By the time I turned 15, I could rattle off a handful of exciting places I'd visited with my family: the St. Louis Arch, Lincoln's Tomb, the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis where Martin Luther King was assassinated, the Smithsonian, Vicksburg, the Great Smoky Mountains. We ate juicy peaches from a tiny roadside stand in Georgia and my father even tried alligator meat at Margaritaville in New Orleans' famed French Quarter.
Nothing screams summer quite like the frenetic excitement of a vacation looming on the horizon. Some people jet to Europe or embark on a Disney cruise to spend their idle summer days relaxing or reading trashy novels by the pool. I owe much of my childhood adventures to that classic rite of passage: the family road trip.
We'd seen it all — or so it seemed to my young self. My grandparents lived on the Gulf Coast of Alabama, so every summer, like clockwork, we'd make the 1,000-mile drive from our home amidst the cornfields of northern Illinois to the white, sandy beaches of the South. My parents took their jobs as Official Vacation Fun Planners very seriously, using Mapquest (remember that?) and the old-fashioned atlas to meticulously plan out the ultimate two-week adventure for us.
Early on, a tradition emerged. And as traditions go, there were certain things I could count on every year: My mom would vow that we'd pull out of the driveway at 8 a.m.; in reality, we'd finally hit the road at noon, after my mom uttered "hurry up, Brian!" several times to my slow-poke father. We'd be packed like sardines in our Ford Focus, surrounded by suitcases, my wheelchair, my walker, and several pillows since, according to my mom, hotel pillows just wouldn't do. My mom would lovingly pack my sister and me lunches of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, which my father ritually ate at noon on the dot. And, I knew that the first CD we listened to, the soundtrack to Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, would last us all the way until we got to the beginning of I-65 in Indiana.
Arriving at my grandparents' front door was only half the fun. Sure, getting from point A to point B was the whole point of our vacation, but my parents also saw the value of making little stops along the way. At least twice on every vacation, we'd stop at some historical spot. It was a trip within a trip. A journey within a journey. My mom became a pro at spotting those brown historical markers. Maybe it was because she's a teacher, but she just couldn't pass up the opportunity to do, see, or learn something new. Her eyes would just light up, and at that moment, I knew our vacation had officially started.
The years rolled by and our car racked up thousands of miles on our state-to-state adventures, taking us from Kentucky to Louisiana to Mississippi. I, on the other hand, became decidedly less adventurous.
"Not another brown sign," I'd say to myself, rolling my eyes.
I'd rather sit in the car and listen to the case of CDs I'd brought. I was too tired and didn't want to get out of the car. I was hungry — when were we going to stop for lunch? I'm sure my new, surly attitude had something to do with just being a teenager, but it didn't seem to faze my parents, who still got out at every scenic overlook while I sat in the car and listened to Britney Spears.
My real "aha" moment didn't come until years later when those teenage memories slowly began to take on a much deeper meaning. Sure, I may have complained about all the off-the-road stops we were making (the Arch was boring! The Smoky Mountains were too hot!), but as an adult, I can see my parents were trying to create memories for us, the kind of memories that lasted long after we got back in the car and drove away.
It was quintessential America — a snapshot of the United States. Wrapped up in these vacations was the perfect history lesson. My parents saw it as a way to bring history to life for my sister and me. But these trips are also our family's history. It's the story of our journey and our past and the story of our family.
It's those summer memories that bring me comfort as I continue to mourn the loss of my father, 15 years after his death. It's those memories I'm keeping alive. Those days of sitting in the backseat, pillow over my lap, just watching the world go by through the car window. In the sticky Southern heat of summer, the kind of heat that sticks to your back and sends beads of sweat rolling across your forehead, we were making our own history and planting the historical markers of our lives.
After my father died, we moved to a house close to the tollway. On a quiet night, you can hear the hum of the highway from our driveway. It's still the most comforting sound I've ever heard.