Are we there yet? 6 ways the classic road trip has changed — and stayed the same
One of the questions frequently on my mind during the last few months as the world has battled the coronavirus pandemic is, “Are we there yet”?
Are we there yet? Have we flattened the curve, seen a reduction in new cases or a drop in the number of fatalities? Is testing widely available and accurate? Are we psychologically, physically and medically ready to resume some version of a “normal” existence?
So, are we there yet?
The answer, in my opinion, is still unclear. At 71, my personal comfort-o-meter remains pointed toward uncomfortable. I am hoping for the best and looking forward to the day when the news does not lead with a coronavirus story and all the numbers related to the virus are consistently and unquestionably trending down.
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But I’m reminded of a time when those four words were strictly travel-related, and largely associated with long drives. I was of the post World War II baby boomer generation and road trips were very much part of the fabric of our lives. There was no such thing as an inexpensive airline ticket growing up in the 1950s and 1960s.
Road trips were just what we did, as the U.S. was in a serious love affair with its automobiles. We were basking in the freedoms preserved in the war and we were a society very much on the go. We were encouraged through jingles to “see the USA in [our] Chevrolet” … or our Ford, Dodge, Plymouth, Buick, Packard, Cadillac, Chrysler, Oldsmobile, Lincoln, Studebaker, DeSoto or Hudson.
Cars were big and bold and heavy, loaded with chrome and ready to go.
But now, in the year 2020, I personally thought our days of long-range road trips were over.
Miles and points stretched our financial range to travel, as did low-cost carriers. Both made extended hours in a car to cross the country almost counterproductive and unnecessary. An inexpensive rental car was always waiting there at the airport at the end of our award ticket or $29 Spirit or Frontier flight.
But any trips we might pursue in the near term will likely be a return to yesteryear.
While more and more passengers are again taking to the skies, my wife and I are in our 70’s, cautious and experienced road trippers who may well be packing the trunk once again. Here’s what it was like during the last heyday of road trips — and why we’re excited to pack a cooler of snacks and hit the open road.
The classic U.S. road trip
The road trips of the 1950s and 1960s were usually at the core of summer family vacations. Car trunks were packed and trips usually started several hours before dawn to get a good head start before breakfast. Every inch of space was filled with luggage, camping supplies, an ice chest and toolbox — anything that might be needed during a two-week getaway.
All this was piled on top of the spare tire. And – you guessed it — when a flat occurred, the entire trunk had to be emptied on the side of the road to access the spare.
Family members each had their designated spot in the car that was considered sacrosanct. There were no seat belts or car seats to keep people in their respective corners.
We lived in the Piney Woods region of southeast Texas, but within an hour, the stately pines and their long shadows were squarely in the rearview mirror. We then had hours of hot Texas flatland, farmland, ranchland and open rangeland to traverse. You could escape to your thoughts and be hypnotized by the 30-mile stretches that seemed to always separate one small town from the next.
The first day of a road trip was not for sightseeing or excursions. It was to get about 600 miles under the belt so the destination (in our case, usually the mountains of Colorado and New Mexico) could be reached on the second day. Back then, state and national roads did not bypass, loop or skirt the towns and cities. They connected them. The best average speed you could expect was about 50 miles per hour on these cross country treks, so it always took a while to get where you wanted to be.
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The original window seat
Cars, for the most part, were neither air-conditioned nor technologically equipped (no DVD players or Bluetooth or satellite radio), so window seats were coveted and valuable. The breeze created at 65 miles per hour kept the summer temperatures tolerable — and the view was the best form of entertainment.
The window was also the exhaust system to vent the cigarette smoke and a powerful bargaining chip. It could be offered in a swap.
“I’ll let you sit by the window until the next town if you let me read your new Archie comic book,” for example.
The open window did have its drawbacks. You became the first to detect the smell of the local skunk or the unmistakable whiff from the crowded feedlot. But I’ll readily admit I loved looking at the world through my window seat during our road trips, just as I have in recent decades from my window seat in row 23. It’s both educational and entertaining to watch the world whiz by.
There was the Coleman thermos with the twist-off lid that doubled as the drinking cup, and the picnic basket (filled with bologna or ham sandwiches or canned Vienna sausages) for lunch at roadside parks. Roadside parks, if you’re unfamiliar, were small pull-offs on two-lane roads that featured a couple of concrete tables, a concrete fire pit and grill, and oil drum-type garbage cans. A few (hundred) resident flies could also be anticipated.
Roadside parks were often nestled in a grove of trees to provide shade, and a breeze was always a welcome defense against the flies. There were usually no restrooms.
These stops were counted on, calculated for and anticipated. They were an important part of the U.S. roadways in the pre-Interstate days — so commonplace and necessary, their locations were indicated by a small blue circle on the ubiquitous road maps provided for free by major gas companies of the era.
