At long last, I’ve discovered the problem with family summer road trips. It’s the family.
For decades, I’ve tried my damnedest to figure out a way to either have a good time strapped into the back seat of a car among those who swim in your gene pool, or behind the wheel of a car, griping about my gene- pool mates strapped into the seats behind and next to me.
I know it’s a family thing because I’ve been on road trips with friends before, and Social Services never once had to get involved.
Long ago, when everything I did made perfect sense, a college pal, Mike, and I decided just after the bars closed that it would be a grand idea to take off for Tucson, Arizona — right then.
We would go for as many days as we could beg our bosses to let us play hooky, and/or until the money ran out. It was an early Monday morning. We were thinking our cash and boss-butt kissing would have us back by Thursday night.
So we loaded up our coffee can of spare change, any food we had that didn’t have to be heated, and clean underwear. It’s not like we were animals.
And we drove south.
By the time we hit Colorado Springs, we’d eaten all the Doritos and Cap’n Crunch. We also realized that the only cassette tape we had was Neil Young’s Greatest Hits. By the time we hit Santa Fe, New Mexico, we didn’t like each other any more.
Actually, the Loaf ‘n Jug coffee, the stale don-etts and the sixth time I’d suffered through Mike’s nasal falsetto sing-along with Neil’s “Old Man,” made me a little cross.
When I ripped the cassette out of the player in mid “IIIIIIIII’m a loooooot like youuuuuuuuuu…” and tossed it out the window, Mike took it the wrong way.
It was a quiet ride for several hours.
By the time we hit the outskirts of Tucson, we were practically hallucinating from an overdose of Lucky Charms, Sudafed and sleep deprivation.
Neither of us had ever seen a real desert before, the kind with cartoon cacti and sand. It was exhilarating to run from cactus to cactus under a hot, afternoon sun. It was especially exhilarating when we realized the odd forgotten ropes on the comically flat rocks were actually snakes.
It was a fast ride into town.
There, we drank cheap vodka and Tang. We ate PBJ sandwiches and slept in the back of the pick-up at a truck stop. I paid premium rolls of pennies and nickels to buy the same Neil Young tape I’d tossed out the pick-up window. We splurged on a gross motel room one night, and we’re talking early-days Tucson gross, and laughed it off when we came back from the bars to discover that someone had puked in our toilet while we were gone.
So Thursday morning, depleted of sleep, cash and cold cereal, we headed home. We took turns alternating two-hour shifts of sleeping in the bed of the truck as the other drove, singing, “Hey, Hey, My, My,” until one of us banged on the back window for mercy.
We remain friends. I’ve never been back to Tucson.
I only bore you with some of the details to illustrate that a road trip under what most would consider less-than-ideal circumstances netted some of the best times ever, even though it’s probably pretty clear by now that my good-times bar is seriously low.
As a kid I started each road trip wandering optimistically around the cavernous back seat of my parents’ 1965 Chrysler Newport. But not long after we’d set off for Creede or down home to Rocky Ford, the moment would be ruined by my little brother, Tracy.
Before we could even get on the interstate, Tracy was talking to me, touching me or breathing on me. Of course it was my duty as the older sibling to report those infractions immediately and relentlessly.
As retribution, I became expert at positioning my brother in the back seat and infuriating my parents by saying something like, “Ouch. I don’t care, I’m telling. Dad is gonna kill you when sees what you’re doing.” And, voila, the inevitable flailing arm and smacking hand from over the massive bench seat of the speeding Chrysler would deliver a well-strategized smack to my brother.
In contrast, in all the road trips I took with my friends, I never reached around to hit them. Well, once, on the way to Crested Butte, careening down Monarch Pass during a blizzard in my intrepid 1986 Dodge Omni 024 (It wasn’t that bad) I did have to reach around to push against my 6-foot-4-inch -tall friend’s head. Doug was screaming in my ear to pull over, convinced we were going to die.
We later learned that Doug was from Illinois and had never been in the back of a car on top of a Rocky Mountain pass during a blizzard, sliding precariously toward the guardrail-less side of the road, which was so snowpacked we couldn’t see anyway.
His reaction is pretty typical of people not from here, I’ve learned.
As an adult with my own family, I was prepared to break the cycle of road-trip torment. Each expedition starts out pretty well, but we’re in the car for only minutes before it begins to devolve, usually around problems with food.
Now being a notorious pig, most people assume I would be to blame for eating into a perfectly good vacation. In fact, it is my wife, Melody, who has weighed no more than 105 pounds since high school, and still wears clothes from then, who is to blame.
My daughter, Isabella, is equally slight and endlessly ravenous. Every road trip, whether it’s just up to Loveland Basin for a couple of hours for some turns, across most of Canada, or speeding through the wasteland of Kansas en route to KC barbecue — an odd addiction we all share — every road trip starts out with cartons of snacks and goodies.
Before we hit the interstate, most of the Oreos, M&Ms, Hot Tamales mixed with salty cashews and sliced apples are gone.
“Where are we going to eat?” Melody asks for the first of what will be 4,239 times before we return home. That is Isabella’s cue to fire up her iPhone, digitally tethered to the car stereo, and fill the car with her favorite classics of the ’80s.
Melody hates the classics of the ’80s. She especially hates classics sung by Tears for Fears, which produces tears from Isabella, which cues Melody to ask, “Did you decide where we’re going to eat, or are we just going to starve for six days?”
Which cues me to reach into the back seat and flail my hand in search of the offending iPhone and deliver a satisfying smack to anything I encounter.
We recently spent a few days in Green Bay, it’s a place in a state called “Wisconsin.” They have a popular football team, and it’s a big deal, people there told me. I’ll have more on that in a few weeks.
Needless to say, there was a lot of cheese curdling, butter burgering and Door County cherry pie-ing — I can’t recommend that highly enough — every few miles.
“Are we ever going to eat dinner?” Melody kept asking, finishing another bucket of fried cheese curds to go. “I need more than cheese curds, you know.”
So I get it now. It’s a gene pool thing. Faced with hilarious threats of death, a steady diet of PBJs or poisonous snakes, the worst road trip ever is a really good time. But with family, a trek across Europe or a drive to Golden Gate Canyon, not far from Aurora, is the shortest way to Hell.
The solution? We’re trying Funyuns sandwiches filled with sardines and Duran Duran.
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