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Less tech, more bonding: An ode to old-school road trips

The New Jersey Turnpike in 1964. (iStock)
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A previous caption with the top photo misidentified the highway as being in New York. The highway is the New Jersey Turnpike. The caption has been corrected.

During the summer, I see them on the highways. One parent drives, occasionally glancing at the GPS device. The other parent sleeps or talks on the cellphone. The children slump in the back seat, with their own electronic devices, ear buds in place. The American family is on vacation.

But it is not a family vacation. Not like the ones I remember.

Our family vacations began in 1957 with a trip from Southern Ohio to Northern Michigan. I was 7, my brother Tom was 14, and my brother Bruce was 3.

Our vacations were low-tech.

Air conditioning and radios in cars cost extra, so we didn’t have either. The Interstate Highway System was still under construction, so we mostly traveled on two-lane highways, with no rest areas or guides to chain restaurants.

Gas stations were important. Gas companies issued their own credit cards, good only for that brand, so if we didn’t find a Standard Oil station, we had to spend our precious cash for gas. The companies issued free road maps showing the locations of their gas stations. They also provided restrooms, but cleanliness varied, so Mom carried paper seat liners and paper towels. Bruce was fairly cooperative about using the bathroom when we stopped, but he was only 3, and occasionally we had to pull over near rural undergrowth while Mom rushed him behind a tree, muttering about the idiot (Dad) who gave children canteens.

We took a family road trip without technology. Here’s what happened.

Drinking fountains were scarcer than restrooms and there was no bottled water, so Dad filled his own canteen and had bought small ones for Bruce and me. For those not pretending they were pioneers on the way west (Mom and Tom), Mom carried a collapsible folding cup.

And the trip was a family activity.

Tom sat in the right front, partly to keep him from teasing his siblings but also to be near the door when his carsickness took over. From this vantage point, he watched for route signs, checked the map for gas stations, recorded the amount of gas and the price, and figured the gas mileage. My parents were pleased to get 16 miles per gallon, especially because gasoline cost an appalling 29 cents a gallon.

He also had what I considered the most important job: reading the Burma-Shave signs. As we approached each group of five signs along the roadside, Tom read the lines of the jingle. (Sample: “Tho stiff/The beard/That nature gave/It shaves/Like down with/Burma-Shave.”) As we passed the fifth sign, the entire family shouted, “Burma-Shave!”

We passed the time by playing games and talking. (Mom gave up on singalongs after discovering that, despite having perfect pitch, she had given birth to three kids unable to sing on key.) We identified license plates, and Mom and Dad explained why Illinois plates said “Land of Lincoln” and Wisconsin was “America’s Dairyland.” We counted Holstein cows or white horses, and Tom used his work with our farming neighbors to explain how the crops differed as we got farther north. Mom explained why the Upper Peninsula had pine trees instead of the maples and oaks we were used to. I thought Ishpeming and Marquette sounded odd compared with places such as Springfield and Dayton, so my parents explained how Native Americans and each wave of immigrants left their mark on the land. My mother pointed out buildings whose architecture indicated an earlier life as a school or inn.

Our parents made delays interesting. While we waited in a line of traffic stopped for construction, they explained how freezing and thawing cracked the roadway. If the one-lane construction zone was too long for the flagmen to see each other, one handed a flag to the last driver permitted through to give to the other flagman. We felt like royalty as Dad drove along holding the flag out the window.

A stretch at 35 mph behind a National Guard convoy headed to the training camp at Grayling, Mich., triggered an explanation of the work the Guard did in natural disasters.

When a train at a crossing blocked our way, Bruce ecstatically told us the names of all the kinds of railroad cars (whether we wanted to know or not). Dad speculated that the new autos being shipped south on the train probably had gaskets his workplace had just shipped north. We wondered whether the rust-colored rocks were iron ore headed for the steel towns along the Ohio River.

A road map for surviving — and even enjoying — long car trips with kids

As mealtimes approached, we all watched for billboards advertising restaurants. Bruce could recognize letters but hadn’t grasped the principles of reading and would announce proudly, “G-A-S — Eat!” Since miners, loggers and fishermen were the mainstay of the Upper Peninsula’s economy then, many of the “restaurants” were bars, and my father checked to make sure they included respectable dining areas. (And, I now suspect, checked the prices against the family budget.) Once seated at a table — with left-handed Bruce on the correct corner — we entertained Bruce, talked about what we had seen and planned the rest of the day. Watching, I learned to read a map. After we ate, Dad paid the bill while the rest of us went out to cool out the car if we hadn’t found a shade tree to park under. (Remember, no air conditioning.)

More often, Mom packed a cooler and we stopped at parks or beaches. She had a simple answer when any of us complained that we had bologna and wanted peanut butter or vice versa: “Eat what you got, or go hungry.”

But at Whitefish Point Lighthouse one year, she had forgotten the cooler. We lunched on the small amount of smoked fish and seaman’s hardtack we had bought at a souvenir shop and drank water. When we later saw a farm market, we stopped and bought strawberries so large we had to munch on them like apples. Dad explained that the longer summer daylight in Michigan gave the state a longer growing season, and Mom tried to demonstrate how the rotation of the Earth provided Michigan with a longer dusk and dawn than we had at home.

I didn’t realize the value of these trips until much later. A high school classmate didn’t know to leave a tip in a restaurant. A college student working in a shop I supervised didn’t understand why a freeze in Florida would mean higher orange juice prices in Ohio. Working in a store, I found many of my co-workers were unable to read maps or give customers good directions.

Today, I see families at interstate rest areas with out-of-state license plates. One parent drives, the other talks on the cellphone, the children play electronic games. The American family is on vacation.

I feel sorry for them.

Dawson is a writer based in Ohio.

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Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s travel health notice webpage.