I love the outdoors, but I would not consider myself an avid “outdoorsman”. I would definitely not do well in the wild. If “Oregon Trail” was real, I’d be that useless member of the family who comes down with dysentery the day after leaving St. Louis and dies the next day. Nevertheless, as you could tell from the beginning of my blog, I was a guy who grew up in the 80s. And that means I’m a bit more “thick-skinned” and “manly” than most young people in one regard.
For one thing, I can take a real “Road Trip”.
People nowadays have no idea how to take a real “Road Trip”. Information has grown far too proliferated and the country is more interconnected than ever. Granted, even in the 1980s, we had far more comforts and advantages than our parents before us, with such things like Interstates and air conditioning and unleaded gasoline. But that doesn’t mean that our lives weren’t in far more peril in the 80s than the youth of today has it.
Still, I’d hate to be my grandparents. How bad did they have it? Look no further than the dashboard of their cars. They always came with a compass. That’s right…navigation was so bad back in their day that you were supposed to eschew maps and plan your route the same way a sailor at sea might. Pretty heavy. Especially since they would go on state highways through rural districts which turned pitch black for miles at night and the only link to the outside world that told you that you hadn’t slipped into a black, empty dimension was whatever deranged man was on the one, operational, AM radio station. I’m surprised anyone made it out of the 1950s alive. But like I said…I didn’t exactly have a picnic myself.
The actual road trip itself, if it was for any duration such as a one-to-two week vacation, had to be handled with the same degree of foresight, map plotting, and preparation as an expedition to the North Pole. We didn’t have the Internet back then. Hell, we didn’t even have cell phones. The first cell phone my dad owned required five minutes of set-up time within the vehicle and fit in a case that would contain multiple modern Apple laptops, but we didn’t have that until the 90s. There’s a reason travel agents used to be a lot bigger…they were the ones who had the information necessary to avoid randomly wandering like a lost idiot into the Pacific Ocean, the town run by the Children of the Corn, the gates of Hell, or, worst of all, Wall, South Dakota. But if you didn’t have a whole lot of income for plane tickets or a travel agent, all the grunt work had to be done yourself. And it would usually need to start anywhere from a year to eighteen months in advance.
HOW TO PLAN A ROAD TRIP IN THE ’80s:
Step 1: Buy the most current US Atlas and individual state maps you can. They need to be current. Ideally, you would need an updated version made and released on the same day you were taking the trip, but you’ll probably have to settle for ones six months out of date.
Step 2: Get our the magnifying glass and start meticulously tracing roads that hopefully eventually lead to your destination. Hopefully your destination is one on a state highway or Interstate. If not…may God have mercy on your soul. Naturally, if you pick the wrong path like one of those kids going through a maze puzzle, you need to start over. It may take you a couple days to find the right route.
Step 3: You know those little numbers between the dots on a map? They’re the only way you can calculate mileage. Oh sure, the atlas would give you the pre-calculated distances between major cities, but odds are you weren’t from one. If you were, odds are you weren’t going to one as well. If you were, odds are you weren’t doing it in one day. So you’d get yourself a pad of paper and a calculator and count out the distances to get the mileage. You’d need whatever family members were good at math for this part because, just like the papacy vote, it requires multiple counts to be confirmed as well as to be collaborated by independent sources.
Step 4: Take a good, long, hard look at your car, it’s mileage, its space, and the average MPG you think it gets…and then forget all of that because you’ll probably rent something a lot bigger and more reliable. After crossing your fingers and hoping it’s not a piece of junk, you decide based on the agreed-upon mileage (which, I assure you, will have an error margin of at least 5% you’ll need to factor in), how far you can go each day.
Step 5: Look at your map and try to find a big dot (representing a big city) near how far you plan to drive each day. Naturally, you need a big dot, because that’s a bigger likelihood that there’s human civilization there. A big dot means a “Holiday Inn” and a “Best Western”. A small dot means you may find two shacks and a man wielding a chainsaw with a cured human skin for a facemask running the local hostel.
Step 6: Now we enter the “phone phase”. First you call the operator to connect you to the Chamber of Commerce of each of those cities. This was back when if you spent an hour making a long distance call, you better have a first-born child you’re not doing anything with to hand over to the phone company. You needed to keep calls as brief as possible. So, while running a clock, you would quickly get the names and phone numbers of every motel you could find in those towns and write them down. After that, you would start calling them one by one requesting a room for your family on that day. While you’re at it, you made sure to ask for directions from the road you’re taking and wrote those down too, because in the 80s everyone made sure to build their motels in the most obscure places they could find so they were not in any way, shape, or form visible from the highway.
