Here we are in the midst of summer, the prime family vacation time. With hot dogs sizzling on the grill and the smell of Coppertone in the air, I couldn’t help but hark back to those summers three and four decades ago when my family and millions of families like ours took to the highways for a summer vacation. It was impossible to resist the temptation to measure up to those long ago days with the family vacations of today. Perhaps looking back can help make your upcoming summer vacation just a little better for your whole family.

First off, let’s consider the highway conditions  that existed, say, forty years ago, when millions of us Baby Boomers were actually young.  The Interstate Highway System was in its infancy in 1959.  On  June 29, 1956, this unprecedented frenzy of road-building was initiated on, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid-Highway Act of 1956, which authorized its full-blast construction. Sometime later,  the system was officially named the Dwight D. Eisenhower System of Interstate and Defense Highways, and, as its name suggests, the Cold War was more than coincidental to its creation.  It was believed, at the time, that its 42,500 miles of rigidly similar super-highways were necessary to help counteract the Communist threat.

Prior to the Interstate system, America’s roads and highways were a catch-as-catch can situation. Built and maintained by local and state governments, the highways were open roaddesigned much more for local traffic than for cross-country journey. Because of this,  road trips in the era before the Interstate were an exercise in trundling through small towns, stopping at umpteen stoplights, and dodging the constables in scores of small hamlet speed traps. From my own recollection,  I recall trips from suburban Chicago to Traverse City, Michigan, taking the better part of two days. That same trip can now be made comfortably in approximately 6 hours.

What we have gained in speed, of course, we have lost in local color. That travel to the summer vacation home would take us past the roaring steel mills of Gary, Indiana, and up the sand dune-dotted eastern shore of Lake Michigan. Late that afternoon,  our family would pull into Grand Rapids, Michigan, zig-zagging through the furniture factories to find our way to a Veteran’s Hospital, where we would pay a visit to my Dad’s great uncle, who had served his country as a soldier in the Spanish-American War.

In other travels, I clearly recall waking up in the backseat of our 1951 Chevrolet to see the big red-orange ball of the sun emerge over the eastern horizon as we haltingly made our way to Dayton, Ohio, a trip we were making non-stop. And then there was the leisurely afternoon we spent outside a gasoline station in Springfield, Missouri, lolling on the streets of an unfamiliar neighborhood, waiting for the installation of a muffler that had suddenly fallen off.

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Are today’s highways boring?

These recollections have become the victim of the super-highways. Though they have been a boon to business and to family travel, the Interstates have brought with them a uniform dreariness. And the Interstates have detached the travelers from the communities through which they travel. When you’re on an Interstate highway, you roll forward practically unaffected by the environment around you, because they were designed to do that. In fact, the term “super-highway” denotes a controlled access roadway with at least 4 lanes of traffic divided by direction. These highways limit access, thus improving safety and permitting higher speeds, but they also distance the traveler from the towns, cities,  and rural areas that surround them.

This same mentality has also influenced the destinations to which we travel. Where in the past, the objects of our travels were often dictated by personal interests and family considerations, now our family vacations seem more likely to be focused on homogenized theme parks and other structured “destinations.”

Again, this makes family travel simpler, but one might disagree that something has been lost in the process. One of my friends vividly recalls a memorable trip that consisted a trip to Kokomo Opalescent Glass, a stained glass window factory. Watching the glass being poured and talking to the foreman who loved his craft and was eager to explain it were chances that don’t come watching animated characters frolic at a theme park.

Another friend of mine told me one of her favorite memories was a trip through the Kellogg’s cereal plant in Battle Creek, Michigan. Watching the industrial process that culminated in the boxes of cereal that appeared on her breakfast table every morning had an authentic feel that is impossible to copy in today’s fantasy lands. A lawyer friend of mine said he obtained his first taste of the law when his family stopped to visit a small town courthouse square and discovered a trial in progress.

What’s improved for travellers?

However, in one way,  there is no question that family travel is far better than it was 40 years ago–vehicle safety. Today’s minivans, cars,  and sport-utilities are far safer and more reliable than the family sedans of the good old days. And today’s laws regarding occupant safety have helped greatly as well.

Four decades ago, as our family traveled about the country, my brother and I rode in the backseat, totally unrestrained by seatbelt or child safety seat. Often my parents would place items in the footwells in front of us, turning the backseat into a playpen, and my brother and I would while away the time staring out the window, reading books,  and playing round after round of “the license plate game,” which consisted of spotting license plates from other states before other passengers in the car could. Sometimes, my wonderful grandfather would start a story, then stop and pass it to one of us who had to continue the narrative until he or she handed it on to the next person. It was a joyous way to expand our imaginations, but it’s a pastime long lost to Nintendo, CD players, and in-car DVD players.

So, while there is no doubt that in-vehicle safety has improved tremendously in the 40 years since many of us were young, one has to ask what intangibles of imagination, wonder, and community we have lost in the process. The good news is we can have the best of both worlds. We can have the convenience of safety and speed  of the Interstate system and still have the chance to get off the endless bands of concrete and into the landscape. We can have the carefree fun of visiting a theme park and still have the opportunity to visit a church, factory, or courtroom. And we can have the safety and reliability of today’s minivans, cars,  and sport utility vehicles complete with their state-of-the-art entertainment gadgets and still talk to one another and teach our children lessons of life that we feel are important to them.

Let’s prepare and enjoy… This summer, don’t just drive carefully, drive thoughtfully, too.

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