Don’t Make Me Pull Over!
CHAPTER 1 Swerving through the Seventies A Family Boldly Leaves Its Driveway
One winter evening in 1976, when I was seven years old, I went to sleep in my bed in Wisconsin and woke up in a snowdrift in Indiana. I had little idea how I’d gotten there.
I dimly recall my father’s arms cradling me as I looked up through eyelids heavy with sleep. I watched the white ceiling of the hallway turn into the shadowy pine rafters of our garage, then the fuzzy tan fabric of our family car’s interior. I remember being tossed across the laps of my older brothers in the backseat, a pillow pushed under my head, and a blanket thrown over my body. Then I drifted off again into blackness.
Next came a startled yelp. I opened my eyes to find myself tumbling in a blur of stuffed animals, eight-track tape cartridges, Styrofoam coffee cups, and issues of Dynamite magazine. I landed on the car’s floor with a thud, the round hump of the transmission housing pressed into my belly, my chin burning from sliding on the shag carpet.
I had no idea where we were. But I knew where we weren’t—anywhere near the sunny beach in Florida that I’d been listening to my mom tell us about for weeks. All I could surmise was that I
was in our car and it was cold and dark and eerily quiet. Even the engine was still. Finally, my dad’s voice cut the silence.
“Jeez, Louise! Everyone okay? Anyone hurt?” my dad asked, his head swiveling around from my mom and sister beside him in the front seat to my brothers and me in the rear.
“Wha-what happened?” my mom replied, dazed. Like me, she’d just been roused from a deep sleep to find herself on a whirling carnival ride.
“Whoa! We did at least three three-sixties!” gushed my thirteen-year-old brother, Bruce, a little too enthusiastically for the rest of us.
“The highway just became a hockey rink!” my dad explained. “Cars spinning everywhere! It’s a wonder we didn’t smack into anyone!”
My twelve-year-old sister, Leslie, who got motion sickness from riding escalators at the mall, didn’t say a word. She just stared straight ahead in her usual position between my parents in the front seat, trying not to barf all over the dashboard.
After counting heads to make sure none of us had been launched into orbit, my parents quickly assessed our situation. The car was upright, though pitched at an unnerving angle. Good. No one had any obvious fractures or gushing head wounds. Good. Not a single window showed a crack. Also good. The worst that could be said was that all of the loose contents inside our car—maps, Thermoses, shoes, me—were scattered about as though our vehicle had been picked up and shaken like a snow globe. But then that was how the inside of our car generally looked while on a road trip anyway. What was unusual was how dark it was. The only light inside our car streamed in shafts through gaps of thick snow caked on every window.
Dad turned the ignition key. To our surprise, the engine roared to life, pressing the windshield wipers suddenly back into action.
As they labored to push the clumps of snow aside, we got a better view of our predicament. Our car had come to rest well off the interstate, halfway down a broad slope that served as one side of a wide V-shaped highway median. Since I was only seven years old, I didn’t dwell on the delicate nature of our predicament; instead, I thought about what a great sledding hill this would make—had we been on Dad’s prized wood toboggan and not inside our 1975 Lincoln Continental Town Car. We weren’t alone. As far as we could see, ahead of us and behind, vehicles were scattered about the interstate like toy cars dropped by a cranky toddler.
Dad pulled his door handle, allowing a ferocious blast of frigid air to swirl inside. The door barely budged, blocked by a mound of thigh-high snow outside. Dad’s blood pressure instantly redlined. “Cripes Jiminy!” It was one of many colorfully benign phrases he kept ready to avoid blurting out a real ear burner in front of us kids. Others included: “Gee willikers!” “For crying out loud!” and his ever reliable go-to nonexpletive, “Criminently!” That they made no sense wasn’t important. It was enough that they kept him out of the doghouse with my mom and the Catholic Church.
Dad slammed the door back and forth against the snowdrift like a battering ram. This took no small effort. The door of a mid-seventies Lincoln was only a slightly smaller version of the one guarding the entrance to a NORAD command bunker. Eventually he cleared enough space to slip outside, and my mom turned off the engine.
“There’s no sense wasting gas,” she said. “We may be here a while, and we’ll need the heater.” My mother was nothing if not practical. “Now did any of you happen to pack candy bars or anything else to eat?”
We hadn’t been stuck in the ditch five minutes, and my mom was already formulating a rationing scheme to improve our
chances of survival. If raising four kids had taught her anything, it was to always prepare for the worst.
Mom and my brothers also began to piece together the morning’s events. As usual, we’d left our home in suburban Milwaukee hours before daybreak. Getting an early start was critical—we had to get through Chicago before rush hour or we’d lose two hours just crawling from one side of the city to the other. Dad’s strategy was to pack the car the day before our departure. Then, promptly at 3:00 a.m. the following morning, he’d storm through the house, flipping on lights and hollering orders like a drill sergeant at reveille. As the baby of the family, and the one most likely to cause a delay, I was simply scooped from my bed, still clutching my beloved blankey, and carried out. Dad would deposit me in the backseat, jump behind the wheel, and we’d be off in a cloud of leaded gas fumes. We’d be a hundred miles from home before any of us were really conscious enough to grasp what had happened.
