When I was a little girl, my family drove everywhere. My parents revered all things practical and efficient, and cars fit the bill perfectly. They got you where you were going, they were much less expensive than airline tickets, and—unlike buses or trains—they enabled you to remain in control of your own journey. It didn’t matter that there were four of us and a dog crammed in a company Chrysler with lousy air conditioning for an 850-mile jaunt in July. It didn’t matter that my father usually had to draw an invisible line down the middle of the backseat in order to keep my brother and I from tormenting each other. In my family, cheap always triumphed over comfort.
And so, over the many years of driving between Texas and Colorado, or Texas and South Dakota, or Texas and Florida, I learned to love road trips. My brother and I became experts at entertaining ourselves over long stretches of plains and nothingness. We mastered the license plate game. We could outwit our parents at 20 Questions. We drew flip book cartoons and recreated Peanuts comics. We napped. We quoted our favorite Bill Cosby jokes back and forth, cracking ourselves up no matter how many times we’d heard the punch lines. Sometimes, we actually just sat there, staring out our respective windows, and enjoyed each other’s quiet company.
As we got older, our entertainment changed. We started to pack more travel games, those mini magnetic favorites like Scrabble and Trivial Pursuit. We packed a tape recorder and microphone, and we pretended to host our own radio show. And eventually, I had my yellow Sony Walkman, and my brother had one, too, and we made mix tapes to take with us on the road—little soundtracks of what mattered to us at that point in time, marking our ages and places in the world. I still can’t hear “Summer of ‘69” or “The Power of Love” without remembering the feel of the cold car window glass against my cheek, with my legs tucked under me, watching fields of dry brown grass fly by in neat rows.
I know some people think things have changed. Today’s road-tripping kids pack video games and DVD players, or iPhones or even laptops. They don’t know how to play dots and boxes on scraps of paper. There’s this idea that all our gadgetry has separated us and robbed our kids of what made our own childhoods special.
I don’t buy that for a second.
When we road trip (and with a family of five, boy, do we road trip), my kids still fight over who gets what spot in the backseat. We still have to draw lines and threaten to pull the car over. Video games or iPhone games, it doesn’t matter—the kids still play games together. And they still have those quiet moments with their iPods and headphones on, listening to movies or books or songs that they get to choose, words that mean something to them and that will forever be tied to the view rolling by outside. In many ways, as we start incorporating our personal devices into our travels, travel actually becomes more personal.
I actually pity the people who fly everywhere, who don’t know what it’s like to be confined in a single small space with your family, away from the world outside, forced to take time slowly. Unlike the short plane ride, the road trip is part of the vacation. Which is why, when everyone is buckled in, when we at last hit the highway, the air itself seems infused with anticipation, with the inevitable question, “Are we there yet?” And which is why, when the answer is no, we’re not entirely disappointed.