There are two ways to take a vacation by car: with children or without.
Civilization had advanced some since our own children were little. Everyone has a camper. (Everyone also has a motor boat, motorcycles, gokarts and mopeds towed behind or piled on top, to make sure no one will ever have to stop moving at any time during the vacation.) You can almost hear those millions of American fathers having the same thunderclap idea: "By gar! This year we're gonna save money!I'll buy a camper and we'll never have to hit another motel. Boy oh boy!"
Boy oh boy. Go to any Vacationland and look in the motel parking lots, and what do you see? Campers.
Those people are vacationing with children.
Only someone who has been a child can understand the vacation drive.
You start the night before. Your father says, "Everyone to bed early. We're getting up at 5 a.m. on the road by 6."
Some fathers conquer this delusion after a few years. Some never learn, and develop large red veins in their foreheads. Anyway, the night before, you pack your little suitcase with choice toys, pack yourself into bed, and think about sleeping.
Five o'clock. Your mother wakes up but lets your father sleep a half hour more because he was awake all night too. When she does wake him, he sees what time it is and they have a fight.
By the time everybody has been to the bathroom, comforted the dog and the turtle, retrieved one last toy and got fitted in among the possessions, you are off. It is 9:30. Five blocks later, your mother murmurs, hand to mouth, "Oh dear, I'm sure I couldn't have left the burner on . . ."
Some families assign such magical powers to the early getaway that they start without breakfast, saying they will pick up something on the way. This they do quite soon, because everyone is so cross they can't stand each other a second longer. The bought breakfast takes an hour and fifteen minutes.
All right Here you are, rolling through the landscape and thinking about lunch. It is 11:45 a.m., and you have made four stops, one for each child and one for the car.
You have had the middle seat in back since Canajoharie, and it is time for you to get a window seat, so you discuss it with your parents. Your sister, outraged, present briefs of their own. The parents consult.
"Okay," your father says, "switch around next time we stop."
The sisters now debate who has had the window longest. Everyone yearns for lunch.
Some families rotate the middle-seat assignment in regular periods like a month. This is fine for everyday, but it doesn't work on a long trip. Some other families actually include the parents in the rotation on trips, but they too fail to achieve the peaceable Kingdom because one parent always claims he did his share of sitting in the middle seat when he was a child, and by gar his kids are gonna do their time too.
One way to get the window is to threaten you are about to be sick, but it only works if you have a record of vomiting as promised. There are two kinds of carsick people: the hungry and the full. We had one of each in our family. One got sick just before lunch and the other just after. Our parent gave out little rubber doughnuts to sit on, like the ones you get after a hemorrhoid operation, but we kept losing them. One vacation we didn't get off till noon because I couldn't find my rubber doughnut.
It is now afternoon, and the car smells like the inside of a lunchpail. You have made a lunch stop, two gas stops, three souvenirs stops, four stops at places that advertised something "Ice Cold," and seven comfort stops, including one for the dog. You have played Twenty Questions and the license plate game and the one where you look for a white horse in a pasture.
You have sung "Niney-nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall" until your father made that terrible noise, and everyone is much too old for Old Mc-Donald. You have played with all the toys in your little suitcase, and you never want to see them again. You never want to see the rest of your family again, either.
One father I know started a numbers game: a nickel to the kid who comes closest to the exact mileage at the next overpass. Things like that. It worked for awhile, but then the smallest kid had a winning streak, as small kids will, and the father tried to rig the questions to favor the older ones and got caught.
When you reach Vacationland it is dark. This time you have no trouble getting to sleep. If your parents are lucky, you will have fallen asleep already and can be carried about and put almost anywhere while they whisper. This is the time when fathers learn an amazing thing about children: They are very long. They are longer than anyone dreamed.
My family spent summers in the Adirondacks, and the other day I drove up again to see if it was all still there. I remembered our childhood trips well, and some parts of the old highway were still visible, complete with spavined barns and faded signs, beside the new four-laner.
I got to White Lake in an hour. Is it possible? I can't believe it, since I am absolutely sure it took us all day in 1935. Because it was dark, and we had to be carried out of the car.