It is mid-summer, that hot, hazy, humid period just on the cusp of maturing from the puppy stage into the full-grown dog days.
It is vacation season, the time for leaving the ordinary and mundane behind, for abandoning dishes and laundry, yard work and plain old work, worries and cares, and hitting the open road to seek new horizons, not to mention room service.
Vacation destinations are as varied as American families themselves. Some families opt for theme parks, some for national monuments, others for mountain campgrounds, still more for the beach.
There is one constant in regards to the American family vacation: We take more driving vacations than any other kind, and we hate them. A vast majority of U.S. leisure travelers, 76 percent, travel by automobile, pickup, van or SUV.
But a survey conducted by BabyCenter.com found that 97 percent of parents dread long family car trips.
The problem, it seems, stems from bored children.
Bored? In the age of iPods, iPads, iPhones and iGosh darn near everything? In the days of portable video game systems and e-readers? In the days of vehicles with built-in DVD players and drop-down video screens? Heck, in this era of GPS navigation systems, kids can amuse themselves listening to the disembodied electronic voice chastising dad for missing his exit.
I grew up in the dark ages. The only thing digital about our family car trips back in the day were the thumbs of the hitchhikers we would pass by on the highway.
Our annual family vacation destination was always the same — my father’s boyhood home in a tiny southern Minnesota town.
For a child, it was a dream. There were open spaces in which to run, old farm buildings to explore, cousins with whom to play, barn cats to try and tame, and long days fishing with my dad and various other relatives.
For my pop, it was a time to get away from work and yard chores, and a chance to fish, which he would rather do than eat — and often did.
For my mother, it was simply an extension of the drudgery of being a housewife in the 1960s, except moved to a rural setting.
So we would load up the family car, a rolling gunboat that drank gasoline like a thirsty man in a desert gulps water.
On the appointed day, we would arise before the sun and hit the open road.
My father was a wonderful man, a great father, a good provider, a loving husband. But put him behind the wheel of that great rolling hunk of iron and he changed. He became short-tempered and single-minded, focused on only one thing — reaching our destination as quickly as possible.
In those days, the countryside was lined with all sorts of fascinating tourist destinations, like the Mystery Spot where the laws of gravity didn’t apply, giant Muffler Men, dinosaur statues, Rock City and stores advertising wares such as walnut bowls or pecan brittle. There were kitschy mom-and-pop motels and small local amusement parks.
In Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, there were even signs advertising pasties, which in this case were homemade meat pies, not part of a stripper’s, er, wardrobe.
It didn’t matter. We didn’t stop. The only time our car left the highway was when we needed gas. Only then were we allowed to indulge ourselves in such frivolous activities like eating and using the bathroom.
And there was no question of my being bored. If I was bored, that was my problem and Dad didn’t want to hear about it. So when the drone of the tires on the macadam grew maddening, my mother and I resorted to counting license plates from various states, or vehicles of certain colors.
The nice thing about being an only child was I didn’t have to worry about a sibling touching me, breathing on me or taking my toys. The bad thing was, if anything that happened in the back seat made my father mad, I was always to blame.
As the day wore on and the sun began to sink, the debate would always begin. My mother wanted to find a motel that was clean and comfortable, with a restaurant nearby. I wanted one with a pool. My father wanted to keep driving through the night. My mom and I always won, though not without a fight.
Sometime after noon on the second day, we would pull into the gravel driveway of the farm home where my father grew up. He would shut off the car, which would sit, tick, tick, ticking in the shade of a large old tree. The family would come out to greet us, and the first question was always the same, “How was your trip?”
“Fine,” my dad would reply, “just fine,” and Mother and I would exchange a silent but knowing look. We didn’t dare say a word. We still faced the ride home.
Mullin is senior writer of the News & Eagle. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.