Over the last few years our family has taken several road trips. Traveling eight or nine hours with 3 children isn't always blissful, but it followed several years of virtually no travel at all, so I was just happy to have any excuse to cross the PA state line. And, once we found a way to avoid the nightmare that is the D.C. beltway, I began to enjoy the journey. It reminded me of the many Florida road trips we took when I was a child.
My dad's two brothers lived in Sarasota, and for over a decade we went down to visit them regularly. The trips took place in the winter, naturally, and the first one I remember was when I was four or five, before my sister was born. The memories are fuzzy, but include sliding into the back seat beside my great grandfather Daddy Wiker (this was the '70's, so no car seat needed), while my mom handed me a package for the road. It contained a ballerina Barbie doll, my first and favorite. She had a crown and little ballet slippers that would come off. I was entranced. At some point on the trip there were raspberry filled Archway cookies. "Bought cookies" were a huge treat, since this was the only time we got them. Archway cookies and car trips were linked in my mind for a long time. I picked oranges from the tree, played along the edge of the ocean wearing a bathing suit my mother made for me, and accidentally sat on an ant hill. Good times.
Sometime in the early 1980's my parents bought a two-tone brown station wagon. The back seat folded down, and the resulting space was big enough that all three children could stretch out and sleep. A pattern evolved, whereby we would attend the Herr family Christmas in the evening, and then leave for Florida immediately afterward, between 9 and 10 at night. We'd pile in the back of the car, holding new Christmas toys, and set out. My grandparents lived about 30 minutes from the Maryland line, and we tried to be awake for the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel. I often remember crossing into Virginia, but that was it. If we were lucky, we'd sleep through Virginia and the Carolinas, and wake up somewhere in Georgia.
Of course the night was punctuated by bathroom stops, or waking up briefly when dad pulled into a gas station. I'm sure there were chain gas stations, but in my memory they are all small, independent stores, where it was always a toss up if the bathroom would be quasi decent or horrible. I remember getting out of the warm car, into the freezing December night, and running with my mom to the bathrooms, which were often "around the back!" Then, still half asleep, going back to the car and crawling thankfully under the blanket. I can see my dad under the fluorescent lights, younger than I am now, standing by the car pumping gas and drinking from a gallon of Turkey Hill Iced Tea, so he could stay awake. (He has never been a coffee drinker!) Then, slowly getting warm again, and drifting off to sleep, hearing the thump of the tires underneath me and the whine of the road.
Getting through the rest of Georgia and Florida was tough, but mitigated by an exciting event: we got to eat out. I cannot emphasize the importance of a restaurant meal; seriously it was a big deal. We. Never. Ate. Out. At all. When I was growing up, "eating out" meant being invited to someone's home for a meal. I think I was 9 years old before I tasted a McNugget. This was mostly due to finances, but also to the fact that there weren't many restaurants around us at the time. It was Willow Valley, the local diner, and a pizza shop or two. I think the closest McDonald's was at East Towne Mall, 25 minutes away. Now, when Lancaster is a veritable paradise of restaurants, that seems like another world. So, having breakfast and possibly lunch out was a real treat. We usually stopped at independent restaurants that served good breakfasts; I have only one specific memory from all our trips: my brother ordered pancakes that came with scoops of "ice cream" on them, and we were so excited until we realized it was just butter.
Back in the car, tired and a little grumpy, we settled in for the last leg of the trip. By this time mom might drive a few hours, so dad could sleep. We were to be quiet, reading books, playing small car games that mom surprised us with, eating a few snacks, and surreptitiously fighting over who got the window seats. This was before children had to be strapped into car seats like little astronauts headed to Mars; we didn't even wear seat belts. Usually my brother crawled into the back to stretch out, leaving Amy and me each with a window seat. Finally, we played the alphabet game. "J", "Q", "X" and "Z" were always the hardest letters, and when the first person shouted "Done" the rest of us would call "where did you find ..."? Then came explanations ("didn't you see the Quality Inn sign?"), laughter, and the game began again. Finally we crossed into Florida, and the last few hours crawled by. I don't remember the exits, or the road we took, but I can picture the roads that ran by both uncle's houses. The sky was blue, the air warm, the Spanish moss exotic. We had arrived.