In the 1960s, cross-country road trips looked different than they do today. Kids bounced unrestrained in the backseat; Coca-Cola and fries were consumed without fear of caffeine and cholesterol. With no air-conditioning, a strong wind relentlessly blasted through the car, bringing with it the smell of backyard barbecues and pig farms. Compare that with today's sanitary road trip. It's the difference between the Flintstones and Jetsons.
At least on the surface. In the drama of long family car trips, the scenery changes generation to generation but the characters are the same. Here's what I mean:
I was the little kid back then, not old enough to care about the geography or geology lessons my parents tried to push on me and my two older sisters. The lessons went right over my head, or so it seemed at the time. Relentlessly clever, Dad subtly engaged me in learning.
For example, as we drove through a cut in the road, I'd hear him say, "Look at how there are lines in the rocks. It's called strata and that was layers of sand or mud millions of years ago." It didn't mean a thing to me. But when we stopped for a picnic lunch at a state park, there was (miraculously) a wall of strata. I remember digging at the layers of rock and discovering a fossil. Whether it really was one or not, it didn't matter. Back at school, I told the class about the strata and how fossils are formed.
Even tourist traps became learning opportunities. Out west, we stopped in some tacky shops. I loved the one at Pikes Peak: it had jewelry made of copper nuggets, coon skin hats with the tail hanging down the back and the first kaleidoscope that I'd ever seen. Each item became a lesson, a subtle education in geology, history or physics.
Years later, I was the parent trying to instill knowledge in my children during endless road trips. The constant barrage of "Are we there yet?" and "Can we watch another video?" convinced me that I didn't have that same magic possessed by my Dad. I just didn't know how to engage my kids in the finer points of rock formation. Or the Civil War. Or museums about anything. The usual response to my words of wisdom was a blank stare from the back seat.
Every trip was the same. I did try to make it fun: "Hey, did you know that Stonewall Jackson is buried over there but his arm is buried miles away? And it has its own headstone!" Ever hopeful that a fact this weird would elicit some dialogue, it rarely did. All I got was that stare.
I felt that I never could break through. Then my kids grew up. As adults, they finally gave me the reward that I'd always sought. "Remember when we were on that trip to Disney and you told us about the salt marshes in Georgia? You told us that slaves worked in the rice fields there. We could see it from the interstate. After that, I was really interested in learning more about the Civil War." Or "I loved going to Mount Vernon and seeing where George Washington lived. In fact, I always loved going to all those historical places." I never knew. They never let on.
So I'm the one who learned a lesson: Kids are good at hiding enthusiasm about learning. At least my kids were and, apparently, so was I as a child. But even as they rolled their eyes and objected to spending an hour in a museum, something was sinking in. You never know what will set off a spark. As a parent, it is our duty to keep trying.
Another important message - and this one I picked up from Dad during our cross-country vacations - is the difference between the words "to" and "through." We were driving "to" California from Pittsburgh but we were driving "through" Illinois where Abraham Lincoln started his political career. We drove "through" Iowa, a state that supplied much of our corn (and the Karo syrup I loved on pancakes). In eighth grade, I knew Pierre was the capital of South Dakota, not because I memorized it in school but because I was there. And I ate a buffalo burger in a local diner.
A clever parent can apply the same principle along any route. It takes some research and planning but the deposits in your child's memory bank are priceless.
My story doesn't end there. Now there is a grandchild. At age 6, she already has her nose in electronics, chats away on the cell phone and feigns distain for anything other than Princesses, Fairies and Unicorns. But now I know better.
- Barbara Barnes is the author of "What's Great About I-95: Maine to Florida, a unique guide to the fascinating things that lie along this busy interstate." For more information, visit www.interestinginterstates.com.