Chances are if you take a summer vacation it will not be aboard your private yacht. Nor are you likely to get to your destination via Lear jet. Chances are you'll go in the family car. If you've been out on the interstates recently, you know that practically everybody in this country goes by car, especially when their fortitude and tolerance levels are particularly high. After years of extensive personal research, I have developed a list of recommendations to make such an enterprise more rewarding -- little tips to help the recollections of heat, fatigue, acrimony and expense seem like fun.
Where to go: A vacation by car should be an adventure, an opportunity to hit the open road with only the horizon as your goal. Organization and fussy planning can be an anathema to a carefree vacation. I recommend launching out of the driveway with no destination at all in mind and merely breezing along the highways in a kind of daily meander to nowhere. This will permit you to visit many second-rate tourist attractions where crowds are at a minimum, and to experience the thrill each evening of trying to find a place to stay. All the good motels and hotels are bound to be filled, and an hour or so groping through the darkened streets of a strange town with the back seat full of bawling kids can offer a sense of risk much lacking in our mundane modern existence.
What to take: Be sure to pack ample clothing and gear. The climate on this continent is quirky at best. One cannot be too prepared. Some will say that taking both water and snow skis is overkill for a short vacation, but if the itinerary is uncertain, who really knows that both will not be useful? Get one of those molded car-top carriers from Sears and let aerodynamics and gas mileage be damned. Make sure the kids have plenty of games to play and lots of books to read while riding long distances. All children are precocious, so advanced materials are best; perhaps John Milton for the young ones and Marcel Proust for the teens. As for yourself, always dress the part. One cannot effectively take a vacation without the proper wardrobe. My favorite go-anywhere outfit: Bermuda shorts (they will accent my bleached, untanned knees), running shoes with short black socks, a short-sleeved sport shirt and a silly hat (I like those yellow Caterpillar bulldozer ones best) you would otherwise not be seen wearing in public.
What to eat: No highway vacation is complete unless the proper diet is maintained. I recommend one built around the traveler's four basic food groups: starch, sugar, salt and grease. Truck stops and fast-food emporiums are excellent sources of these staples. Be sure to pack plenty of potato chips, caramel corn, candy bars and soda pop for the kids, especially if they are inclined to be carsick or hyperkinetic.
What to drive: If you want to add an extra dimension to the family adventure this summer, by all means consider one of those big, sumptuous motor homes or neat travel trailers you've seen in the ads, the ones where they show the happy family pulling up beside a bubbling mountain creek and setting up camp for a few reclusive days. Sure, coaches and trailers are fabulously expensive and as difficult to navigate as a Kenworth semi hauling a load of pig iron, and yes, desolate, sylvan campgrounds are nowhere close to any paved roads, but do you want to be like everyone else and take the family car? Of course, all the rent-a-campers are reserved already, so you probably won't have much choice anyway, but be sure not to wimp out if you are forced to go in the family sedan. Don't even think about having the oil changed, the fan belts checked, the tires properly inflated, the engine tuned and the wheels balanced. Servicing the car will preclude you and yours from some memorable experiences that members of the family will still be talking about a good 10 years from now, like the time the car overheated on a steamy stretch of interstate 40 miles from Des Moines and the kids got themselves covered with road tar while you tried to flag down a ride to the nearest closed-for-the-night gas station.
How to remember your trip: Presuming that you return with a full carload (having resisted the temptation of leaving the kids at an interstate rest area), there are certain items that lend a finishing touch to a genuine automotive vacation. Bumper stickers are important. A badge proclaiming "World's Largest Orangutan Rodeo, Pumphandle, North Carolina" can be a source of unremovable joy for years to come. And don't forget those ashtrays routed out of tree stumps or china plates embossed with the skylines of various medium-size Middle American cities. Naturally, a photographic memory is best, ideally in the form of blurry snapshots showing the family posed in front of various obscure vistas and landmarks. Slides are better, because they can be used in lengthy showings to neighbors and family members, which serve as an excellent test to determine how much they really care about you. Video cameras are even better, because they are more expensive, bulkier and insanely difficult to maintain and operate. However, there is nothing like the live-action documentary format of a rousing family fight shot in a fetid gas station to maintain the neighbors' interest.
There you have it -- the essentials for transforming two weeks of being packed into an automobile into a true epic adventure, sort of like "being locked in your bathroom with the entire family and the john broken," as a friend put it. So snap on those seat belts, lock your fingers around the wheel and put the pedal to the metal -- you've got one heck of a great vacation waiting for you. ::