The traditional family road trip is on the decline.
During the 1960s and '70s, the Golden Age of the family road trip, parents loaded kids in the station wagon, rolled down the windows and set off across America. They would be gone for weeks at a time camping, exploring national parks and getting righteously sunburned. Sometimes they spent an entire summer lakeside.
This was not just a luxury for the affluent. My mom has stories of a childhood road trip that involved half a dozen kids and two goats.
But no one seems to have time for such luxuries these days. A family trip means a destination vacation, a quick jaunt by plane to theme parks or historic sites. There is a benefit to those types of vacations, but I think we’re missing out on key family experiences when we remove the family road trip.
Our family just returned from an 18-day jaunt out West, where we reunioned in Utah, then camped our way through Teton National Park and Yellowstone. It’s a trip I know we’ll never forget, not just for what we saw in some of the nation’s finest national parks, but also the adventure along the way.
Here’s what families get out of road trips:
1. An appreciation for distance. Kids have no sense of the width of Nebraska until they’ve driven from one corner to the other, counting cornfields and windmills as they go. Following the Mormon Trail from Iowa to Utah, we told our kids that even though they thought the drive was long, we can do in two days what it took the pioneers three months to accomplish.
On the return drive, after 19 hours in the car, my son woke and looked at us in awe. “I didn’t think this was possible,” he said.
2. An appreciation for topography. From the Midwest prairies and farms to the arid West, ascending the mountain passes, to the color of dirt, from dark brown to dusty yellow to red, kids can watch the continent ripple past them. They can get a sense for the sweeping grandeur of the canyons and the jagged edges of the Teton range.
3. The time together. A family road trip is the mettle by which ever family gets tested. Elbow to elbow, surrounded by pillows and coolers, we get to exercise patience, love and understanding. In our homes, with our separate rooms and increasingly separate lives, this family togetherness is increasingly hard to come by.
4. The sense of adventure and spontaneity. It’s only on a family road trip that you can discover the miniature landscape museum in Cody, Wyo., and Wall Drug, a kitschy Americana landmark in rural South Dakota. After hiking mountains and watching geysers spew skyward, we think our kids’ most enduring memory will probably be the ice cream cones in Wall, S.D.
5. A fresh perspective upon returning. After weeks of sleeping in cars and chilled sleeping bags, of eating rehydrated soup and wearing the same two outfits, there is nothing better than coming home. My kids looked around our house with new eyes.
“It looks different,” they said. “It smells so new.”
They rubbed their feet on the carpet. They used a restroom that was not communal or at the back of a gas station. They took a long, cool drink from the kitchen faucet. Then they climbed into their beds with that appreciation that only comes after chewing through miles of road, with family, on a most memorable vacation.