The history and magic of the great American family road trip
When America’s first interstate highways were born in the 1950s and men had just returned from World War II, the family road trip became an all-American phenomenon
On a beautiful September afternoon in Murray, Utah, Jason Miller and his wife Deb are set to load the tricked-out van they call “the camper” for a road trip weekend of camping and a music festival.
Typically their 8-year-old daughter, Teagan, doesn’t help out with the loading process, but this time she decided to pitch in. And as many helping hands make light work, Teagan brought her stuffed animals and some of the family bags over to the car to help prepare for a fun family weekend in Torrey and Capitol Reef National Park. It would be a few days filled with music, s’mores around the fire and time spent in nature in their family van.
“The camper came to be because we love going out on the road and we wanted to up our game. We don’t use it for every road trip but we do use it for most,” Jason Miller said.
Why drag the whole family away from home for days at a time? Miller said it’s for the experiences his family has while on the road together.
“We road trip for a lot of reasons, but having new and exciting experiences are at the top of the list. We love exploring, visiting friends and family, and we even love going to some of our favorite places again and again,” Miller said.
Shared experiences playing the license plate game, asking “are we there yet?” and going through the good and the bad of traveling across the country together are quintessential aspects of the all-American family road trip.
While generations have enjoyed this type of vacationing, where did the family road trip get its start?
World War II’s influence on American travel
The real major event that kicked off the road tripping boom was the end of World War II, according to Richard Ratay in his book, “Don’t Make me Pull Over!: An Informal History of the Family Road Trip.” When the draft and enlistment took young men away from home for the first time in their lives, they got to see more of their nation for basic training and then were sent off to different parts of the world to fight for America.
After seeing the world, these young men came back with a travel bug, Ratay explained, right as they were starting to have families amid the baby boom. “They had all these kids because of the postwar economic prosperity that America was going through at that time,” Ratay said.
American automobile factories were producing large numbers of cars at the time thanks to their increased productivity and efficiency during the war. “America all of a sudden had young men who were interested in travel with new families, lots of money, lots of time, lots of cars, and that was really what spurred the travel boom,” Ratay said.
Suddenly the country was full of families packing up their station wagons to go on vacation.
All of these elements might not have ultimately amounted to much without the final key ingredient: the interstate highway system. The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, which authorized the construction of the 41,000 mile interstate highway network across America, was a major factor that brought family road trips to fruition.
“Legislation was passed to start funding construction of the interstate, of course, in 1956, but it really took America 25 years to build those interstates,” Ratay said.
With all of these pieces in place, the 1960s brought the true launch of the family road trip craze, which peaked in the 1970s. After the interstate highway systems were born, they expanded from coast to coast while automobiles were becoming a permanent part of the American lifestyle.
What made family road trips popular?
Ratay can still remember waking up as a kid at 3 a.m., packing up the car and heading out on a family road trip to beat the Chicago rush hour traffic back in the mid 1970s.
His family was on an Indiana interstate when suddenly the car started spinning. Magazines and coffee cups went flying and eventually the car hit a sudden stop. Ratay recalls the interior of the vehicle being completely dark as all the windows were completely caked in snow.
Ratay’s family car, along with 40 others, had hit a patch of black ice and spun out of control into a ditch. Thankfully, there were no collisions, but his family and others were stranded on the interstate waiting until someone could come by and help get them out of the ditch. To pass the time, Ratay recalls his family setting up camp on the side of the road where they played family games, sang songs and tried to shovel snow off the car.
They were eventually rescued and headed back on their journey, he told the Deseret News.
Family vacations became especially popular during this time as they allowed people to learn about the country in a time where technology couldn’t.
“We as kids had a very little idea of how big America actually is and how different people and the culture of America can be at distant ends of the country,” Ratay said.
Ratay said road trips were educational experiences for him and his family growing up.
“It was eye opening that so many different people, from different backgrounds, could exist in the same country together,” Ratay said. “We didn’t have 400 channels that people are constantly seeing today among other technological advances, and so road trips were a firsthand experience of understanding the way other people lived.”
Road trips also opened the door to visit multiple “must see” destinations across the 50 states.
“I remember going to various baseball stadiums across the west, camping and backpacking throughout Utah, visiting national parks, Disneyland, driving through an actual tree in the redwoods, and collecting ash after Mt. Saint Helens blew,” Miller said.
With modern technology and air travel, most memorable sites can be easily reached. Despite the changing world, the magic of the family road trip can still happen for families — and still does today.
Road trip magic
While parents today may not be able to preserve the magic of the family road trip experience as it was in the ’70s and ’80s, Ratay said the best way to try is to explore off the freeway.
“The thing that I would urge travelers and parents today to do is to get off the interstate and go to some of these places. Research the route you’re taking as well as the destination, make time and find curious and interesting little things along the way to stop at,” Ratay said.
Ratay said one of his all time favorite road trips was when he took his own family to see Mount Rushmore a few years back.
“We rented a big RV and we made the quintessential road trip out west to go to Mount Rushmore. It was a fantastic experience, and I think what made that trip so great was the stops we made along the way that made it memorable,” Ratay said.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic created hybrid work opportunities for some, Miller said having the option to work remotely has helped his family realize they can discover more of the country as they work from the road.
“I am fortunate to work from home, which also means I can work on the road. So why not take advantage and see what the world has in store?”
In order to enjoy road tripping, Miller said people have to think of the journey as part of the experience.
“There are so many cool things on the road to pull over and experience. Road tripping takes more time than flying. If COVID taught me anything about work-life balance, it’s that it’s important to spend as much time as I can with my family and friends doing the things we love,” Miller said.