Are family vacations during summer break still a thing or have we all become too used to spending time apart with our noses stuck in an electronic device?
Those of us of a certain age and generation more likely than not have fond memories of the summer family vacation. Whether mimicking the movie Family Vacation or not, those vacations of my youth were full of memories I will cherish forever. But here’s the thing. In a family with 4-5 kids depending on what year it was, and a father who owned his own small business where he worked six days a week year round, family vacations were few and far between in my family and thus, all the more cherished.
There was only one true family vacation where the entire clan loaded into our trusty station wagon (paneling on the side of course) and headed to the Black Hills of South Dakota. It seemed like a major trip since it was in another state, but these days it would be a weekend jaunt. Nevertheless, my Mom must have been crazy to agree to it as the full responsibility of planning how to fit into the car all those kids, their suitcases, and all the food we were taking with to save money on the trip, fell on her shoulders.
Dad’s sole responsibility was paying for everything (something I am sure took them months and months to save up for) and navigating to all the tourist attractions while trying not to lose his mind with the constant chatter of all those small kids. For a man used to the solitude of his truck all day, it must have been agonizing!
Back in those days, when we were all slightly smaller than we are now, three kids easily fit on the bench backseat, but it was the one who got to sit up front between Mom and Dad, that was really lucky. There was no brother or sister poking and punching and encroaching on your space and you had Mom and Dad virtually to yourself. That spot included a special perch too in the form of a hard blue makeup case with cream colored trim that allowed us little kids to sit up high enough to see over the long expanse of hood of one of the 1960’s super long cars onto the road ahead. As a child prone to car sickness, that perch was often claimed by me, sometimes with only the threat of throwing up, and it was pure magic if only to get away from the activity in the back seat.
There are so many different memories from that trip starting with our stop at Wall Drug where we kids had the first chance to spend the few coins we had saved pre-trip on all sorts of worthless junk simply because it said “Wall Drug” on it. I remember wandering through the packed store desperate to buy something, but loathe to spend all my money. In the end I purchased a beaded, deerskin (or so I thought) pouch that became my purse for the rest of the trip. That’s also were we discovered an Indian teepee (full size if I remember correctly) where you could put on an Indian ceremonial headdress and have your photo taken. My sister and I did so and it was one of my very favorite photos from my childhood until learning just how offensive it was for us to stand in front of the teepee wearing an Indian relic with our hands up in front of us just like we saw all the actors on TV do.
Then came the badlands, Mount Rushmore where even back then the Crazy Horse sculpture was underway, the Corn Palace in Mitchell, Dinosaur Park in Rapid City, and someplace along the trip came the one place that scarred me for the rest of my life….Reptile Gardens! Sure the guy putting his hand in an alligators mouth was cool and him lulling the alligator to sleep was even cooler, but then came the snakes and I was done.
It started with a demonstration of a man in a pit with live rattlesnakes; lots and lots of rattlesnakes. He was a snake wrangler and my Dad assured us he would be fine; after all, he did the exhibition every day. Next thing we knew, he was laying on a stretcher as they whisked him off somewhere to try and save his life after being bitten by several of the snakes!
But the snake fun didn’t end there. Reptile Gardens had an enclosed room full of life size trees and plants which, as visitors walked through, gave a feeling of being in a jungle. The sign (I was 8 and fully capable of reading), said that the room contained non-poisonous snakes. After watching the rattlesnake wrangler, I didn’t care if they were non-poisonous or not. I wasn’t going in. Dad, statesman that he was, offered to let to me ride on his shoulders where no snakes could get up his 6’4” body. I trusted my Dad to keep me safe up there, so I climbed on and we headed in. It was fine – at first. Then, as Dad was turning this way and that to see things, my face became a plaything for a snake that was hanging from the tree we were under. At first, having long hair, I brushed what I thought was just a stray hair away from my face. My scream when I realized I had a live snake in my hand probably woke the dead! My parents, bless their hearts, had no clue what was going on and so, with Dad turning back and forth, the agony continued. It’s a wonder I ever left the house again after that encounter!
