Growing up, our family spent many a July 4 on the road. Both of our parents were the grandchildren of Mormon immigrants and felt the pull of Rocky Mountain Zion. Boredom quickly descended upon my three siblings and me as we motored toward the promised land. The monotony was tinged with both guilt and relief as we contemplated the pioneers sluggishly pulling handcarts across the land that we were covering at 70 miles an hour.
My father’s ancestors made it to Utah in style aboard the Union Pacific, but that didn’t stop him from trying to match the ingenuity and ruggedness of the pioneers. We traveled with a big canvas tent strapped to the roof and a guide to KOA campgrounds in the glovebox. Dad believed in “manifold destiny,” broiling hot dogs and hamburgers on the scorching exhaust manifold of our Plymouth station wagon. After our lunch had cooked on the engine for half an hour, Dad would pull over, pop the hood, and gingerly pull the meat from the aluminum foil. We would feast in the shade of a corn field, washing it down with A&W root beer.
To pass the time, we would count cows or sing. At my mother’s request, we would start with church hymns. Before too long we would be belting out adulterated versions. It was probably to my mother’s relief when we would turn to the Beatles. But even “Rocky Raccoon” gets a little old by the time you reach the black mountain hills of Dakota. We tried a Doors medley once, but that did not go over well with our audience in the front seat.
When all else failed, we would drop
sandwich cookies (and anything else we could jettison) through a hole
in the floor of our car, watching them bounce down
Highway 50. For some reason, that activity always mesmerized. One year, we spent a good chunk of the trip supplementing an anthology of French fairy tales with uncouth and asinine marginalia. Now kids have video monitors in their cars. They can watch movies all day instead of staring out the window and watch America slowly transform from city to prairie to mountain. They don’t have to come up with a shaggy dog story for each town they pass. They have no idea that boredom is the true mother of invention.
Those trips were the fulfillment of an American dream made possible by the V-8 engine and cheap gasoline. America may be reaching the point at which a cash-strapped family cannot simply pile into a car and spend weeks on the road.
While it is logical to shed tears for the environmental destruction wrought by car culture, I am still grateful for my father’s automotive wanderlust, which drove us down the ribbon of highway to New Mexico’s diamond deserts, Nebraska’s waving wheat fields, and Montana’s icy mountains.
Now the glaciers that I hiked across as a teenager are melting. National parks are shrouded in smog. And family farms are long gone, replaced by agribusiness conglomerates, fattening Americans on high fructose corn syrup. Those trends were well underway back in the 1970s, but we were blissfully ignorant of them.
I miss that ignorance.