Friday, July 13, 2007

Westward Ho! Part 2: Childhood Journeys

Yesterday I mentioned the idea of loading the family up for our own version of the "Great American Vacation," with a cross-country drive taking in the highlights of Americana and roadside kitsch. Although our family never made the coast-to-coast auto trek, we did manage several epic trips, including a couple of drives around the periphery of the old Confederacy, first in 1970 Dodge Dart that leaked oil on the first day home from the dealership, and later in a gargantuan 1972 Ford Gran Torino station wagon. The justification for these roadtrips was always a visit to my dad's older brother, who lived in Houston and worked for NASA. But in reality these excursions gave my history-obsessed parents an excuse to stop at every battlefield, roadside marker, Indian reservation, and restored plantation along the way. And, never in a big hurry to get there, we'd take about three weeks to complete the circle, stopping in southern burgs large and small if they met one simple requirement: they had to have a Holiday Inn.

In the era before myriad lodging franchises screamed at motorists from interstate billboards, one could rely on only a couple of national franchises or countless - and for my mother, unpredictable - "mom and pop" motels. Thanks to Memphis innovator Kemmons Wilson, Holiday Inns offered my mother predictability, cleanliness, easy advance booking, and a "kids stay free" policy, which wasn't always the case back then. Holiday Inn also provided one of the great moments in our family lore, an event still laughed about today. On our first trip to Houston in 1970, we had booked a room at a Holiday Inn in New Orleans. Remember the old Holiday Inn signs like the one pictured above on the Time cover featuring Kemmons Wilson? As we pulled into the motel we looked up to find the white message section of the sign heralding our arrival in large red letters: "Welcome Mr. and Mrs. Crowson."

For the outgoing leg of the journey we would hug the coast on old Route 17, stopping in Wilmington, Charleston, Savannah, and St. Augustine, until turning inland (for our 1975 trip) to make the necessary pilgrimage to Disney World, then in its infancy. Then we'd head for the Gulf Coast, taking in Mobile, Biloxi, and New Orleans before pushing on to Houston. Aside from trips to the Johnson Space Center, the Astrodome, and Galveston, all I remember of Houston is heat, humidity, and my cousin's vile tempered black cat.

After a week of Houston we'd backtrack to New Orleans (always one of my father's favorite cities) then turn north onto I-55, bound for Memphis. With detours to "attractions" along the Mississippi, including a full day in Vicksburg enjoying our own Civil "War-gasm" (to borrow Tony Horwitz's term from Confederates in the Attic), the drive to Memphis would take two full days. (I should point out that we never got close to the garish gates of Graceland because my parents loathed Elvis. Their disdain for "the King" doubtless influenced me: I still think he was one of the most over-rated "stars" in the pantheon of post-war pop culture. I'm convinced that his death in 1977 did more to preserve his long-term reputation and rescue his image from the self-caricaturization that was already defining his public appearances.)

From Memphis we'd turn back to the east, passing through Nashville as quickly as possible to avoid any exposure to country music, detouring through Chattanooga to "see Rock City," Lookout Mountain, and, of course, the local Civil War sites. Then on to Gatlinburg, through the Smokies to Cherokee, Asheville (still one of my favorite cities), and a final sprint across North Carolina to Rocky Mount, where we'd turn northward on I-95 briefly before staggering back into Tidewater. Oddly, I can still remember returning to knee-high grass and a hot, stale house. Isn't it funny the things that can stick with us decades later - and we can't remember what we had for lunch yesterday. But that's one of the reasons why I want our family to embark on this kind of trip next year, so when my kids are adults they'll possess the same kinds of memories that so often define one's childhood. I also think it's important for them to see as much of the country as possible. That rationale was certainly an important part of my parents' thinking and obviously influenced my development and outlook.

1 comment:

One Wink at a Time said...

I loved reading this.
When I was growing up, the eldest of six children, our family didn't have a lot of money for vacations. (Let alone the fact how difficult it would be to drag that many kids in one vehicle all over creation...) I'd never even slept in a hotel until after I was married. Our vacations consisted of a long string of camping trips, first in an old, over-sized Army tent. Our first year, we didn't even have sleeping bags. Imagine packing enough bedding for 8 people to sleep comfortably! As the years went by, our digs evolved into more elaborate campers, etc. (complete with cots and sleeping bags.) The good news though, is that I have some great memories of people we'd met and places we'd visited. To this day, however, I've never been further West than Ohio. North and South, moreso, but not West. Maybe one day...