Luckily the rest of the trip was fun. Picnics at highway rest stops and kids too tired at the end of long days to do much more than say our prayers and slide between the motel sheets were all part of the memories we made during that very long hot summer trip.
That was the only full family trip due to my dad’s business, but it wasn’t the only vacation we had each summer. We were fortunate enough to spend a week at church camp up north each summer which was, in fact, a vacation as much for my parents as us kids. My parents also took advantage of the many lakes in Minnesota to find a week to go fishing – sometimes on their own and sometimes with one or two kids in tow.
During these trips, we stayed in an ultra rustic (meaning no running water or toilet facilities) cabin on a small little lake up north that the family had been going to for years. Kids who didn’t go to the lake, spent the week with grandparents (that’s a whole other story), but one of my most memorable times at the lake was the time it was just my Dad, Mom, older brother and I.
My Dad, used to getting up at 3:00 a.m. to go to work, never liked to waste daylight when we were going somewhere. We were out of the house by 5 a.m. which is much too early for little kids and while my brother slept on the back seat, I curled up under a yellow blanket in the far back of the station wagon between all the provisions we would need for a week at the lake. That yellow blanket was an important detail because long before we stopped for our first travel break, that blanket became covered with chocolate frosting from the freshly baked chocolate cake my Mom had packed, unfortunately, her packing skills proved to be sorely lacking and at some point as I slept the cake flipped on to me. Luckily the blanket got the majority of the frosting, but I spent a few hours covered in it also!
One of my Mom and I’s favorite shared memories happened when we stopped in one of the towns along the way for a picnic lunch. My parents were big on picnic lunches as a way to save money when traveling, but this one came with a surprise in the form of a water fountain. While Mom and I headed to the park restroom and the boys headed over to a drinking fountain in the middle of the park, we somehow realized that we were standing by the controls for the drinking fountain.
Each time my Dad or brother leaned down to take a drink, we turned the water on full force and they were bathed in the spray. It happened over and over again and each time one of them got a face full, they were sure the other was doing something to cause it. My Dad was getting mad while Mom and I held our hands over our faces so they wouldn’t hear us laughing about it. It was hysterical!
The cabin, tucked back in the woods at lakeside, was nothing special, but for two kids who loved being at the lake, it was everything. There was no air conditioning yet always a good breeze to keep the bugs away, and plenty of woods around the shore in which to play when we weren’t on the lake.
One day we needed to go into town for something and we decided to walk even though it was a couple miles or more. Mom and Dad talked and held hands (something I rarely saw them do) while my brother and I would race ahead and then race back. Oh, to have that sort of energy today!
My attention soon went to a field where horses were grazing. Like many little girls I grew up loving horses and wanting one of my own someday….something that trust me, was never going to happen. I stood at the fence line waiting for the rest of the group to catch up, watching those horses and wishing that I could take them home with me. Then, as my dad encouraged us to move along, I let loose with the best horse whinny I could manage.
Imagine our surprise, when the first horse head went up and then the next and the next and suddenly the entire herd was racing over to the fence line at a full gallop, stopping just moments before they would have crashed into the fence. It was the single best moment of my childhood! I was the horse whisperer in real life even before I knew what that was! I told everyone about that moment and while I never could replicate it, I beamed with pride when any of us at that fence line told the story in the years that followed.
While we didn’t have many family vacations growing up, those we did share created such vivid memories and stories that they are still shared among us today. It makes me sad that families that hop on a plane will never have an opportunity to make those same memories that come from being crammed into a small car with nothing to occupy your time except conversations, laughter and everything else that comes from being with family.
In the end, it was the little things, the mishaps and insignificant shared experiences that became my lasting memories of road trips with the family. Will generations of kids grow up with the same opportunity to make those types of memories, or are they just another example of bygone eras?
If you have an opportunity to do so, I encourage you to load up the family in the car and head off for a roadtrip vacation. Whether just for a weekend or longer, the memories you make, especially when things don’t always go as planned, may just be the memories of a lifetime for your children.
As you head off on a memory making adventure, I wish you safe travels and much laughter and love my friends!