Days of Summer and The Open Road

This story was first published in the July 2010 issue of Ebony Magazine.

There was only one day during summer vacations in the mid-1960’s, that I was happy to wake up early. That was the day in August when Mom got us out of bed in the pre-dawn light for The Family Road Trip. My father loved the open road and exploring sights unseen. We all got to share in his adventures.

In the weeks before the journey Mom would sew summer outfits for us girls. The night before, we laid out our clothes and went to bed early, excitement making it hard to get to sleep. But we were up before the sun because Daddy wanted to hit the road before morning traffic. A quick breakfast, leave the dishes – we didn’t even have to make our beds. And then the car or camper or whatever we had that year, was loaded up, the windows open to the August dawn and we were off, leaving the south side of Chicago behind.

Mom was the navigator. Dad the driver. I was the youngest with two older sisters and our brother, the eldest. The Dan Ryan Expressway would be nearly empty, as if the road belonged only to us.

During my childhood we traveled east to Niagara Falls and the New York Expo and north to Montreal, Canada. But it is the trips out west that I remember most.

Such wide-open spaces and majestic peaks! Mt. Rushmore. The Painted Desert. The Grand Canyon. And finally California – Fisherman’s Wharf, my first time seeing the Pacific Ocean and tasting fresh shrimp cocktail. Then south to Disneyland, where us kids were left to ourselves, with bunches of tickets in hand, while our parents stayed at the camper for some peace and quiet to celebrate their anniversary.

Mom was always a great cook, but the meals when camping were beyond compare. Bacon and eggs just taste better when cooked outdoors. And at night, we’d eat by the light of kerosene lamps and play endless card games. Away from the city it was family time under western skies, desert breezes, crickets and coyotes, and the time my older sister tried to let the bear cub in the backseat of the car at Yellowstone National Park, which we always called Jellystone in honor of Yogi Bear.

But it was the open road, the seemingly never-ending ribbon of highway that stretched before us in the dawn, or the western setting sun, or driving toward a rain cloud on the horizon, cruising through the storm and leaving it behind into a burst of sunshine, or brilliant rainbows across a mountain waterfall.
We found adventure and peace in the national parks and the happiest place on earth, during a period when the country was going through upheaval and turmoil.

Thanks to my father’s sense of exploration he gave us the experience of the freedom offered by a full tank of gas, a map and the joy of the open road stretching out into the long horizon of a summer day.

posted by Valerie C. Woods
on August, 11