However, that morning my oldest brother, fifteen-year-old Mark, had remained awake. He recounted for the rest of us how the miles had passed uneventfully at first and how we’d even made it through Chicago in record time. But as we crossed Illinois into Indiana, it had begun to snow, and the light flurry quickly whipped into a raging squall. As we reached an exposed stretch of interstate south of Gary, Indiana, whiteout conditions slowed traffic to a crawl—but not slow enough, it turned out. Whipping winds had polished the moist pavement into a sheet of black ice, and without warning, a car ahead of us went into a spin. Trying to avoid a collision, trailing drivers hit their brakes, sending them into swirls of their own. Almost miraculously, Mark continued, no vehicles collided. Instead, each found its way into the snowy sloping median on one side of the interstate or down the steep
embankment on the other. Of course, he couldn’t be sure. We’d been busy spiraling into a ditch of our own.
The driver’s door popped open, and my dad clamored inside, his face red with cold. “I talked to a trucker with a CB down the road. He said a fleet of wreckers are on the way. With any luck, we’ll be back on the road in a couple hours!”
So we waited. Six of us huddled in a jumbo road barge beached on a highway median waist deep with snow. We’d all just been nearly killed in a horrible crash in Nowhere, Indiana. We’d have to endure hours of delay before reaching our hotel (and its pool and game room) that evening. We had no smartphones, no DVD players, no iPods to keep us entertained. Those were all years, even decades, from invention. In our remote location, we couldn’t even find a radio station signal strong enough to get the local news. Really, we had nothing except each other.
Years later, we’d all agree it was the best start to a family road trip ever.
• • •
If there was ever a time Americans needed a vacation, it was the 1970s. Nearly everyone had a good reason to pack up their station wagon or VW minibus and leave it all behind.
The gloomy conclusion to the war in Vietnam had sent morale plummeting, while race riots taking place across the country kept tensions high. Unemployment and inflation skyrocketed and remained elevated so long that economists had to coin a whole new term for the phenomenon: stagflation. All the term really meant was that although the seventies also gave us great new things like backyard hot tubs, home VCRs, and countertop microwave ovens, fewer people could afford them. The pressure of making ends meet also helped push the traditional nuclear family
into meltdown. The number of divorces filed in 1975 doubled that of a decade earlier. Couples who did stay together had fewer children. The U.S. birthrate plunged to its lowest level since the Great Depression—half that of the baby boom years. Even the government appeared to be falling apart. Just years into the decade, first a vice president and then a president were forced to resign amid allegations of corruption—and hardly anyone placed much faith in the officials who remained.
Not even a night at the movies offered much escape. In keeping with the sour mood, many popular movies of the seventies centered on disasters, demons, and dark conspiracies. Audiences were trapped in The Towering Inferno or booked on a doomed flight in any of three Airport movies. If you avoided being swallowed up by the ground in an Earthquake, you might be devoured by the Jaws of a great white shark. The Exorcist offered a hell of a fright. And if the devil didn’t get you, the government would, even if it took All the President’s Men. If you somehow managed to avoid all that, you could still be subjected to Linda Blair shaking her booty in Roller Boogie. It’s hard to say which fate was most horrifying.
Things got so bad that Americans tried just about anything to find relief, from joining the Moonies (a controversial religious movement blending teachings of many faiths nicknamed for its founder, Sun Myung Moon) to disco dancing to learning to macramé. They were desperate times indeed.
All things considered, it isn’t surprising that many people, including my parents, decided the best plan was simply to sit out as much of the seventies as possible at some distant beach, historic battlefield, or theme park. Anywhere but home.
Despite the flagging economy, Americans continued taking vacations throughout the seventies in record numbers, just as
they had since the close of World War II. Thanks to two decades of prosperity, increasingly generous terms of employment, and broader acceptance of the benefits of taking time off from work, more Americans than ever before were able to escape the daily grind, if only for a couple of weeks each year. In fact, 80 percent of working Americans took vacations in 1970, compared to just 60 percent two decades earlier. As a result, attendance at national parks, historic sites, and other attractions surged 20 to 30 percent every year until 1976. Only then did the decade’s second major fuel crisis force many families to pull the plug on their trip to see Old Faithful or halt their march to the Gettysburg Battlefield.
To reach these far-off places, my family, like most others, traveled by car. It wasn’t that we enjoyed spending endless hours imprisoned together in a velour-upholstered cell, squabbling over radio stations and inhaling each other’s farts. It was that we had no other choice.
