Extra Pulp: Road Trip Treasures

Laura Anders Lee recalls the simple pleasures of a family road trip.

One of my fondest memories is a trip our family took out West when my brother and I were in elementary school. We flew into Salt Lake City as our starting point for a five-state tour of Utah, Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming and Idaho. After touring the Mormon Tabernacle, my dad picked up a cassette tape in the gift shop before we headed out on the open road. As iconic landscapes unfurled outside our window, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s patriotic songs became the soundtrack of our vacation. This is my country, land of my birth!

After rafting down the Colorado River, we devoured peanut butter and jelly sandwiches—still the best I’ve ever eaten. Because my brother, Will, suffered from altitude sickness, I went on a special one-on-one hike with my dad through dribble-castle formations at Bryce Canyon National Park. We bought a Frisbee at Monument Valley—which I later lost out the window. And Will and I lay awake in Jackson Hole at 10 p.m., amazed it still wasn’t dark.

Will and I argued, got carsick and complained of boredom, undoubtedly frustrating and flustering our parents. In true Clark Griswold form, my dad drove off from a gas station with the hose still in our tank. But we ultimately survived 2,000 miles and two weeks in the car together—and without technology. My mom hid little treats we could open on the hour if we’d been good. Back before DVDs, Gameboys and satellite radio, Will and I colored, chewed Juicy Fruit, napped without the restraint (or safety!) of seatbelts and played road games. I made a list of states with the most interesting license plates and wrote a letter to the governor of Alabama requesting something better than the outdated “Heart of Dixie.”

When I hear a patriotic song today, all these details from decades ago resurface. What we experienced that summer was a classic family vacation, something I’d like to replicate for my sons and gift them with a memory they, too, will treasure.

One of the first road trips my husband, Bryan, and I took with our boys was from our home in Alabama to Tennessee to buy a car. This otherwise mundane errand turned into an adventure when Anders and William, then 3 and 1, learned that we were spending the night in a hotel. Just off the interstate, the Embassy Suites with its glass elevators and 10-story lobby was a palace in their eyes. The grab bar in the bathtub was a fireman’s pole, and the PF Chang’s down the highway was a Chinese temple. “A visit to a strange place will bring you renewed perspective,” my fortune cookie read.

When we moved from Alabama to Orlando, we made a road trip out of that, too, taking old Highway 98 along the Gulf of Mexico from Pensacola through Seaside and Apalachicola, the water just beyond the passenger window. The boys splashed in the surf, despite it being January, and they chased seagulls while Bryan and I washed oysters down with pints of beer. The night before move-in day, we giddily checked into a Disney hotel. Another guest gave our family a disdaining glance and said, “Aren’t they a little young for Disney? They’ll never remember this trip.”

I didn’t have a quick-witted comeback. I was so taken aback by this stranger’s unsolicited comments that by the time I opened my mouth to respond, he had gone.

I could have told him so many things. I could have simply explained that we were moving. I could have said that you’re never too young—or too old—for Disney (perhaps just too grumpy.) I could have told him that parenting is tough, that the day-to-day routine is grueling, then asked him what could be better than dropping everything and focusing on one another. I have learned from my children to live in the moment, to seize the day. Life is too short to delay gratification. We’ll miss way too much in the meantime.

This spring break, I’m planning a family road trip to Texas, where we’ll ride horses in the hill country, eat tacos from food trucks, search for real-life cowboys and watch bats swarm over the capital at dusk. I’m willing to bet the boys will have meltdowns and temper tantrums, and they might not even remember a thing. But for a few days, we’re going to leave our normal lives in the rearview mirror and seek adventure. Just being together is worth cherishing, and even the faintest memory is simply a bonus.

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