After traveling up and down the east coast our parents heard the cry “westward ho” and we started chasing sunsets instead of sunrises. It was also around this time we ditched the station wagon and traded her in for ‘big-red’, a behemoth GMC suburban that would become our mode of transportation for many years as we crisscrossed our way across the US. These were the days before mandatory seat belts and child safety seats…but what about a plain old seat to seat to sit on? We were scheduled to hit the road when our new chariot was delivered but the backseat was backordered. Our parents were not about to let a little thing like an actual seat for the kids to sit on stop this trip, no sir, who needs seats – you kids can roll around with the camping gear, it will be fun!
These were the days of road trips; we didn’t fly and I don’t remember our friends flying either. I am not even sure when I took to the air for the first time. I’m thinking it was probably sometime in the mid 70’s when I was in high school, possibly when I was sent home from the Smokey Mountains but that is a story better left for another day. Back then gassing up the car cost about 30 cents a gallon and a night spent in a cheap motel on the side of the road ran between $6 (when Motel 6 truly cost 6 bucks) and $15. Road trips were a family tradition.
It was in the backseat of big-red that the three of us perfected the art of bickering and whining with an occasional all out brawl thrown in for good measure. “Mom, he’s touching me” was a running complaint as we barreled across the never-ending flats of Nebraska. We didn’t have the diversions parents so heavily rely on these days – no video games, no DVD players, no iPods. It was old school back then. We had books, coloring and AM radio when a station could be pick up and hours upon hours watching the world whiz past our window (if it happened to be your turn at the window). Mom and Dad were ensconced in the front seat, perpetually half tanned with respective arms draped out open windows. No a/c back in those days either, that would be for sissies along with seats and seat belts. More than once dad was forced to pull over and threaten to leave us on the side of the road if we didn’t settle down. It doesn’t take long for kids to realize how empty this threat is…I wonder why parents continue to employ this method of control?
On the long haul days (think Nebraska) stopping for lunch became the highlight and us kids would be on the lookout for billboards letting us know how many more miles we would need to travel before he hit the next Stuckey’s. Dad would groan when we spied the bright yellow sign and in chorus we began our begging. We can’t stop at Stuckey’s we will be stuck there forever our parents would cry but in the end we usually stopped. Once that teal blue peaked roof was spotted our giddy anticipation hit full tilt. We couldn’t care less about the food this establishment served it was the shelves and bins filled with tchotchkes we hoped to spend hours perusing. Miniature Indian drums, tomahawks, plastic snakes and animal of every variety, polished stones and cheep jewelry sat alongside their world-famous pecan rolls (which we never tried). This was kid heaven and as a bribe for behaving once we climbed back into big-red and hit the road again spare change was doled out for a shopping spree. If allowed we would have spent the afternoon there speculating on how to best utilize our new-found wealth, ensuring we left with the best possible trinket our money could buy.
Back in the car we would quietly play with out new treasures until our full bellies, the gentle roll of the car and the warm afternoon sun lolled us to sleep. More than once I remember waking up bathed in sweat laying in a patch of sun blaring through un-tinted windows. Groggy and parched one by one we would lift our sweaty heads to peek out the window to see how far we had gone while sleeping, always hoping we were close to our intended destination. As we went further west, off the interstate and further away from civilization our attention turned from I spy a Stuckey’s to I spy a dear, or an antelope, a bear or a moose. This became a competitive sport as the child to first spied the elusive wild animal was treated to a highly coveted plastic replica upon our next stop at a Stuckey’s or similar shop. I wonder if tucked away somewhere in a box of childhood memorabilia lays nestled an odd assortment of small plastic animals; I believe there is.
As I write this the whisper of a long forgotten tune grows louder and louder as I remember my moms voice singing along to the radio….”Those were the days my friend, we thought they’d never end…” and I am once again 9 years old, ensconced in the comfort of my family, rolling around the back of a seat less big-red suburban.