Step 7: Repeat Steps 4 through 6 as necessary. And trust me, you WOULD repeat steps 4 through 6. That’s because one of the towns on your route either has no motels or a conference or a festival, or the room you want is available the day before or the day after, or construction has isolated that city from the rest of the United States of America, and you need to replan how far you can go and where you’re willing to stop. You would eventually make compromises, like you, your spouse, and your four children will just have to share a queen some night. Often you’ll stay at the chains. I have no idea how many Holiday Inns and Best Westerns I stayed in, but the fact that they were ubiquitous and cheap was definitely a high factor. At least with them, you knew (or at least anticipated) what you were getting. You took your chances with anyone else. The motel might end up being classy and comfortable, or it might end up being run by a creepy guy named Norman who gets yelled at by his mother a lot. But at any rate, you’ll eventually have your route and your stops planned out. Now comes step 8, the final and most important part.
Step 8: PRAY TO GOD. Various things you would pray for would include that none of the routes you planned were under construction or being resurfaced, that the motels didn’t burn down or get infested with lice, that you would be able to meet your schedule and get to your stopover before 4 AM, that you could find your destination within thirty minutes of arrival at your stopover town, that the room hadn’t been rented out due to a dim-witted employee not really paying attention when they booked your room, that your room really was what the hotel claimed it would be (i.e. two queen sized beds and a rollaway instead of a single in a closet), that everything in your room would be in order so you wouldn’t have to sleep with no AC in August, that there weren’t too many bodily fluids staining the walls and carpet, etc. It probably wouldn’t hurt to offer a young unblemished ram in sacrifice as well (see the Book of Leviticus for details).
So, by the time you have this done, your trip is planned. Now comes the next part of the trip: getting your stuff together in preparation for the many hours you will spend in the car. Not as easy as it sounds in the 80s. You’d be lucky to own a couple of Tiger Electronic games that you could beat in ten minutes. There’s only one functional tape player in the car…perhaps two if your family could afford a Walkman. (You definitely didn’t have a portable CD player until well into the 90s, because all the ones you could get at first skipped whenever the car rolled over a sheet of paper on the road.) Plus, your car is pretty much your personal island. Your mobile fortress. Your Biosphere. You have to be able to operate completely out of it because it’s the only real contact you have with human civilization in some parts along the road. You need to prepare for the same level of contingencies as a NASA Lunar Mission will, because everything you need to solve a problem must be inside the car. So, logically, there’s only one place to start.
Buy a gun.
I’m kidding, of course. (No I’m not.) You’ll need your standard car service package. Full-sized spare that works and jumper cables. Perhaps you’ll need fuses and spark plugs too. A patching kit couldn’t hurt since you may not be able to get to a mechanic. You’ll probably need ways to signal for help, so you could use some road flares. Depending on where you’re going in the country, you may need your tires swapped out or even to bring some chains. Sand wouldn’t hurt to get you out of a mud hole. Also some oil and radiator fluid. I could go on. Ideally a full-service mechanic with tow truck will follow you every step of the way, but since that’s not realistic do the best you can.
If it’s winter, you need ways to keep warm (i.e. blankets, coats, etc.). If it’s summer, you need ways to keep cool (i.e. cooler with ice, water, etc.). You’ll probably also need a poncho in case you have to wander outside to look your car over. Maybe some boots for the job too. Oh, and a standard medicine cabinet. A first-aid kid won’t cut it. In a perfect world, you’d be bringing everything from vials of antibiotics to a healthy supply of your family’s blood type for whenever someone gets sick on the road. You’ll probably have to make do with over-the-counter stuff, however. In addition to Aspirin, Tylenol, Pepto Bismal, and whatever over-the-counter medicine wouldn’t kill your children (this is the 80s, after all…children brands of medicine hadn’t been invented yet), you’ll probably need some trucker-grade No-Doze. You’ll find yourself driving in the middle of the night at some point, and you need to be ready.
