I didn't learn much about vacations when growing up in the '50s and '60s, as my family didn't much believe in them. Airfare was expensive, and we almost never drove away from metropolitan Boston. I thought the constellations pictured in the encyclopedia were imaginary, like Greek mythology, because city lights kept the sky from getting dark enough to see more than a few stars.
One reason we didn't travel was that we had no pressing reason to journey afar. All the relatives lived within a few miles of each other. To see the ocean, we could go to nearby Revere Beach (although I had to wear sneakers in the water because of broken glass). To see a Major League Baseball game, I could take the subway to Fenway Park, the best ballyard in the country.
But I wanted to see the whole country, and my first great trip was by bicycle, coast to coast, right after graduating from college. Snowcapped mountains and constellations really existed, and both my body and my character were stronger by journey's end. When I started having children six years later, I wanted to give them what I hadn't had: Lots of long trips (although by car rather than by bicycle) and lots of character-building. And of course, like all overambitious fathers, I made tons of mistakes.
Here are a few lessons learned; I'll list them without reporting the specific, sometimes painful detail that taught me them. Children, like armies, travel on their stomachs. The best time to teach patience and perseverance is not when kids are hungry, the temperature is 100 degrees and the place where we'll eat lunch is a long walk away. When visiting a zoo, do not think you are on a research expedition and must see every animal. After spending big bucks for some tourist trap or theme park, do not think that getting your money's worth means having to stay to the point where kids start getting hot and whiny.
The positives, however, vastly outweighed those negatives. When taking long car trips, we'd typically start at 4 a.m. The kids with their pillows would sleep in the back, waking up to Beethoven's Ode to Joy just as the sun was coming up. We'd have Pop Tarts for the kids to eat in the car for first breakfast, before stopping a couple of hours later for a real breakfast -- milk and cereal on the hood of the car when we were poor, restaurant meals later. No Gameboys allowed; we'd play alphabet games and others relying on observation, recognizing that a benefit of car travel is gaining a sense of what's going on outside the window. Baseball cards every hour as rewards for good conduct helped.
Simple pleasures were the best. Playing tortoise-and-hare on the grounds of Duke University. Catching crayfish at a battlefield in Tennessee. Spotting turtles along the Natchez Trace Parkway in Mississippi. Canoeing in Oregon or throwing snowballs in June in Colorado mountains. Finding what we believed were perfect hamburgers in a little town in Oklahoma. Singing along with a Bob Dylan tape as we drove across Texas. All our children have turned out to be terrific travelers: They developed a sense that it's worth waiting through occasional frustrations, because interesting things are coming. (That's a good lesson for life generally.)
The tendency this summer, with low Saturday-night-stay airfares and high gasoline prices, will be to go by plane rather than car, but something's lost by getting to destinations quickly. Long-distance auto travel can be great, and economical for big families, as long as parents can answer two vital questions: Are you going this way only because you can't afford going some other way? Do you think the trip is something to be endured, or is car travel an important and enjoyable part of the vacation itself? Your attitude, and the way you back up that attitude with kind words and small incentives, is crucial.