As my children get to the ages where it feels vaguely wrong to call them “children,” I have reached the Clark Griswold-in-the-attic stage of parenting. If you’ve ever watched “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” you know what I mean. 

There’s this scene where Griswold, the goofy dad played by Chevy Chase, gets locked in the attic and proceeds to pass the time by tearfully watching old family movies with a turban on his head. 

That’s me — minus the turban — rewinding the tape of family summer road trips in my memory.

There were multiple trips up and down I-95 to visit grandparents in South Carolina when we lived in Richmond, Virginia; Potomac, Maryland; and ultimately Boston. The sweet sound of toddlers gently snoring in their car seats and the maddening earworm of Pokémon battle music. The smell of shared french fries and a diaper that needs changing. The bizarre, random sights: a horse-drawn buggy clopping down a road in Pennsylvania Amish country. A Burger King on fire by an exit in suburban Virginia. Nights spent piled together in hotel rooms hurriedly booked when Mom or Dad decided they could not drive a mile more. Then, the joy of waking up to a free(!) continental breakfast with a waffle maker and all.  

Never mind that, at the time, these trips didn’t seem all that great. No one puts four or five small children in an unreliable car and hits a crowded interstate for nine hours for the purpose of having fun. The fun is supposed to happen when we get to wherever we’re going.  But it’s funny how, in retrospect, those long hours in the car created what now seem to be some of the sweetest times we experienced as a family. 

They almost make me want to pack the car, litter the carpet with cookie crumbs and empty Capri Sun pouches, and go pick up my kids — who are mostly adults now and would be very confused.

At the time, these trips didn’t seem all that great. But in retrospect, those long hours in the car created what are now some of the sweetest times we had as a family. 

Road trips, of course, are embedded in America’s DNA. Our passion for them — a combination of our love of cars, wide-open spaces and McDonald’s drive-thrus — can be traced to 1906. That’s when a group of businessmen gathered in Salt Lake City to brainstorm ways to promote tourism in the West and came up with the slogan “See America First.” It turned out to be a slogan with legs — er, wheels. And it’s one that people even recognize today. 

It was born of a concern that Americans were spending too much of their disposable time and money in Europe. “The organization desires that this Pactolian stream should be as much as possible diverted, like other streams, to irrigate the arid places of our own continent,” The New York Times reported on April 1, 1906. The writer went on to suggest that the “See America First” proponents drop the “first.” 

Of course, at that point in time, horses still shared the roads with cars. It wasn’t until the 1920s that car ownership became common. Even then, many families traveled by train. The wide, open road and its promise didn’t come fully into being until the advent of the Eisenhower Interstate System in the 1950s. Interestingly, the idea for it came via a grueling road trip that then-Lt. Col. Eisenhower took in the summer of 1919.

Believing a cross-country road trip would be a “genuine adventure,” Eisenhower set out with his military buddies to travel from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco. Adventure, it was. Fun, it was not. Seems vaguely familiar, eh? 

This inaugural highway road trip took the caravan 62 days to traverse 11 states, its misfortunes including mechanical failures, water shortages, mud and bad luck. At one point, the caravan had to cross 200 yards of quicksand, which it managed to do, but it took seven hours. The road conditions were uniformly terrible, from East to West.

By comparison, I-66 in a minivan with five children on the Fourth of July weekend is practically a breeze. But don’t tell that to a weary mom or dad who is mediating a fight over the auxiliary cable or attempting to disperse gummy bears in order to break up a squabble over whose leg or arm has strayed into a sibling’s space. 

According to a recent report by The Vacationer, some 100 million Americans plan to take a road trip of more than 250 miles this summer. For families, driving still just makes sense. Especially since the chances of quicksand being an issue are much lower these days, despite what your children’s preoccupation with the phenomenon — and Eisenhower’s mishap — might suggest. 

Driving is relatively cheap. There’s no being yelled at or patted down by the TSA when someone inadvertently goes through security with a plastic Mickey Mouse in their jeans pocket (that would be me). You can take all the liquids and lithium batteries you want. The minivan won’t leave you behind if you’re running 10 minutes late (and even when it threatens to, those threats are always empty). When, mere minutes after departure, the first of 12 bathroom emergencies occurs, there will be plenty of well-equipped facilities to choose from and the lavatory won’t look like it was designed for garden gnomes.

Inside your car, you can play games with your family, loudly. You can tell dad jokes. You can point out unfamiliar license plates and funny bumper stickers. You may sometimes have to get off at an exit unexpectedly and go three miles in the wrong direction because someone was tossing a football their brother made in sewing class in the backseat and somehow it went out the window, and lo, the many, hot, angry tears. You will do all these things, as a family, not as individuals trapped within the silent silos of headphones, or stuffed into narrow airport seats surrounded by grim strangers who don’t love your messy, noisy, drooling children quite like you do. (And if you think otherwise, just do a quick Google search for “crying baby on plane.”)

Most importantly, driving is a chance to be together with nothing else to do. And that’s when memories — the kind you want to replay — are made. A family road trip done right will have a soundtrack, one that, when you hear a song from it decades later, will make you go full Griswold-in-the-turban.

Driving is a chance to be together with nothing else to do. And that’s when memories — the kind you want to replay — are made.

One year, driving 800 miles with a 3-year-old and a 4-year-old, our family soundtrack was actually a soundtrack. Notably, the soundtrack from “The Lion King” movie. “Hakuna Matata” is a reliable time machine now — when I hear it, I’m on I-95 in a Jeep Cherokee long demolished, the car littered with sippy cups and Goldfish, board books and stuffed animals. I can look behind me and see my son and daughter, blissing out in their car seats with Simba and Pumbaa. (The diaper-changing in rest stops is mercifully harder to drum up.)

Later, when there were more and older kids, we cut our own family CDs for road trips. When my youngest daughter was in her “Rocky” stage (just as I’d had a “Rocky” stage 30 years prior), we decided that every time we’d cross a state line, we’d play the “Rocky” theme. I still can’t pass a state boundary without the opening notes of “Gonna Fly Now” trumpeting in my head. 

There were bad times, too. Of course. But in retrospect, there were important lessons passed on. When they, too, become parents and hit the wide open road with an SUV full of booster seats, they will know to wait a few hours — or preferably a day — before hitting the road on the day before or after Thanksgiving. 

Nowadays, I dwell in a liminal space of parenting — waiting for college-tuition payments to end and grandchildren to start. It’s a good place. And I still love traveling with my kids — some of whom are gainfully employed and can buy their own plane tickets. As such, we’ve been able to take some great trips together — most recently, Ecuador and Italy. There is no prouder mother than one whose daughter can ask, “Where are the bathrooms?” for her in another language. 

Still, as much as I love flying with my adult and semi-adult children, I’m always looking for a reason to get everyone on the road together. The car is our happy place; contained mayhem on wheels that took us over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house, to the beach, to the mountains, to family reunions, to funerals, to the 9/11 memorial in New York City, to the monuments in Washington, D.C.

Someday, if I’m really blessed, maybe my home will be the destination of my children’s own family road trips. And when they show up tired, late, full of gas station snacks and singing songs that have been stuck in their heads for too long, I’ll remind them to savor it all. The memories we make today are the warped, french fry-greased frames of nostalgia that we want to rewind back to tomorrow. 

This story appears in the July/August issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.