Recently I returned from a long road trip out west. The destination part was fun. A friend’s wedding. Yep, the whole classic nuptial celebratory bit. Snapshots and formal wear. Cake and music. Chicken Dance and open bar. Rather a symbiotic relationship with those last two. Because, I can tell you, I’m not one to make full use of an open bar unless I might have to later do the Chicken Dance. And I’m not going to later do the Chicken Dance unless I’ve made full use of an open bar. Let’s just say I did the Chicken Dance and leave it at that.
The road trip was somewhat less torturous than the Chicken Dance. Though perhaps it provided a shot in the arm of what I never get anymore and desperately need. Idleness. Boredom. Low stimulation. A car ride without Raffi singing “Shake My Sillies Out.”
Long ago, I’d pack for road trips like I was preparing to squirrel away in a bomb shelter to wait out the End of Days. I picked out my music, packed my reading material and books on tape, purchased drinks (water and something fizzy and/or caffeinated) and snacks (crunchy/salty and chewy/sweet – all textures and flavors must be accounted for). Proverbial-kitchen-sink-everything.
But nowadays, ample time to sit motionless and vegetate while staring at a monotonous plane of highway is a luxury. So I’ve converted. I’m now a purist road tripper. While the car trunk is heaping full, my carryon bag consists of nada. Oh, I take that back. I packed a book. But only out of a sense of duty to my book club. I cracked it open, read one page into the forward, and then went back to spacing off for several hours. (Sorry, book club.)
While it’s probably implied, I forgot to mention that no children were harmed in the making of this road trip. They were safely tucked away at the grandparents’ home, likely after a day spent OD-ing on sugar, computer animation and bubble baths filled with mermaid dolls.
Do you think Barbies are safe toys to have around your child? Think again.
Because, had those two hooligans been with us, oh-no, there’d be no time for reading books or even just book forwards. And certainly there’d be no time for going comatose to the beat of the windshield wipers. No, instead I’d spend most of the road trip hanging over the front seat trying to wipe muffin goo off my son’s hands before he touched the Toy Story DVD. Or helping my daughter take off a cardigan sweater without having to unbuckle her seat belt (it can be done). Or confiscating a Barbie being used as a weapon (you have no idea how frightfully sharp those waif feet are).
Were family road trips this exhausting for my parents? No DVD or CD player. No technological handheld anything. Egad, the important question is how did my brother and I survive? The short answer is barely. For starters, I can assure you we were not from a jolly-Show-Tunes-singing family. Nope. Huh-uh. Not us. Yeah, I know – that surprises a lot of people.
We did play a lot of spirited rounds of 20 Questions. And to this day, I’m still tripped up on what category manmade materials fall within. Okay, I’m thinking of my favorite pair of Kangaroos tennis shoes. Certainly not a mineral. Or a vegetable. I’m pretty sure I would’ve said animal and got by on a technicality. Let’s just be clear about one thing. I would never play the game I Spy. Ever. Hate it. Yawner. Worthless. Best reserved for monosyllabic preschool children during a nature walk.
I also wasn’t a fan of the license plate game. Most of our family road trips were spent traipsing around the Midwest – not so much a vacation destination for the rest of the world. So I marked off Kansas, South Dakota and Iowa thirty-six times and called it a day. If I was lucky, Alabama. Or maybe New Mexico. One kid in my school said he spotted Hawaii while traveling with his grandparents to Lake Okoboji. That kid was a liar.
To help defeat boredom, my mom would load us up with busywork. Lots of busywork. Piling into the car at six a.m. to start off our trek, my mom would already have a crisp stack of brand-spanking-new busywork in the seat waiting for us. Get this. My very first plane ride at the age of four left me with no memories whatsoever of the plane OR the ride. Instead I vividly remember sitting under the overhead light, clutching a marker and filling in the new workbook my mom bought me. Circle what things are wrong in this picture. The woman’s broken glasses. A tree growing baseballs. The mailbox is upside down. The dog has two tails. We’re already in Chicago? What plane ride? When did we takeoff? Ah, memories to last a lifetime.
When I learned to read, road trip busywork evolved. Crossword Puzzles. Word Finds. Some sort of magic invisible marker pad. Some kind of detective whodunit workbook. And Mad Libs. Yes – Mad Libs! Nothing like Mad Libs to fend off the traveling blahs. Is there anything better? Is there anything more “let’s get the party started” fun? Is there anything more amusing than, say, Supermodel Fabio getting hit in the nose with a flying goose while riding on a roller coaster? Ha, I got you there. That’s no Mad Lib. Yeah, that’s real. And I stole that comparison from a radio DJ. But, forgive me, it’s just too brilliant not to recirculate. I never in my life had a Mad Lib turn out so pitch-perfect.
These things have been known to injure people.
My friend Kelley and I rocked the Mad Libs. And we liked to stamp it with own brand of humor by inserting only our junior high “buzz words” du jour. In every single blank. Every one. Until our Mad Libs turned completely inane on a level not even intended by Mad Libs Incorporated. I suppose that way we ensured total exclusivity rights by making it 100% un-funny to every sane person in the Free World outside of us. From 1986 to 1987 at the height of the Jeans Tight-Rolling Era, our buzz word of choice happened to be “bellbottoms.” As in, Supermodel Fabio got hit in the bellbottom with a flying bellbottom while riding a bellbottom, to which he exclaimed, “Oh, bellbottoms!” That right there is what you call rockin’ the Mad Libs.
It’s easy to see where my mom was coming from. Without road trip busywork, my brother and I would’ve likely killed one another. Okay, you’re right. Huge exaggeration. We would not have killed each other. True, my brother most certainly would’ve killed me. Yes, indeed. I, on the other hand, would’ve managed to, at most, pluck out a hair from his arm. And then stick it in his eye. Although, I must say, that really smarts. And then, if there wasn’t a backseat fatality, my dad might’ve crippled somebody with The Claw. Yes, amid a raging backseat battle, my dad’s hand would snake behind his seat and grab our ankles with all the strength and madman tension of someone ready to at any moment pull the car over.
Clever Carol Brady always thought ahead. Plenty of busywork inside this happy car.
In one instance, the fighting ensued until The Claw proved useless. That’s when my dad honest to goodness left me and my brother out in the country. I’m not kidding. He stopped on a gravel road and said, “Get out.” To which we did. And then we sort of just stood there staring in awkward silence as we watched our brown station wagon peel away and disappear over a hill. You’ll be glad to know that my dad came back. Okay, maybe not “glad” since the story would’ve been better had he not returned and had we hitched back home with a toothless, one-armed semi driver named Big Sal. But, yes, about two to thirty-nine minutes later, give or take, the station wagon reappeared and picked us up. Now I can’t remember exactly how it all played out, but I have a feeling it was only after my mom had picked us up a crisp stack of brand-spanking-new busywork that we finally saw our station wagon return.