THERE we were, roaring along a crumbling interstate highway in central New York State, fresh from Canada and looking for some place to spend the night. Mom, who serves as both navigator and executive officer on most of our vacation trips, was being apologetic. "We're 25 miles from Copperstown now, there ought to be some vancanies at the next Hoilday Inn."

"No sweat," I said. "The gas tank's full. We could drive all night or sleep in the van." This was greeted with groans and growls from the kids, who pointed out that it was 10 o'clock and they hadn't had dinner yet.

The rhythm of our trip had been thrown off by a bluegrass festival that had filled every room in the region around Cooperstown, where we had planned to spend the night resting up for an assault on the Baseball Hall of Fame. Such things normally don't happen under Mom's administration, because she, like most of her sex among my acquaintance, is a planner, a caller-ahead, a reservation-maker. My travel system is no system at all: I have found that if you just roll down the road--a back road, where possible--and take what comes, it almost always works out okay and sometimes turns into an adventure. I think some of our best times have come after I have gotten lost and refused to stop and ask directions. I'm not sure Mom thinks so, though.

Well, the next Holiday Inn was down to one room, so we passed. We bellied up to a midnight breakfast at a Hojo's, and Mom made tenuous telephone connections with a backwoods motel in a town not on our map. The countryside through which we followed the headlights was cluttered and curious, and the motel was brooding, dark and silent, not unlike the set of "Psycho." A cryptic note led me to a roadhouse across the way, also dark and silent, from which persistent pounding drew forth a strange man, silent and scowling darkly, who at length produced some room keys. The rooms were adequate, and we slept like the grateful dead.

In the morning there still wasn't anybody around, but in the snack bar was a huge tray of buns and doughnuts, fresh coffee and a refrigerator full of milk, fruit and juices. On the counter was a list of prices and a cigar box of money. The kids loved running their fingers through the money, of which there was a lot, and I like to think it gave them a glimpse of a wider and more trustful world. They'll wait a long time before we find a Holiday Inn that runs on the honor system. Our detour turned into a lark, as Mom fell into the spirit of the thing and led us a merry round of back roads through a beautiful and almost uninhabited section of central New York State that made getting back on the interstate quite a comedown.

Now that Mom seems to be loosening up I'm looking forward to more haphazard family journeys. Until now I've been able to wander irresponsibly with the kids only when she's not with us. Like the Summer of the Holy Rollers, when my then-very-young daughters fell in with a preacher's little girl on the Ocracoke (N.C.) ferry. They found each other by that instant and accurate judgment of others that all children have until we teach them not to trust it.

By and by we met the father, a circuit-rider of one of the charismatic religions that still prosper on the Outer Banks and in the backwoods of the Tarheel State, beloved home of my mother's family. It was Wednesday afternoon, and we were invited to attend a revival service he would be conducting at the church that evening.

I begged off, pleading that I had to take care of the baby; actually, I just wanted the girls to have the experience on their own. The church was just down the road from the inn where we stayed and was, I knew from a previous visit, full to the rafters with good people who just happen to love Jesus rather unreservedly.

The girls came back wide-eyed, and ever since have told the tale of how, when the frenzy and the speaking in tongues began, Karen had to hold Laura down to keep her from answering the call to be saved. Karen enjoys the story more than Laura, who says she was just trying to be polite. There is another part to the tale, about how the preacher's girl tried to baptize Laura in the toilet, but I've never heard the whole of it because they break up in helpless giggles whenever they try to tell it.

Their mother was and remains horrified that I gave the girls over into strange hands at such a tender age, but then her people are Missouri Methodists and considerably more straight-laced than my Southern Baptist forebears. My purpose was to expose the girls to the feel of the community we were passing through, something that cannot be sensed through car or motel windows or on guided tours.

Nothing is strange to a child -- or, rather, everything is -- and I have found it a fruitful policy to stop and linger at places that appeal to them. This will play hell with your schedule, and will land you in a lot of theme parks and schlock emporia, but it also will gain you hours of wandering deserted beaches and trying to catch tadpoles and crayfish in icy mountain brooks. This laissez-faire attitude has, I hope, helped them learn that there is much to be gained by ignoring signs and dotted lines, and may from time to time lead them to venture up the down staircase.

Another time, as Laura and Mark and I were crossing a bridge over the Father of Waters on the way to visit a friend on Avery Island, Louisiana, I began to sing the refrain to "Mississippi Mud" (I also get to sing more when Mom's not along). No time like the present, I thought, so I turned off and puzzled a way through the industrial area behind the levee until we reached the river.

"Everybody out," I said. "Time to beat your feet on the Mississippi mud." Well, it wasn't mud, it was sand; moreover, it was quicksand, caused by the water welling up beneath the banks of the confined channel. The shock of our footfalls turned the solid-looking surface to jelly, and we began to sink.

We cavorted along the bank for quite a while, mapping out the skooshier areas, before I told them what they were standing on. Now they know what quicksand is, what makes it that way, and that it isn't "quick" or fearsome at all. They liked the part about getting dirty as hell, too.

Later, on the island, we went swimming in an abandoned open-pit salt mine called the Blue Hole, home to alligators of legendary proportions. Our host didn't mention them until we were already on the dock, at which point we were forced to choose between jumping in with the unseen alligators or being carried off by the mosquitoes that swarmed about us. In we went.

That evening, sitting around scratching, we learned that the Blue Hole was a pivotal place in American history: It was a principal source of salt for the Confederacy. When Union troops occupied the island early in the war, the Southern troops began to starve, for lack of salt to preserve the South's plentiful beef and pork for shipment to the armies. Crucial campaigns that depended on rapid movement to overcome the Yankee advantage in numbers and firepower failed because the Rebs could travel no faster than cattle could be driven.

The Civil War is my passion, and the kids have suffered through many a long day of wandering over battlefields, but never, I think, have they had a more vivid and lasting history lesson than our visit to the Blue Hole.

Next day our host, disappointed that no alligators had turned up for us to frolic with, took us out in a pirogue on another pond in search of the beasts, which have been plentiful and protected on the island for many years. He soon found some, and chased after them so we could get a closer look. The alligators he was pursuing were longer than the tippy little boat, and once or twice he almost ran over them. I quietly observed, several times, that we had seen the alligators just fine, and wasn't it time to go ashore for lunch.

"Not to worry," he said. "My family has been on this island for a couple of hundred years, and not one of us is known to have ever been eaten by an alligator. They really are rather shy and gentle, unless you get to close to a nest mound." Laura and Mark were delighted, and Mark kept calling for more speed and more alligators.

The balance of the boat was too delicate to permit me to crawl to the stern and strangle him, and I didn't want to break down and cry in front of the kids, so I just sat back and took it as it came. As always, it was the best policy.