The early hours of morning always came too soon after bedtime. I can remember my mother would shake me awake from a deep sleep and tell me to be sure and get my brother up. Being a morning person, it was always easier for me to get up and help with that task, and even though I was still half asleep myself, the excitement of the day to come would quickly wash away the fog of slumber. Hitting my sleeping brother with a pillow was usually what it took to get him moving, a task I relished with no small amount of delight.
For what seemed like an eternity, the trip had been planned, the days counted down and the excitement building up, even though many of these trips had been taken before, and we knew going in what to expect. It was vacation time, and although it meant long hours in the seat of a car, the end reward was worth the trip at hand. In hindsight, the journey itself was fun in its own way, though I’m probably more appreciative about that part now than I might have been back then.
My grandparents loved to travel; more than that, they loved to take their entire family with them when they did it. My mother, my brother and I made up one family unit; my aunt and her two sons made up another. My father, probably relieved to be on his own for a week, always had to stay behind and manage the family business, but he made up for it by taking us on our own family vacations as his schedule would allow it. It was the 1970’s, the greatest decade to grow up in, and the zenith of a national tradition observed by families called the “road trip”, when traveling by automobile to a destination was an experience in and of itself, highlighted by a healthy slice of Americana that could be observed along the highways and roads of the south.
He liked to leave early in the morning, long before the sun came up. My grandfather insisted he had to “get ahead of the traffic” as if everyone on the road was just waiting for him to show up and slow him down. Our suitcases, packed the night before, waited by the door, and we’d get up, dress quickly and usually gulp down a bowl of Honeycombs cereal, always listening for the sound of the cars to pull up. If we finished eating before that happened, we’d be waiting outside, standing in the garage with our luggage by our side, feeling a rising sense of anticipation when we’d we see headlights coming down the road at a time when no sane person would normally be out.
Since there was usually eight of us, two cars were always required, if not for the people then for the huge pile of luggage necessary to make such a trip. The adults also had a habit of taking their own pillows on trips, a habit which I have since acquired, and all that, plus more, was crammed into the trunks of the enormous land barges we called cars.
My grandfather was usually a frugal person, not given to excess except where his family and his choice of car was concerned. He always drove a late model Cadillac sedan, which in those days were huge, lumbering conveyances. My aunt usually followed behind in a proportionally sized Buick and off we would go. Our usual destination was Florida, mainly Daytona Beach, occasionally Orlando and Disney World, and once, Panama City Beach. My grandfather liked to make as many miles as possible before sunrise, which would usually find us having breakfast at the King Frog restaurant just off the interstate in South Georgia.
From there we’d head down into Florida, making sure to stop at the Florida welcome center at the state line for free orange juice and a bathroom break. With eight people of various ages on a long road trip, bathroom stops were frequent. We passed the time looking for the familiar landmarks along the way…the Great Peanut in Ashburn comes to mind, which my grandfather posited as being roughly a third of the way there.
There were no Cracker Barrels in those days and we didn’t miss them either, as there were lots of other places, locally owned and operated, along the way to stop and eat lunch. As the owner of a Georgia restaurant that had been in business since 1929, my grandfather took a great deal of interest in these places, and thanks to frequent family trips to Florida, he came to know many of the owners and enjoyed talking shop with them when we stopped off to eat.
Driving cars that probably got about 8 to 10 miles per gallon meant that gas stops were also a necessity and there wasn’t a Stuckey’s along the way that we didn’t know about. The great billboards along the interstate always let us know how close we were to one and their famous pecan confectionaries. All you had to do was look for the famous sign and the bright blue roof. Given the amount of rest areas, restaurants, the Stephen Foster Center, tourist traps with glass bottomed boats, alligator farms, and numerous Stuckey’s along the way, it’s really a wonder we ever got there.
We’d play games like looking for license plates from other states, and we’d see other families traveling in long, wood-toned paneled station wagons, luggage strapped to the roof rack, usually with the windows rolled down. I didn’t realize then how lucky we were to be traveling in a luxurious living room on wheels, comfortably ensconced in a Comfortron climate controlled environment to keep out the Florida heat. Air conditioning apparently was still a luxury accessory 50 years ago.
Oftentimes, they liked to get off the interstate for part of the trip and travel the country roads through miles and miles of orange groves. Roadside stands along the way were also stopping points, usually to get locally sourced honey, fresh oranges and something to drink. My grandfather tended to know these proprietors as well, and always stopped at their places of business along the road. By this time, we generally were groaning about having to stop again, because we were getting tired of orange trees and were very anxious to see the ocean and to be the first ones in the hotel pool. Nothing we would ever see that day quite compared to that first glimpse of the Atlantic Ocean, and you could feel the instant surge of excitement knowing you were nearly there.
Speaking of hotels, he even had a habit of staying at the same ones over the years. In Daytona, the Diplomat was a favorite, until they opened the new LaPlaya in 1975, and we stayed there year after year until well into the 80’s. He made it a point to get to know the owners of these establishments too, because he liked to know the people he did business with and who he spent his money with. They in turn made sure we had a wonderful stay and that our accommodations, usually two hotels rooms with an adjoining kitchenette, were in top shape, and thoroughly cleaned each day.
