How Road Trips Have Changed Since We Were Kids

by Sharon Holbrook
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Editor’s note: This article was written pre-COVID-19. When planning a vacation, please reference the latest CDC guidelines for travel.

Ah, the family road trip. In a rapidly changing world, we can count on some things to stay the same, can’t we?

Maybe not. Maybe too much has changed since we were kids…

1. Snacks and Drinks

Then: Just wait until we get there, kids. You’ll live.

Now: 80% of the approximately 30 cupholders in the minivan contain partial bottles of water, sippy cups, and grown-up coffee cups. There are enough pretzels, fruit snacks, and Cheez-Its in the car to sustain your children for a week, and enough crumbs on the floor to feed the colony of mice that are probably on their way right now.

2. Safety

Then: Simple. Don’t stick your head out the window, and don’t play with the built-in cigarette lighter.

Now: Buckle up, booster up, car seat up, airbag up. Don’t sit in the front seat until you’re old enough to be drafted or tall enough to reach the top shelf in the kitchen, whichever comes first.

3. Pit Stops

Then: Pick up restroom key from a rural gas station where an entire aisle is devoted to chewing tobacco. Walk outside to back of the building to pee in the kind of decrepit bathroom where people get kidnapped and/or murdered. Ignore bathroom filth.

Now: Enter sparkly, well-lit rural convenience store and use modern facilities right in the building. Ignore bathroom filth. Try also to ignore begging children as you wind through the candy and snack gauntlet. Fail.

4. Entertainment

Then: Sit. Look out window. Play the license plate game and maybe a rousing word game with the family. Make that pulling arm motion to get truckers to honk their horns. Read a little. Get bored. Poke siblings with your elbows repeatedly.

Now: Watch movies. Play on iPhone, iPad, iPod, iWhateverTheyThinkOfNext. Listen to podcasts. Listen to audiobooks. Get bored. Poke siblings with your elbows repeatedly.

5. Navigation

Then: The glove compartment is filled with maps, and there’s an atlas under the seat. You learn to read the map, and maybe you help navigate. You’re bored, so you page through the atlas and memorize the population of Nevada, the square mileage of South Dakota, and the capital of Iowa. Sometimes your parents stop and ask for directions at a gas station because, they say, that’s where you get the best directions.

Now: Google Maps. You also have apps for the nearest gas stations and the best nearby restaurants. You’re pretty sure the pimply 17-year-old gas station cashier wouldn’t be much good for directions, unless maybe he has Google Maps on his phone.

6. Comfort

Then: Your parents did not spring for air conditioning when they bought the car. The seats are vinyl and you’re wearing shorts, which means peeling your sticky thighs off a hot seat whenever you want to shift in your seat. You crank the window down as far as it will go, and you stick your arm out the window to try to catch the breeze and redirect it down your arm toward your hot, clammy self.

Now: It’s a lovely 72 degrees at all times in the car, and everyone has their own heating and cooling vents to control. There are almost as many vents as there are cupholders and snacks in the car. You want the windows closed, and you forbid the children from playing with the window buttons. They don’t listen, so you lock the window controls. They complain. You scowl to yourself about how spoiled your children are.

7. Packing

Then: You’re waiting in the car, and your parents are taking forever, trying to squeeze the picnic cooler, rolls of paper towels, and a bottle of dish soap in among the suitcases. They’re packing for an Adirondack Mountain vacation like pioneers, because the stores there will carry fishing bait, beer, and Stewart’s cream soda, but they can’t be sure what else.

Now: Your kids are waiting in the car, and they think you’re taking forever. You’re emptying the fridge so it doesn’t stink, getting things ready for the cat sitter, and squeezing suitcases and extra shoes into the trunk. You know you’ve probably forgotten something, and you hope whatever it is nothing important. You reassure yourself that there will be a Target wherever you’re going. You might not stop to think to yourself how spoiled you are, but if you did, you wouldn’t scowl at all.

Things may have changed a lot, both for better and for worse, but not everything has: You’re together, you’re having an adventure, and your kids are making childhood memories just as indelible as yours. At least that much has stayed the same.

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