Susan Maas is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer and editor.
Our station wagon, along with our elder son, turned 13 this year. Like the teenager, the wagon has shown signs of ambivalence about another marathon family road trip this summer.
Tough. They can complain, each in his way, and I'm sure they will. But they're both going. And we'll have a good time — or at least a memorable one — regardless.
In human years, of course, 13 is adolescence. And indeed the Volvo, like our firstborn, can be a bit touchy at times. In car years, it is long past what many would consider retirement age. But in this economy, retirement age keeps getting pushed back — and not just for humans.
A recent New York Times article suggests we're not alone in clinging to our aging car.) Last year the average age of vehicles on U.S. roads was a record 11.1 years, a function not just of the down economy, but also of better construction and advances in corrosion protection. The story quotes a Massachusetts Porsche salesman whose ride of choice is his 1990 Volvo 740 with 300,000 miles on it: "I just can't see the point of spending a lot of money driving a newer, racier car every day in city traffic when my old Volvo just wants to keep on going."
Our wagon has a mere 144,000 miles on it. It's taken us from Minneapolis to Mendocino; from our Nokomis neighborhood driveway to the farthest reaches of Nova Scotia. We'll easily add 3,500 miles on this year's trip (to Michigan, D.C., New York and Vermont, and home again through Canada and the Upper Peninsula).
I've talked with a guy for whom 13 years and 144,000 miles are nothing. Irv Gordon, our road-tripping role model, is a retired Long Island science teacher. He's driven more than 2.9 million miles in his 1966 Volvo; Gordon expects to hit the 3 million mark sometime next year. He's already traveled the rough equivalent of six round trips to the moon.
Gordon's passion for car travel stems from a cross-country vacation his family took when he was 7. His parents sold their business and spent an entire summer exploring the United States by car. "All the stuff we saw made an impression on me. We have so much to see in this country." Even after decades of meandering out West, stopping to poke around in museums, historic sites and national parks, Gordon looks forward to getting back behind the wheel. When we spoke recently, he was preparing for a six-week trip to Texas — taking in New Orleans, Nashville and Memphis along the way.
Our wagon isn't nearly as gorgeous as Gordon's pristine 1966 P1800, but it still looks decent. It's got a few scratches and a couple of small dents, in which I may or may not be implicated, but it's still fairly presentable on the outside — and cleans up passably well on the inside. Though (thankfully) our kids have never been particularly susceptible to carsickness, we once had to mop up the backseat — in a dusty, deserted expanse of eastern Wyoming — on a scorching August afternoon with only a half bottle of water and a travel pack of diaper wipes. (Always have lots of water in the car.) And mortifyingly, we once experienced a strange infestation of small black beetles (that we eventually deduced were living on roadtrip cracker crumbs inside the aforementioned back seat).
While we sometimes use our GPS and smart phones to find our way, I'm still partial to old-fashioned printed roadmaps. When my husband is driving, I usually have two or three maps open across my lap, spread over me like colorful paper blankets. Bliss for me: sitting in the front passenger seat, with my family around me and a lovingly assembled road trip playlist on the stereo, weighing the fastest route against the scenic one.
Naturally it's easier, with portable DVD players, iPods and handheld video games, to contemplate eight-hour driving days. But it's rarely as hard to fill time on the road as we once feared.
Especially when the road is a new and unfamiliar one, with previously unseen sights to absorb. And when the kids feel free to speak up about stopping to snap a photograph, or when you welcome their opinions about which greasy-spoon diner to try for lunch. (Even when you're driving through Donner Pass, cracking gruesome cannibalism jokes, you've got to stop and eat sometimes.) I'll be honest: Our nutritional standards slip — big time — on these trips. As I was brutally reminded upon opening the tailgate at our co-op last summer, one night post-vacation, when a Little Debbie box fell out onto the pavement.
In fair weather, one of our favorite ways to eat is to find a deli or sub shop, grab some sandwiches and Google-map a nearby park. A cheap picnic in the town square, followed by a few minutes of Frisbee (we keep one on the backseat floor), is a good way to stretch our legs and breathe some fresh, local air. This, of course, requires a willingness to take one's time; rigid adherence to a tight schedule is a sure way to suck the fun from car travel. As 6th century B.C. road-tripper Lao Tzu wisely mused, "A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving."
Happy young travelers
Years ago, a fellow road-tripping parent gave me priceless advice about fostering agreeable conduct on a large car trip: Before leaving, find a smattering of inexpensive little gifts — flashlights, a mini compass, comic books, pocketknives for stabbing each other when tensions flare — and wrap them in newspaper. Designate two times a day for handing out treats for young passengers who've "earned" them. They'll earn them.
Between the convenience of air travel and the relatively few vacation days most Americans receive (we're the world's only advanced economy that doesn't guarantee our workers any paid vacation; European workers, on average, enjoy at least 20 paid vacation days a year), it's no wonder that serious road-tripping is a lost art. Most people can't spare the time for these long trips; we're thankful we can.
Occasionally, one kid will express a wish that we could just hop on a plane and reach our destination instantaneously. But even a cheap plane ticket — times four — will usually far exceed the gas and lodging (or camping) costs of getting there by car. And while it's not as eco-friendly as bus or train travel, group road-tripping is almost always less carbon-intensive than flying.
Plus, we remind them, if we'd put a premium on reaching our official "destinations" swiftly and efficiently, they'd never have camped in a dozen national parks. They wouldn't have hiked in Colorado, rafted in Utah or ridden horses in Vermont. If it weren't for traveling by car, they wouldn't have had the chance to reenact a scene from "The Birds" where it was filmed in Bodega Bay. Or marveled at 3,000-year-old pines in Nevada, watched a meteor shower in the Tetons, or witnessed an arrest in Medicine Hat. They'd never have chatted with the deeply sunburned artist in Pembroke, Ontario, who spends his summer days painstakingly making pictures on a wood "canvas" by burning designs into it with a magnifying glass.
They wouldn't have gotten up close to wild horses, or a badger carrying a lunchtime prairie dog in its mouth, in western North Dakota. Or tasted "cheese Frenchies" — mayonnaise-dipped, deep-fried cheese sandwiches at Don & Millie's in Omaha. They were disgusting, and likely took a few months off all of our lives, but that's all water under the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge.
They wouldn't, by ages 10 and 13, have spent time in 30 U.S. states. If they're lucky, they'll share similar experiences with their own kids someday. Maybe in an heirloom V70 with — it could happen! — a couple of million miles on it. "To sit on a plane, in front of a little TV screen, squished in between people ... what do you see from 35,000 feet?" Irv Gordon asks. "Flying is boring."
Right on, Irv — see you at the rest stop.