Every vacation, short or long, tame or exotic, produces memories. For children, family trips can be formative, leaving indelible imprints. Whatever the destinations and chosen activities, they expand the horizon of a young traveler's world. They also create a sense of what does or does not constitute a satisfying vacation.
Some families cherish the comforting familiarity of returning, like Capistrano swallows, to the same cottage or condo again and again. Others thrive on adventure and geographic variety. Still others find pleasure in focusing on one region, exploring a different part of it every year. Each type of vacation creates its own glow at the time, and its own afterglow decades later.
All through my childhood, our family's vacation compass remained fixed in a single direction - north. In midsummer, we would leave our tan brick house in northern Illinois and point our green Pontiac toward the pine forests, crystalline lakes, and crisp air of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, and Canada.
We clip-clopped around Mackinac Island in a horse-drawn carriage. We shivered in the cold waters of Lake Superior, smiling gamely as my father clicked his Leica. We roughed it at a relative's rustic cabin in Ontario - no plumbing, no electricity. We marveled at the expanse of the Mesabi Iron Range in Minnesota and chanted the poetic Indian names sprinkled on road maps: Manistee, Escanaba, Manitowoc. At a roadside stand, my mother bought a jar of wild thimbleberry jam, a delicacy we later meted out like liquid gold to dinner guests.
My friends formed different memories. While we were traveling "up north," their families headed "down south," "out east," and "out west." Their souvenirs seemed far more exotic than the pine cones and small birch-bark canoes, made by Indians, that my sister and I brought home. One friend collected shells and filled a Mason jar with white sand from a Florida beach. Another returned from Georgia with cotton seeds for our fourth-grade class to grow. Other classmates showed off key chains of the Empire State Building and replicas of the Washington Monument. What sophisticated travelers they were, I thought.
For children today, global members of the frequent-flier set even before they're out of diapers, travel produces far more sophisticated memories. Instead of nature, theme parks provide entertainment. Vacations are also more likely to involve airports and rental cars than road trips in the family sedan. Who has time to drive long distances when both parents work?
The new definition of travel deprivation is a hotel room without high-speed Internet access. Yet what does it do to a child's definition of leisure if Mom and Dad are wired to cellphones and laptops on a beach? In the pre-technology days of my childhood trips, no voice mail or e-mail kept my father mentally tethered to his desk. When he was on vacation, he was free.
Family trips also teach young travelers lessons in rolling with the punches. "Remember the night we drove around the Black Forest for hours, looking for a place to stay?" a long-ago child might ask family members years later, prompting laughter all around. Or, "Remember the day it poured at Disney and we bought those ridiculous neon-yellow ponchos?" More laughs.
What children remember about vacations may not be the historical sites or scenic views. But decades later, the scent of pine needles or the sight of wild blueberries at a roadside stand can create an unexpected reverie.
Still, before anyone gets too sentimental about the perfect childhood vacation, parents can offer a reality check. Who among them could ever forget those little voices in the back seat asking plaintively, "Are we there yet?"