Air travel had always been too expensive for anyone not named Rockefeller or traveling on the company dime, much less a pair of middle-class parents taking four kids to the beach. Adjusted for inflation, a domestic plane ticket in the seventies cost two to three times the price of the same ticket today. Given the cost, it shouldn’t be too surprising—and yet still is—that as late as 1975, four in five Americans had never traveled by plane. Not for a weekend getaway to Las Vegas, not to head off to college, not for a once-in-a-lifetime honeymoon in Paris. Never.
Although ordinary Joes couldn’t afford a plane ticket, nearly every family could afford a car, often two. If there was one thing America was very good at, it was producing automobiles. Following World War II, American car factories needed only to do some quick retooling to go from churning out airplanes and tanks to cranking out cars faster than ever. And thanks to a booming
economy, Americans could afford to buy all those shiny new cars as fast as they rolled off assembly lines. By 1972, the number of cars on the nation’s roads exceeded the number of licensed drivers (inviting the troubling thought that many cars were simply driving themselves around). What’s more, Americans loved to get behind the wheel. During the 1970s alone, Americans logged 14.4 trillion highway miles—enough to travel from Earth to Pluto and back 2,500 times. To be sure, most travelers selected closer destinations, as there are so few decent hotel options along that route even today.
My family alone was responsible for approximately 1 trillion of the miles logged by travelers in the seventies. At least that’s how it seemed to me: as the youngest of four kids, I was the one relegated to the backseat, rear window shelf, or rear cargo compartment of a series of fine American automobiles purchased by my father over the course of the decade. Together, we toured the country (well, half of it, anyway—we rarely traveled west of the Mississippi) in week-long journeys taken two and sometimes three times a year.
We were hardly pioneers, of course. By the time we got rolling on our family road trips, Americans had already been beating a well-worn path to the Grand Canyon and sunny beaches of Florida for more than half a century. But for much of that time and in many areas of the country, the routes those motorists took were often little more than dirt tracks. Even in populated areas, drivers often had to pick their way through a confusing maze of privately owned turnpikes and poorly constructed two-lane highways built simply to connect one town to the next.
It wasn’t until well after World War II that America got serious about making long-distance road travel fast, safe, and convenient. That’s when the country began rolling out the first of its mighty
interstates, the so-called superhighways. The interstates were marvels of a modern era, unlike any roads Americans had traveled before. These high-speed highways weren’t narrow and hemmed in by trees and tall buildings. They were wide and broad-shouldered, with huge swaths cleared on both sides to invite in sunshine and blue sky. What’s more, they were elevated well above the surrounding terrain, affording drivers and passengers a panoramic view of the landscape. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the interstates was the way they instantly made the country seem so much smaller. Suddenly it was possible to travel from one state to the next and even one coast to the other in a fraction of the time it once took. Places many Americans could once only read about in newspapers or see pictures of in magazines were now all within reach, given a reliable car and enough cash for fuel. What’s more, the whole family could come along. In an automobile, four or five people could travel nearly as cheaply as one.
Making things even nicer for my family, many of the interstates had been around long enough by the 1970s for an ample number of restaurants, gas stations, motels, and other conveniences to sprout up along their sides. By and large, we could count on exits with such services at regular intervals, allowing us the opportunity to fill our tank, grab a bite to eat, or rush in to take a quick potty as needed. At the time, my siblings and I took all of these things for granted. It seemed like they’d been around forever. Of course, we were young. Compared to us, it all had been around forever. The reality couldn’t have been further from the truth.
Like any destination worth reaching, it took considerable time and effort to make everything that went into those great road trips possible. It took the relentless determination of a long list of pioneers to plan and build the roads, highways, and interstates that allowed my family—and maybe yours too—to motor across
the expanse of our country and go anywhere we pleased. It took the raw courage of a handful of daredevils to blaze the trails those road builders would follow. And it took the boundless ingenuity and quirky ideas of a long list of clever innovators and dogged entrepreneurs to create what we remember and think of today as the Great American Road Trip experience.
After all, somebody had to be crazy enough to be the first to try to drive a car across the country. Somebody had to chart the first road maps, open the first motel chains, and cut the first drive-through window into the side of a hamburger joint. Somebody had to come up with nifty gadgets like the police radar gun (boo!), the Fuzzbuster (yay!), the CB, cruise control, and the eight-track tape deck. Somebody had to decide it was just fine for precocious seven-year-olds like me to roam around the car—and even sprawl out across the rear window shelf—completely unrestrained. Somebody had to create the first station wagon; then somebody else had to come along years later, look at a perfectly fine brand-new design, and say, “You know what that model needs? Some fake wood paneling on the sides!”
So who were these somebodies? Where did they find the inspiration for all these ideas? How did everything we remember and love about those great road trips come to be? And why don’t many families seem to take those long road trips together anymore?
Make yourself comfy. We’ve got some serious ground to cover along the seldom-traveled back roads of America’s history. Fascinating stories await.