better establishments.”
My mother could be happy with European meal plans and could pack a picnic better that anyone I ever met. On yearly pilgrimages to New Hampshire you could count on three course tailgate picnics that included hot food and table cloths. She could also teach a class in the fine art of packing a suitcase. She was so good she would have a wrinkle free change of clothes for dinner available for the whole family neatly tucked into the top layer of a large suitcase that was situated close to the door. Together, my parents were a family vacation dream team long before the internet. I’m sure problems arose on these trips but I don’t remember any.
I carried this image of what family travel was supposed to look like into adulthood and expected Rob to share this almost utopian vision of summer journeys.
Coming from an Italian American family that considered a trip to the drive-in movie a great escape, leaving has always been hard for Rob.
“Who will watch the house?” he always asks.
He grew up in a neighborhood surrounded by relatives who managed each other’s homes. Which really wasn’t necessary since no one went anywhere. He was eleven years old before his father stopped working long enough to take a vacation. Since vacations were atypical they were rarely planned. His parents liked to get in the car and see where they ended up but they usually made it back home by nightfall.
“Let’s take a ride,” his father would say.
Once they went to Niagara Falls on a whim and found a room for thirteen dollars. They were having so much fun they decided to stay a second night but the room was already booked to someone else the following night. Mario threatened to cut the manager’s head off and put him the wax museum. When that approach failed they spent the night in the car after Mario refused to pay fifteen dollars for a different room in a different motel.
So our early life together morphed into a more lackadaisical approach to the concept of summer vacation. I wanted to stay in highly-rated turn of the century inns we couldn’t afford and see nature. Rob enjoyed busy tourist attractions where he could take a lot of unflattering pictures of tourists and eat hotdogs. That combination and a deficiency of funds made a long weekend seem like the most we could handle. Additionally when we moved into the lake house Rob felt summer travel was redundant. A suggestion to drive to Long Island and swim in the ocean was often met with a yawn.
“It’s so far.”
“Too much traffic.”
“It’s nice here.”
It is nice here at the lake but as much time as we spend actually relaxing we spend twice that amount tending to all the things this house requires. None of which are terribly restful. It’s also not the ocean.
Going away also means securing the house before our departure James Bond style. This is only limited to locking the doors and windows, putting a pole in the sliding door, setting up light timers, checking the outdoor floodlights, turning on the alarm system and stopping the newspaper delivery.
“Do you think we should stop the mail?” Rob questions me.
“What Mail? We’re leaving on a Friday and returning Sunday.”
“Nothing is ever in Saturday mail.”
“Thieves don’t care,” he explains. “It’s the same reason you don’t want papers to pile up out front.”
Rob learned you can’t stop mail for less than three days. We usually chance it and go out of town anyway. This is especially humorous since we have never had even an attempted robbery in our neighborhood. On rare nights we forget to lock the basement door.
“The axe murderers overlooked us last night.” I call upstairs in the morning after making my discovery.
“We were lucky this time,” Rob answers back.
When we finally did hit the road Rob hissed “Shhhhhh,” every ten minutes trying to hear upcoming traffic reports on the radio.
Before the invention of the GPS, human navigators reading paper maps probably made fewer errors overall. They can also take in the big picture and get the lay of the land but I have never been a great direction-finder.
“I can’t drive and read the map at the same time!” Rob would often bark as we passed our exit.
One night we had trouble finding our hotel in Pennsylvania and Rob pulled off the road and started ranting while he grabbed the map from me. A small crowd from a nearby bar started to cluster around our car to see what the racket was about. Jack and Quinn crouched down in the back seat begging their father to please stop. It was too late the crowd’s interest was peaked as they watched us drive away, still lost.
“That’s what they promised.”
“Well they can promise anything.”
“Pretend we’re the Simpsons.”
“Or on Three Mile Island.”
I had a plan to stay at the Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge one weekend but Rob booked us into the Pilgrim Inn instead. It was nearby and half the cost and in his defense I was spending money we didn’t really have. We had to drive through the industrial area to reach the Pilgrim Inn and the people next to us opened their door strung up beads and smoked pot crossed legged on the sidewalk. The management didn’t have a problem with this.
But even at “okay” places I can find fault. The breakfast isn’t really breakfast but processed white flour products made six months ago. We pick through it and then leave searching for a better meal usually accompanied by loose tea served in individual infusers.
“Isn’t this nicer?” I ask unfolding the cloth napkin. I have ordered a dairy free omelet from free range chicken eggs accompanied with homemade scones.
“I guess,” Rob concedes. “Nicer and more expensive.”
“Just because it’s free doesn’t mean it’s any good.”
“Hmmm,” he says and we leave it at that.
Once we went to the Great Clam Chowder Cook Off in Newport, probably thinking we would be the only people there. Instead it felt like we were at a rock concert minus the music in the broiling hot sun. We inched our way through the crowd.
“I got some,” I thrust small plastic cups of white glop into everyone’s hands.
“It’s too hot,” Jackson moaned touching his burned lips.
“I don’t like clam chowder,” Quinn said after she tasted the first sample.
“I’ll eat yours,” Rob offered.
Still hungry we stared longingly out at the smart hotel guests sitting on verandas, overlooking the harbor and eating tapas while we trudged back to our car. We sat in traffic to get to our hotel which was far away in the wrong end of town. We had to spread towels across the damp mildewed carpet or sleep with our sneakers on. The pool was filled with water bugs and in the morning the hotel ran out of hot water. Breakfast was A&P donuts and instant coffee. I could picture my father asking, “Did you check the AAA guide before booking?”
After checkout we left the crowds behind and strolled through mansions and gardens of an earlier era. We picked out the room we would like for our own complete with canopied beds and roll top desks. We marveled at the all the places you could get away from one’s family. A billiards room, parlors, private sitting areas and expansive and manicured lawns.
We inched home in Sunday night traffic along I-95 reflecting on how the other half lived. We realized it was a busy world today and you can’t just jump in a car and hope it will all work out just because you have a GPS. We determined to change and the very next trip, to Cooperstown, we instituted with German precision. We read AAA guides, cross checked with Trip Advisor reviews, made reservations, budgeted and planned out stops alongside streams where we picnicked with a homemade spread my mother would be happy to share with us. But we also made a spontaneous side trip to the Catskill Game Farm. I protested that this detour was ruining an otherwise perfectly planned trip.
“I’ve always wanted to return to this place since my first trip as a child,” Rob explained.
I scowled and resisted.
I trudged behind my family staring at my watch while Rob and the kids ran ahead to the tired old animal exhibits. Emaciated animals drooped in the far corner of a plant-less dirt floor surrounded by chain link fencing. A broken contraption called the Relax-A-Lator sat next to the kangaroo exhibit. It egged the pedestrian on with “TRY IT!” I could picture Mario dropping in coins years prior so the whole family could indeed give it a try.
The Catskill Game Farm closed the following year because of lack of attendance and I could argue that probably is a good thing. But in retrospect I no longer see that road stop or many others like it as a waste of time. Jack and Quinn have experienced what summer vacation might have felt like for their parents and can now choose an organized trip or a spontaneous one or, as is often the case, the best of both.