It’s Friday afternoon in Atlanta, and despite our best efforts to avoid traffic, here we sit. I’m in the back seat while my 83-year-old father drives and my 80-year-old mother navigates. I haven’t been in this situation in close to half a century. My father (aka Daddy) inches up closer to the car in front of him, much too quickly in my opinion. I stomp my foot on the back floorboard as if I could stop the car on his behalf.
“Whoa, Daddy, could we stop a little sooner and allow more space?” I nervously ask.
“He’s fine and you’re going to drive us nutty with this,” replies my mother (aka Mama).
And just like that, I’m 14 again.
This unplanned road trip with my parents started as a rescue mission after my flight from Atlanta to New York was canceled. As a 61-year-old frequent traveler, I know how to deal with flight delays and cancellations but in this instance, after roughly three weeks of travel, all I wanted was to board my plane and go home. A ground stop at LaGuardia Airport led to the flight cancellation, and the earliest possible rebooking wasn’t until three days later. I begrudgingly left the airport and checked in to a nearby hotel feeling exhausted and defeated.
I woke up the next morning to a call from my parents. “We’ve decided it’s time for us to take a little road trip, and we think you should join us,” Mama said. They offered to drive south from Chattanooga, Tennessee, into the nightmare traffic that surrounds Atlanta, take me back to their house for the night and then make our way north to Virginia. My husband, Greg, planned to drive south to a meeting point and bring me the rest of the way home to New York City.
So, on this Friday afternoon in the summer, although the drive between their home in Chattanooga and Atlanta should take about two hours, the highways are packed with stop-and-go traffic. I know driving into this mess isn’t easy for them, so I decide I should keep my well-meaning back-seat driving suggestions to myself — even if that means repeatedly biting my tongue.
A few harrowing hours later, we made it to Chattanooga and began preparations for the second leg of the rescue mission. Watching Mama pull everything together, I noticed how many things remained consistent with the road trips of my youth. A cooler was packed with snacks and the hard plastic green Esso gas station beverage cups with a white band at the top that my parents collected with each fill-up in the 1970s. Mentally packed for the journey were years of road-trip memories to chat about along the way.
Throughout my childhood, summer vacations typically included a road trip. Sometimes we traveled from our home in Florida to visit grandparents in North Georgia and Tennessee. Other years, we journeyed across the country for a week or two.
In the early 1970s, when customized vans were all the rage, Daddy — a devout do-it-yourself type of guy — insisted on creating his own version. He bought a white cargo van void of windows except for the windshield and two side windows for the driver and front-seat passenger. He decked it out in true 1970s style with shag carpeting. He also built a bench for the back that would double as a sleeping bunk for my younger brother, then added beanbag chairs for seating. When the customization was complete, we took our stylish ride on the road.
My Uncle Jim, Aunt Barbara and cousin Jana joined us for many of our adventures. All seven of us crammed into the van and gallivanted across the country visiting iconic sites like Mount Rushmore and South Dakota’s Corn Palace — because, if you’re traveling in a self-customized cargo van, a stop at a building decorated with thousands of corn cobs surely must be on the itinerary.
Another summer, we ventured to New England with a brief drive through New York City. We lined the beanbag chairs up behind the van’s front seats, straining to see the bright lights of Broadway through our limited windows. The Statue of Liberty was viewed in the same fashion — a brief glimpse of Lady Liberty to check it off the must-see list.
In Vermont, my Uncle Jim was so excited about the maple syrup he bought at a local general store that he woke everyone up at 4 a.m. for pancakes. We left immediately after breakfast to search for covered bridges despite sunrise being an hour or two away. As a result, the first covered bridges I saw were viewed in the dark.
Uncle Jim wasn’t the only one who believed in getting things going early in the morning. Daddy once opened the hotel room curtains at 4:30 a.m. in Arizona at the first sign of daylight, rousing us from our slumber to get on the road although we had no particular place to be. So, you can imagine my surprise when no one suggested we leave Chattanooga before daylight to make our way north.
In addition to a reasonable start time, this trip included other welcome upgrades. Daddy has always done most of the driving and Mama has been the navigator. At least now she has a place in the front seat instead of calling the shots from her beanbag perch in the old van. Google Maps on her iPhone takes the place of the folded paper road maps she previously used. I also enjoyed having actual windows to view the world around me. And let’s not forget seat belts — a notably absent safety feature in that 1970s van.
Mama’s role has also clearly expanded beyond navigation these days. She now serves as a second set of eyes assisting with left and right turns and providing special guidance for traffic circles. My parents always believed in getting things done and never turning back. That philosophy extends to driving. When we missed the correct exit in a traffic circle, she rerouted us along another road. Turning around just isn’t part of their DNA.
As we drove along, I commented that restroom breaks are certainly more frequent than they were in my childhood days. Growing up, Daddy’s typical response to a request for a bathroom break was “I’m making good time. You can hold it.” Maybe I could hold it then, but probably not now, so I was thrilled that “making good time” no longer matters.
When they were younger, the speed at which my parents moved amazed everyone. On a cross-country road trip to move my daughter from San Diego to Orlando, Florida, my parents drove their pickup truck with a camper top to transport her furniture while we followed in her car. With every stop, they managed to get back in their vehicle and start driving away before we made it to the car. No matter how hard we tried, we couldn’t beat them. Now those speedy exits and entrances have slowed a bit. The stiffness from sitting in one place for hours requires a few minutes to loosen up. Maybe I could win that race today, but I wouldn’t bet on it.
While I did my best to keep those back-seat driving suggestions to myself, one moment almost sent me over the edge. Returning to the interstate after a break, Daddy mistakenly drove into the center lane at a stoplight instead of the left turn lane where he needed to be to get on the entrance ramp. Rather than drive to the next stoplight and make a U-turn like every other driver on the planet would do, he turned left in front of a massive tractor trailer and beat him onto the entrance ramp. “Daddy, what are you doing?” I exclaimed as my life flashed before my eyes. “I’m getting us back on the interstate,” he replied. “The truck driver didn’t mind.” No one ever accused Daddy of not having a plan.
Our time on the road that day spanned about nine hours, driving from Chattanooga to my husband in Winchester, Va. As we reminisced about our years of road-trip travel, I realized I never fully appreciated the importance of those adventures. Like most kids, I occasionally whined and asked, “Are we there yet?” I often thought my parents were taking me away from my friends for too long in the summer — because as a young teenager, two weeks can seem like an eternity. I never imagined how those experiences would shape my future and become the catalyst for the wanderlust that guides my life today.
While I’ll never be a fan of canceled flights, I’m counting that fateful cancellation in Atlanta as a win. Maybe I needed to be reminded that no matter my current age, I’m never too old to be rescued by my parents. Perhaps I also needed those hours in the back seat to reconnect with my road-trip roots in an experience I never expected to have with my parents again. I know one thing; I’ll treasure that day for years to come.
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