Food and drinks are also important. How many and what kind? Think standard emergency rations for a military protocol: enough to keep the crew (and by crew I mean you and your family) alive for a week. Probably more than that. Eating is going to be one of your favorite pasttimes on the road trip. It will probably be your only pasttime in many cases. That brings to the next category…
This group of items are things to help you maintain your sanity. This is the era before cell phones, texting, Game Boys (the original VHS-sized one, mind you), or good selections of radio stations. So what do you do? You can bring cassette tapes, for one. But this is the 80s. While you’re listening to Michael Jackson and Cyndi Lauper, your parents are listening to The Flying Burrito Brothers and The Eagles. And the cardinal rule of the road trip applies: “ye who driveth the car controllth the radio/tape deckith”. And if you’re the standard family with 2.5 children, you’ve got to share the sole Walkman…and your half a sibling gets a full turn. What’s up with that? In addition, your Walkman’s standard battery life was all of about two hours. So you’d burn through batteries along the way, and you’d eventually run out. Considering the fact that your family might end up being desperate enough to turn on whatever insanity is on the local AM station of wherever you’re driving, this is serious business. You might go mad.
Books are a good bet if you’re an adult. Magazines will serve the same purpose. Probably not for children, though. Their average book takes 5 minutes to read, which is 13 seconds in “Road Trip Time”; while your trip for the day takes 12 hours, which is 17,025 years in “Road Trip Time”. (It further doesn’t help that your kids will start complaining about wanting to be at the destination while you’re still loading up last minute items in the driveway of your home.) Furthermore, certain children at certain points of their life will become carsick to the point of vomitting if they read so much as the word “an” on a piece of paper, so reading isn’t good for them.
That means, for the kids, your only solution is to give your kid as many games as possible. Coloring books, road games, highway bingo, heck…possibly full sized board games (as, once again, this is the 80s and no one has made the travel version yet…and so long as you’re using a van large enough to fit your extended family you might as well use it). Anything it takes to keep your children from saying the dreaded: “I’m boooooooored.”
That’s also why you would count on eating lots of McDonald’s en route to your destination. In addition to the standard reasons of why you bet on McDonald’s (ubiquitous and you know what you’re getting), as well as the fact that the chain restaurant was one of the first to plaster its franchise everywhere, McDonald’s had lovely little things called “Happy Meals”, which were good enough to come with a toy and a complicated cardboard box that your child could turn into a castle or something. The child would get just enough amusement out of the cheap toy and box to last them until the next meal, where you would pull through McDonalds for another one.
Actually, you don’t want your children goofing off too much. With no concrete directions or GPSes to hold your hand, you’ll need those sets of eyes just to spot things you’re looking for. That’s pretty much the real reason you’d have more than one child…to turn your car into a sonar station while going on road trips. (It would actually lead to “infighting” and a “pecking order”. Whichever child had the sharpest eyes would quickly prove to be an asset and be able to sit in the coveted front seat…the only place in the car left that had stretching room. [And yes, since this is the 80s, the only requirement a child had to meet in order to sit in the air-bagless front seat is the shoulder belt goes across your torso rather than your face.] We constantly attempted to prove ourselves the better “spotters” to earn that coveted position. Each day was a new challenge.)
Finally, you need to bring enough bedding material. How much is enough? The amount it takes to convert your middle seat into a single bed. Depending on your child level, you may need more than that.
Only after all of the above was taken care of would you worry about packing things such as clothes and toiletries. By now, there would probably be only a three foot by one foot square space left in the vehicle and you still need to fit yourself and your family. Luckily, artful packing can magically decrease the amount of space taken up, but just be aware of Newton’s Law of Car Storage: “A load of luggage stored within a car on an outgoing trip, after having some of it thrown away as trash and condensed, will expand to fill a space twice as large as before on the return trip.”
Finally, by the time this is all done and you’re finished loading, your vacation time should have rolled around. You’re off! And, to be honest, for all of its flaws and hardships, you’re in for a fun time. Perhaps it’s the additional danger of being sent out into the world with only a small notion of where you’re going. Perhaps it’s the opportunity to rely and depend on your family more. Perhaps you’re so tired at having painstakingly constructed the folder on your lap containing every reservation number and step of your route you’ll think anything is fun. The bottom line…it was more work, but it also gave you both a sense of accomplishment as well as a sense of adventure, and now you get to enjoy the fruits of your labor. So get out there and have a good time!
But if one of your kids comes down with dysentery a day into it, just buy the damn plane tickets.