Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Life is a Road Trip

The first road trip I remember was 1972, the fall of my junior year in college. I drove from Kingston RI to the Hartford CN area to visit my neighbor, Bobby, who was playing in a varsity football game. I went up Saturday morning and went back Sunday afternoon, an hour and a half each way. Hmmm, can a trip that short really be called a road trip?

The next year I drove my grandparents to Framingham MA and back to Snug Harbor RI. Again, that was 90 minutes each way. Just doesn't seem long enough. In grade school we took frequent bus rides for field trips: to Plymouth Plantations, to Mystic Village, to Sturbridge Village, to the Boston area for the Science Museum and other sites. Somehow, those just don't seem like road trips when you're riding on the bus. Even the longer ones in high school, such as to the Stratford Shakespeare theatre, or band concerts in Marblehead MA, Stony Brook NY, and even Montreal in Canada. I suppose they were road trips, but not being in a car, and being surrounded by fellow students, they didn't feel so.

Those few family vacations before Mom got real sick probably qualify. There was New Hampshire in 1960, and New Jersey a couple of times in the 1950s. But I was too young to remember most of those very well. Someday, however, I'll put the few memories about them on paper.

No, my first road trip was in 1974, specifically beginning June 10. Everything was loaded into my 1966 Plymouth Valient, with it's slant six engine. Well, everything except two boxes of books, which I couldn't fit. At 7:00 AM I said goodbye to Dad and headed west. Destination: Kansas City. Since I didn't know how long I could drive in a day, I gave myself a week to make the trip. Could I drive four hours a day? Or maybe five? Eight would be wonderful. That would put me in KC in perhaps just four days (55 mph national speed limit back then).

Once I passed New Haven I was in new territory, since the only previous times I'd been that far west I was too young to remember or was on a bus and not paying that much attention. I stopped for gas somewhere east of New York City, then veered off to the north and took the Tappen Zee Bridge bypass, my radio tuned to 880 AM to listen for traffic reports. My tank full, my eyes fliting between the road and the wonders I was driving through, my ears listening to what was happening on the West Side Drive and the Major Degan Expressway, I kept going.

The Garden State Parkway gave way to I-80. Two hours across the Garden State took me to the Delaware Water Gap and I passed into Pennsylvania. It was around noon, or maybe a little later. I was as wide awake as I could be. Trying to keep it around 60 mph, the engine temerature gauge on the Valient kept telling me that was a little too fast. It liked it much better when I kept it at 55. So I bumped back and forth between those two, and kept heading west.

At some point I stopped for lunch at a Howard Johnson restaurant. I don't remember where this was, but I might be able to find out. I had a bunch of postcards (the blank ones, not the picture kind) pre-addressed to my dad. I think I filled one out and dropped it in the mail. Dad kept those postcards, and I now have them in a box somewhere. This was in central Pennsylvannia, probably east of the north-south centroid. The scenery was wonderful. Mountains everywhere. Broad rivers to cross with expensive bridges. Trees everywhere—none of the urban clutter that marked New England. I had a leisurely lunch, and headed west.

Around 6 PM I was at Youngstown OH. A Ramada Inn beckoned at a convenient exit. I figured I'd better stop for the night, but I wasn't tired. I was still excited by all the stimuli around me. I went in to the Ramada and learned they had another one in Mansfield OH, a couple of hours down the road. So I hopped back in the Valient and continued toward the sinking sun. Sunset was still a couple of hours away.


Gary said...

I left for Ithaca a month and a half later. 350 miles in my Rambler American. Missed an exit about 50 miles from my destination and nearly got stuck on narrow unpaved road trying to cut back to my planned route. Always hated backtracking but loved those early road trips.

David A. Todd said...

That was a relative shorty, Gary. Still, a solitary road trip is something special. I'm sure not everyone enjoys them. My brother-in-law, a single man, doesn't. But for me there are few things better in this world than a man, his vehicle, and the open road.

Gary said...

Short, yes, but first on my own. My family was doing three-day trips to Florida before there was a Rt-95. Not fun at six years old.

David A. Todd said...

Yes, those three days would have been tough at 6 years of age. Our trips to New Jersey (Camden area) in the early fifties were day trips.