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Sticky juice boxes. Emergency pit stops. And all those gripes and grumbles from the backseat. And yet family car trips are likelier than ever to top the list of Americans’ vacation plans in 2019, according to recent research from AAA, the roadside assistance group.
Lower gas prices this year are helping to fuel the family car trip’s continuing popularity. What’s more surprising is that some of us still manage to harbor fond memories of these messy, noisy journeys.
“We used to set off from Mill Neck in the family car,” Ruthie, my summer neighbor for nearly 50 years, reminisced about road trips between Long Island and midcoast Maine when she was little. “Six or seven of us kids would be singing, ‘Bang bang bang, we’re going to Bangor, bang bang bang, we’re going to Maine!’”
Ruthie was pushing 80 when she belted out her car-trip song for me. But you wouldn’t have known it from the way she was bouncing around like a toddler in her deck chair.
I could definitely relate because ever since I was old enough to eat blueberry pie, I’d been driving with my own family to the same Maine lake as Ruthie. And I can see us now, setting out from the cornfields of Maryland in our aging Country Squire station wagon. We must have looked like corn husks ourselves, withering in the heat.
My father, a middle-school guidance counselor, was our designated driver, while my mother’s job was dispensing coins at the toll booths and sandwiches at picnic spots. Mawdie had run a ship-shape classroom as a first-grade teacher and those skills came in handy on our road trips too. I don’t remember her ever forgetting to bring one thing, especially when it came to us kids.
After we left Maryland we nearly always detoured through Pennsylvania’s coal region, where my grandfather from the Old Country had gotten his hard start in America as a miner of anthracite. We drove past gigantic coal slags on the outskirts of his widow’s sooty town to pick up some of the non-driving relatives. And that’s when the Squire’s shock absorbers would really take a beating.
My grandmother’s sisters would come aboard with what seemed like half their kitchens in tow. Out of the corner of my eye I’d see them pushing twisty root vegetables and cast-iron skillets under the backseat, where they hoped my father would not see them until we got to the lake.
It took almost a day of nonstop traveling to get there, and by then we’d be all wrinkled, crinkled and nearly cross-eyed. The ground under our feet kept rolling, and the sunlight slanting through the pines made us blink. But in a day or so we knew that riding the waves in the Maine lake would make us feel new again.
So when I had a family of my own, we started piling into our own version of the Country Squire to go to Maine. Because even though there was money for air fare by then, car trips still felt like the way for us to go.
One year we brainstormed together over all those miles and came up with just the right name — Gingerbread — for the reddish retriever puppy we were about to add to our family. Another year we stopped for ice cream and Gingerbread gobbled down all the waffle cones in the backseat.
Still, my children and their children have continued to follow the tradition of family car trips to Maine, and I’m really glad they do.
I’m just sentimental enough to think that blueberry pie tastes a little sweeter when you ride all those roads together before the first bite.
Susan Lapinski is a writer in Sullivan during the summer and in New York City the rest of the year. She is writing a memoir about her family’s summers in Maine.