Taking the great American car trip

Whether it was riding in a sideways facing seat in the trunk of a station wagon or the back of a minivan, we’ve all experienced road trips growing up. Driving past the biggest ball of twine, the largest thermometer, and lizard farms is a key part of many of our lives. During these trips, we were forced to learn to entertain ourselves and to interact with family much more than any other day. Yet today’s children are growing up without these experiences. It’s time to bring the great American road trip back.
Our family just took our boys on a road trip down to South Carolina to see their great-grandmother. During it, I remembered all of the trips my family took when I was a kid down the coast to Florida and South Eastern beaches. These drives were a memorable and formative part of my childhood and growing up but I realized so many kids aren’t experiencing them any more.
The road trip culture in the U.S. really peaked in the 60s and 70s when airfare was still expensive, flights were long and less frequent, and families just wanted to see more of the country. So many of the iconic features that still remain along the highways like South of the Border were built during this time and it explains the gaudiness and fairly out of touch themes of them. Since then, more and more families decide to travel by plane each year and skip the roads. Many of the sights and attractions that once lined the roads are gone now.
Growing up, these tacky attractions were destinations in their own right. We’d look forward to the hundreds of billboards counting down the miles to South of the Border just to break the boredom. The stop was a welcome respite from being stuck in the car and even better were the acquisition of jumping beans, spinning toys, and other knickknacks that would offer mere minutes of entertainment before breaking in the car.
Driving for hours before the age of smartphones and tablets was a very different experience. There was boredom, and a ton of it. No matter how many toys or books I’d bring, by two hours in, I’d be bored out of my mind. We’d invent games to play like tracking every state’s license plates, finding a sign beginning with each letter, counting cows on opposite sides of the road, and picking an item like skis versus Christmas trees. One year we even got cards for highway bingo. These games obviously made an impression on me because we still play them today, much to my wife’s chagrin.
This abject boredom was important though. Learning to cope with having nothing to do sparked creativity, imagination, and just being able to zone out and relax. These skills are useful in my daily work and in being able to run without entertainment for miles. If I had a smartphone, I never would have been forced to learn these. Even still, on recent road trips, I’ve realized I end up just scrolling aimlessly on my phone anyway. Without the same opportunities to be bored and come up with their own ways to pass the time, what chance do our kids have?
The long trips also built up the anticipation and special-ness of arriving at the destination. It made visits with family more memorable and interesting. I’d look forward to finally getting to our end destination and seeing family members much more after the long build-up. Like most kids, I didn’t yet appreciate why spending time with family was important, but at least the road trips would make me look forward to finally getting there. I’d even be more willing to spend time with family at the destination because anything was better than spending time in the car.
With the decline in road travel every year, many children already don’t have the opportunity to experience a road trip, the seminal experience we parents grew up with. They’ll never experience the same boredom and forced creativity needed to pass the time that we did, and I think they’ll be worse off for it. Because of this, and just because I need more South of the Border in my life, I am taking my kids on more road trips. It’s the best way to see more of this great country and like every other parent who does something that their kids don’t appreciate now, one day, they’ll thank me for it.

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