Archived Story

Yesteryear stories of summer travel

Published 10:23am Friday, August 10, 2012

David Behling, Notes from Home

Summer is traditionally a time for families to travel, all over the world.

David Behling

Go to Paris in late July or August, and few Parisians will actually be there. It’s pretty much the same story in Berlin or Tokyo. Muscovites head to the Black Sea (if they have money) or their dachas outside the city limits (if they don’t have money).

Instead of sitting at home, all of those families will be trapped in cars, airplanes or train compartments trying to get somewhere that is simultaneously more relaxing and more interesting than home.

I only see one difference between family vacations in most of those other places and America: Parisians or Berliners travel a couple hundred kilometers and arrive in another country, while over on this side of the Atlantic, a family might not even have crossed a state line yet.

Set the Wayback Machine to 1977: Aunts and cousins from Berlin, Germany, came for a visit, and we drove from Tucson to Los Angeles to pick them up. It took almost a whole day just to get to the airport. Our plan was to pick them up, check into a motel in Huntington Beach, and then spend a few days hanging out in the surf and Disneyland before driving back to Tucson.

As we were waiting at baggage claim, however, it became clear that they wanted to see quite a bit more of the United States than we had been planning to show them. They wanted to see Chicago, the Alamo and Manhattan, among other destinations. They didn’t seem to understand the impossibility of doing that — and remaining sane — during a 10-day visit. Even with Grandma explaining this to them auf Deutsch, they still didn’t get it.

Finally, my mom used an interstate atlas of the United States to show them how the distance between Tucson and Chicago compared with the distances between Berlin and Frankfurt, Paris and London. After a brief consultation, they decided adding a one night side trip to Las Vegas followed by a stop at the Grand Canyon would be sufficient.

As we drove down Interstate 17 after our Grand Canyon stop, I think they finally got it. They kept asking how much longer until we got “home” to Tucson.

It’s true. The United States is a huge place. And a lot of it feels empty of people. Driving to the Cascade Mountains back in June gave ample proof of both — distance and emptiness.

That much driving required distractions to help pass the time, without distracting the driver too much. On this trip across plains and over mountains, the distraction was an audio book. I did not enjoy listening to it. But an important rule for trips anywhere outside Freeborn County is that the driver picks what we listen to.

So, when I wasn’t driving, in went the audio book CDs — hour after hour, day after day. There was no escaping the story. I tried listening to music on my smartphone, but the speakers in the car overwhelmed my earphones. I tried pillows and sleeping, and the story became my nightmare. As I gritted my teeth, I wished I had brought some of my Rammstein CDs for revenge when I was driving.

I survived. Just as I survived family trips back and forth across those wide, empty spaces when I was a boy.

Setting the Wayback Machine ever further into the past, I see my family stuffed into our ’68 Ford Ranch Wagon. The traditional arrangement was luggage and tent on the roof, the oldest child (me) and our dog in possession of the middle seat and the two siblings in the back with the cooler.

When the siblings fought, about who touched who or who was breathing too much air, my father would reach back and smack whoever was closest: me.

I would be sitting, quietly reading a comic book or a Hardy Boys mystery, and, boom, smack on the side of the head. I didn’t want to give up my privileged seating, so I usually ended up curled up on pillows on the floor, the highway humming just inches below my head, while Snoopy sprawled across the seat, snoring and drooling.

For some reason, Dad never smacked the dog.

Family vacations are always interesting, though not always because of the destination.

 David Rask Behling teaches at Waldorf College in Forest City, Iowa, and lives with his wife and children in Albert Lea.