Friday, July 6, 2012

Hit the Road

For most families, summertime invariably includes some kind of car trip.

Whether it's going to the ball park to watch Tommy's first turn at bat or a portion of a longer journey, millions of people will drive countless miles each summer.

Cars have come a long way since the 1950s. Many vehicles manufactured in recent decades come with standard equipment that was once considered luxurious -- air conditioning, power everything, improved gas mileage and tech items like GPS and DVD players.

Roads have been radically improved, too. Current budgetary limitations have somewhat hampered major repairs and the construction of new highways. But if you remember traveling by car in the 1950s, today's patched surfaces are far more pleasant than anything we traveled back then. In the 1950s, the Midwest was linked by U.S. highways which meant single lanes of traffic moving along a roadbed no wider than 16 feet (that's for both lanes!). Driving to Chicago -- a distance of 200 miles -- was a slow, arduous journey for both driver and passengers.

So it would seem logical that travel has greatly improved since then, right? Not necessarily.

Car travel today is a little like travel by air. Travel used to be fun, being on an adventure to another part of the world. We were like pioneers embarking on a trek to an unexplored frontier. What would we find on arrival? What would we see along the way? What kind of food would we eat? What awaited us out there?

Part of the thrill of travel was the mere anticipation of the journey starting. We ventured forth willingly, anxious to see beyond our own neighborhood. Perhaps this was exciting because we were young and fairly naïve about the outside world. We hadn't been inundated by the internet yet. Fortunately, there was a whole world before we all became plugged in, when bigger issues loomed than what's the latest scandal among celebrities or which politician was caught being indiscreet.

Even taking a vacation was not a frequent occurrence. Driving a lot of leisure miles in the 1950s was rather unusual, making each trip all the more memorable. I remember on a few occasions taking a neighborhood playmate along with on our family drives because (1) it would be more fun with another person and (2) the friend had never been outside of our county. Such was the limited experience of the 1950s.

Kids are naturally bad travelers. They need to make restroom stops more often than adults. Who hasn't played "pinch the sibling" in the back seat? One of the most frequently used phrases in our car was "Don't make me have to come back there!" In fact, my dad didn't have to say anything. All he had to do was turn around from the driver's side and LOOK at me to stir fear in my small heart.

Today, vehicles come furnished with multiple cup holders so that every passenger can have his/her special beverage right at hand. We wouldn't want them to be thirsty, would we? Cars come equipped with great music systems. What's wrong with a nice, working radio? Many cars have built-in DVD players so the kiddies can watch cartoons while dad is navigating the freeway traffic. We wouldn't want the passengers to do something as mundane as look out the window and behave themselves. Let's entertain them! After all, they are used to being entertained every moment of every day.

On top of everything, there is the cost of traveling by car. Gas prices fluctuate nearly every day. Staying in a motel and dining out are enough to discourage anyone who plans to drive to their destination. With the economy in its present condition, perhaps we are all better off with a stay-cation.

At least then the kiddies won't keep asking, "Are we there yet?"

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