The precursor to GPS and Mapquest
Our glove box was full of local, state, regional and national maps that bore the names of Humble, Sinclair, Esso, Sohio, Chevron, Conoco and Phillips 66. These were our GPS and navigation apps, and they got us from here to there and back again.
And you knew you were growing up when you could properly refold a map into its original configuration — that was a road trip rite of passage.
When it was time to get gas for the car, gas stations were not convenience stores. They were service stations. Attendants filled your tank, washed your windshield and cleaned the floor of the car with a handheld whisk broom.
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Stations typically had two service bays in which car repairs could be made, and refreshments were limited to a soft drink machine that may or may not work and a few candy bars and chips. In the 1950s, soft drink bottles were made of glass and cost about a penny an ounce. You might buy Coca-Cola, or Squirt, NuGrape, Nehi, Sun Crest or R.C. Cola. When you stopped for gas, you went to the restroom no matter the state of the facilities.
The car radio, your only tech entertainment solution, was spotty at best, so you typically tuned in to small local stations when you entered their transmission zones. They all seemed to play country music — or would be hosting a village swap meet over the air.
“Wilber, over of Fifth Street, has a good set of whitewall 7.75 by 14s for sale. He’s asking $50 for the four. You can call him at 446.” (Yes, phone numbers in small towns were just three digits and on a party line.)
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Every now and then, you might break out the Auto Bingo game, starting with how many different state license plates you can spot, and later guessing how far it was to some distant object ahead.
Bed and board
At the end of a long first day, we usually enjoyed a night at a motel with a swimming pool and, hopefully, a diving board. Diving boards carried some serious street credit in the mind of an 8-year-old in 1956.
But most of our trip was spent camping out, with a few nights in a rustic cabin to bring back some trappings of civilization like beds, indoor toilets, bathtubs and running water. In retrospect, I’m certain those were my mom’s favorite travel days.
Trip planning, access to information, reservations and confirmations for lodging 60 to 65 years ago were usually done via mail with back and forth correspondence using a 3- or 4-cent stamp. It wasn’t easy, necessarily, but it was all part of the experience.
Meals on the road, when not picnics at the roadside parks, were also different back then. National fast-food chains weren’t popular yet, and small mom and pop drive-ins, burger huts and hot dog stands were the forerunners.
Every town would have a City Cafe, Joe’s Diner or Polly’s Restaurant and Lounge, and you could count on a red-and-white checkered tablecloth.
Getting back on the road
Now, with road trips back on the table for our trips (and for many other travelers considering vacations this summer), things will look different.
Perhaps you’re driving a comfortable SUV with four-wheel drive. Each passenger will likely have independent climate control and personal video entertainment options.
Navigation systems will be your map. They tell you when to turn left, or proceed a quarter-mile before continuing straight on for 95 miles more. They will admonish and critique your errors — and the car, too, will beep, buzz, vibrate and flash messages warning you of driving transgressions. An onlooking time traveler from the 1950s might wonder if your children are named Alexa, Siri and Google.
Satellite radio will give you hundreds of audio choices delivered in brilliant surround sound — no more vague country tune in the middle of nowhere.
Refueling will be possible at megastops with a hundred gas pumps and an endless procession of food, beverages, souvenirs, jerky and gleaming restrooms — though I guess that last point is more relevant than ever. (For you older folks, think: Stuckeys on steroids.)
You won’t have to hope for a Joe’s Diner with a checkerboard cloth, because there’s an app to tell you what’s around the corner. And you can probably even place a mobile order before you pull into the next town.
Lodging will be in multistory hotels instead of a single story Western-themed motel where you parked by your front door. Wi-Fi strength will carry more cache than a swimming pool.
The road trips of today will be more comfortable than ever, but travelers will have to work harder than ever to really experience the joys of the classic American road trip. The best parts of my road trips growing up were the experiences, encounters and surprises.
We weren’t just driving to get to a hotel or resort — the road itself was the destination.
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The world has changed. But, in some ways, reliving and reviving experiences from the past isn’t all bad. Sitting out on lawns chatting with neighbors, slowing down and exploring the country by car all have a certain unmistakable appeal.
Back on those road trips of my youth, eventually, the days ran out and home called for your return. The trip back was not nearly as fun, seemed much longer and usually involved an all-night car ride. I can still hear my dad clicking the headlight dimmer on and off with his left foot as cars approached in the opposite lane.
I’ll admit I’m looking forward to that future day when we can travel without hesitation or trepidation. But until then, I’ll find comfort and familiarity in the old-fashioned road trip. And the only questions I’ll have are, “How much farther?” and “When will we get there?”
Featured image by Daniel A. Leifheit / Getty Images