I love road trips. Always have.

I guess that’s one more thing we can blame on my late parents. Many of my happiest memories from childhood revolve around the road trips my family took - not just the traditional summer vacations, but those unplanned, spur-of-the-moment treks we would make whenever Dad got the itch. 

One such voyage in particular stands out in my memory almost as if it happened yesterday. 

It was in the summer of 1969. Mom was still expecting my youngest brother, who wouldn’t arrive until that December, so there was just the four of us: Mom, Dad, younger brother Jimmy and Yours Truly, just a few weeks past my sixth birthday. Early one Saturday morning - I mean REALLY early, like maybe 1 a.m. or so - Dad roused us all out of bed with a simple “Let’s go!”

Next thing I knew we were piling into the family car - a 1968 Volkswagen camper van - and hitting the road, without a clue as to where we might end up.  Not even Dad, and it was his idea.

Roughly 24 hours later we pulled back into our driveway after a whirlwind round trip that had taken us from our home about an hour south of Chicago to just over the border into Canada, where we stopped for hamburgers and Cokes before heading back towards home. 

Yeah, I know. Seems like a long way to go just to grab a quick bite to eat. But, hey, that was Dad. 

Even when the vacations were planned, there was always an element of adventure involved. Dad was a big believer in the notion that the destination is only half the trip; it’s the sights and sounds and people and places you find along the way where the REAL adventure is to be found. Like the time our trip from Illinois to Oklahoma to visit Mom's family took us through Little Rock and Texarkana and spending a day at Six Flags Over Texas…

There was no such thing as a straight line from Point A to Point B when the Small Family went on vacation, no rigid schedules or bathroom breaks timed to the second. We pretty much made it up as we went, and had a ball doing it. 

It was precisely that spirit of adventure that I sought to continue years later, when I was the father driving my wife and sons hither and yon. And now that the boys are grown and getting on with their own lives, Melissa and I are starting to rediscover the joys to be found when it’s just the two of us hitting the road and making it up as we go. 

When I walked out of the Sentinel office a few weeks back to start our annual two-week vacation, we had no idea where we would be going or what we would be doing. Work had been so hectic for the both of us the previous few months that we really hadn’t been able to give it much thought. 

The only thing either of us knew for sure was that - after a year that had seen both of us contract COVID-19 and Melissa escape serious injury after being involved in a one-vehicle accident - we needed to get away and go somewhere. ANYwhere. Just to recharge our spiritual and emotional batteries and regain perhaps just the slightest trace of serenity. Heaven knows we certainly needed it...

So on the morning of Monday, July 12, we loaded up the car and set out for Tucson, Ariz. Why Tucson, you ask? Because we’d never been there before. Simple as that. 

For the record, it was Melissa’s idea. When I asked her if there was any place in particular she might want to visit this year, she said, “You know, it would be kind of neat to visit Arizona so I can get some nice cactus pictures.” 

Well, by golly, that was good enough for me. 

The first night on the road ended with an overnight stay in an Amarillo motel, and while there I touched base with a dear friend who had recently moved back to Colorado after living the past few years in Louisiana - and who said that as long as we were on the road in the first place, we were more than welcome to come up to Colorado Springs to visit him and his wife for a couple of days. 

So after a two-day sojourn in Tucson, that’s exactly what we did. Two glorious days in the shadow of Pike’s Peak, in the company of two of the extraordinarily special people in our lives, with nary a care in the world - aside, of course, from the realization that the respite would unfortunately be only a short one. 

But it was exactly the respite that we needed after the year that had preceded it. A good, old-fashioned Small Family vacation, completely made up as we went along. 

Dad would have loved it.

One of the things I’ve found so surprising over the years is the way some people always seem to react when they hear about our road trips. Typically that reaction goes something like this: “I don’t get it - why didn’t you just fly?” 

To which I typically respond by smiling and shaking my head and saying something like, “You’re right - you DON'T get it.” 

There’s something about the idea that “the destination is only half the trip” that some people these days just can’t seem to wrap their heads around. For them, traveling is just a matter of getting there and getting back. 

Which is all right for them, I suppose… but it sure doesn’t sound like very much fun to me. 

Flying to Canada or Seattle or Washington, D.C., or San Diego on our various vacations over the years would have gotten us to those locations faster - but it also would have robbed us of the joy of those unplanned side trips to places like Serpent Mound or Yellowstone, Natural Bridge or the Grand Canyon, Devil’s Tower or Navy Pier. Places we hadn’t really planned on visiting but found along the way and decided, “What the heck?” Sites that would not have meant nearly as much if simply viewed through the window of an airplane.

Sure, road trips can be exhausting - both physically and emotionally - and sometimes they can lead to frayed tempers. And of course, I’m not a young man anymore, so it takes a little longer to recuperate from long days on the road now than it used to. My legs tend not to bend as easily getting in and out of the car as they once did, for example.

But that’s okay; it’s still worth it. Because road trips like that can also be exhilarating and educational and can bring the family closer together, whether you’re traveling as part of a car load or just cruising along with your soul mate. 

Legs that are at once both stiff and wobbly from long hours in the car - and the occasional hassle making sure the motel reservation went through the way it was supposed to, because we’re a couple of aging Baby Boomers still trying to learn how to do such things on a cell phone - are ultimately a relatively small price to pay to be able to get out there and enjoy life with the people you love.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: You can have the friendly skies, thank you very much. I’ll take the open road any day. Can’t wait to get out there again. 

Willie Nelson and I have that much in common, at least…

(Column copyright © 2021 by John A. Small)