When my oldest cousin earned his driver’s license, two cars became three because he insisted on driving his own car to Florida. My grandfather made sure his tank was filled each time we stopped for gas too, and I got to ride with them once, which made the trip down more fun not having to ride with all the “grown ups” for a change.
My favorite trip to Florida was in 1981, the year I got my learner’s permit, because on the trip home, I asked him if I could drive for a while and he said “sure” and handed me the keys. It was fun but nerve wracking because he sat in the passenger seat and monitored my speed the whole time, all while playing with the new, cutting edge, onboard Cadillac digital fuel computer that was a first, and which computed how badly I was doing with the gas mileage. Still, I had hoped to drive for only a little while, yet he ended up letting me drive the entire trip back.
Beach trips weren’t the only ones we made either, and the mountains of North Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky were also frequent destinations in the leaf looking months of Autumn. Trips to Hiawassee, Cherokee, Gatlinburg, Cumberland Falls and all sorts of places in between was a favorite destination for us. For me, the most fascinating part of those trips weren’t the mountains, which I loved then and still do today, but driving through the tunnels, which kids always find to be fascinating. He would always roll down the windows and blow the horn in the tunnels so we could hear it reverberate off the thick concrete walls. I picked up this habit from him too, as I do this every time I drive through a tunnel on the Blue Ridge Parkway today.
The biggest road trip I ever took though was in 1976, the summer he took me on my western trip. This was something he did for each of his four grandsons, usually when they were about ten years old, and that was my year for the big trip. The whole trip revolved around my grandmother’s beauty parlor schedule, and two weeks was the longest she could go without having to have a complete redo of her elaborate hairstyle. Since her appointments were always on Thursday mornings, the trip had to begin on Friday and proceed in such a way that she would be back on the Wednesday before her scheduled appointment, missing only one appointment in between.
This trip took us across the US, through Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and into California. Along for the ride was my mother and my aunt, with me riding between my grandmother and my aunt in the back seat for the entire trip, which wasn’t always fun. My mother and my grandfather took turns driving and through the bleak areas of Oklahoma and Texas, 90 mph wasn’t uncommon for either of them. I have never forgotten how you could see for miles and miles and even though you were running at blistering speeds, you never really seemed to be getting anywhere.
On the way we saw a lot of historic sites, museums, interesting tourist traps and of course the inevitable Stuckey’s. We visited Navajo Indian reservations, where my mother bought some pottery pieces supposedly made of buffalo poop. We meant to see the Grand Canyon along that route, but an unfortunate night spent in the local hospital with some kind of food poisoning my grandmother and I both got along the way put us off schedule a day and we had to forego seeing that natural wonder. Holiday Inns were a favored place to stay, as they usually had a restaurant to eat both dinner at upon arrival and breakfast the next morning before departure.
We did spend the night in a cabin at Yosemite National Park, one of the truly beautiful places in our country, where I both saw a bear and had an unfortunate run-in with an antique clawfoot bathtub. Yosemite Falls was an incredibly breathtaking site. We travelled north, heading through part of Nevada, Idaho, Wyoming and Montana, spending a day at Yellowstone National Park and one at Jackson Hole. We saw the Grand Tetons and visited Mount Rushmore as we trekked through South Dakota, then began heading southeasterly through Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri and Tennessee on our way back to Georgia. Our last stop was at the home of Andrew Jackson in Tennessee and we did make it home on the day we were supposed to.
Road trips have always been a part of my life, and they form many of my earliest memories. My grandparents never flew on a commercial airline anywhere, preferring to spend their traveling time on the much slower ground routes, and they enjoyed taking us all with them. I can’t imagine how much of his hard earned money he must have spent just to give us those memories and the memorable journeys getting there, yet he did so because he wanted us to have experiences that his own family could never have afforded to give him. He grew up hearing about an America that existed outside of his own small town in Georgia and he wanted to see it and experience it. He made sure we did too.
We grew up seeing parts of America that today only exist in memory, or which have been preserved as monuments to the past. Big comfy luxobarges gave way to packed up minivans, and family-owned restaurants surrendered to the inevitable march of the Cracker Barrels. Stuckey’s are fewer and farther between, although they are making a comeback today, while Quick Trips are everywhere. The journey, once looked forward to in anticipation, is now just a necessary hurdle one must get over to get to the actual destination, yet even today I still look forward to making those drives and getting the feel of the open road. It’s always thrilling just to be going somewhere.
One other thing I got from him was that I too prefer to start out as early as I possibly can, as there is something beautiful about seeing the sun come up while you are out on the road, traveling with the other early risers and truckers who are usually the only ones out that time of the morning. Road trips became a part of our history and our heritage, as cars became safer and more reliable and as good roads opened up whole parts of our country to the American motorist. I hope someday to take one more cross country trip and to hopefully recapture some of the wonder of seeing as many states as I can from behind the wheel of a motor vehicle…and hopefully to find a Stuckey’s or two and a pecan roll along the way.