It's summer, the perfect time for the imperfect family road trip. Picture it: Mom, Dad and the kids enduring each other's company – and perhaps even enjoying it – as they drive for hours.
For full nostalgic effect, throw in a two-toned station wagon, a few quirky roadside attractions, and more Howard Johnson's motels than you can shake a Gideon's Bible at. And, of course, the ritual recitals of "Are we there yet?", "I think you missed the exit!" and "Cut it out, kids!"
Advertising copywriter Richard Ratay knows the drill. He grew up in 1970s Wisconsin, son of a man who loved to golf no matter the time of year, a fact that required wintertime voyages to Florida. Ratay's fond memories of childhood travel inspired his entertaining new book Don't Make Me Pull Over!: An Informal History of the Family Road Trip.
Q: What inspired you to write your book?
I came up with the idea while on a family vacation. I found myself on a beach chair, looking at my young sons, who were then aged 6 and 8, and I thought about traveling 1970s America at that age with my own parents and siblings.
It hit me how profound those experiences really were. They gave me some of my fondest childhood memories, they broadened my horizons in so many ways, and they profoundly shaped my relationships with my parents and my siblings for a lifetime. But I knew little about how the great American road trip experience developed.
I went to the library when I got home from that trip, and I found many fascinating stories about the entrepreneurs responsible for so many of America's hotel and restaurant chains, the roadside attractions, and inventions like the 8-track tape deck and CB radio.
Q: My parents, my brother and I took many family road trips when I was growing up, and nothing has changed decades later: Put us all into a car today, and we'll start squabbling over the radio, climate control and – of course – navigation. Don't family road trips magnify the tensions within families? Didn't they make you nuts?
Of course they drove me crazy. They drove everybody crazy!
That's part of the magic of the experience. Having to negotiate and compromise with your parents and your siblings was part of the shared experience of the road trip.
Q: How did the modern American family road trip develop in the first place?
They were in large part a product of World War II, which took a lot of young men off their rural farms and out of urban neighborhoods for the very first time. They went to train in distant corners of the US, especially Florida, which became the main training ground for the US military.
When they returned home, they had a new curiosity about exploring their country and their world. All of a sudden, these men had families, expendable time and money on their hands. And then the interstate highways came along in 1956.
Q: You write about plenty of road trip curiosities, but CB radio may be the weirdest of all. For a glorious period in the 1970s, just about everyone – including presidential spouse Betty "First Mama" Ford – seemed to be yakking it up via microphones installed in cars and trucks. How did CB radio become a fad in the first place?
In 1973, the first OPEC crisis made them popular to begin with.
They'd been around since World War II, and were used predominantly by truckers. Then President Nixon set a national maximum speed limit of 55 miles per hour.
People started using CB radio to keep track of smokeys – highway patrol officers looking to enforce the speed limit. They'd also keep each other updated on how to find gas when stations were often running out of fuel to sell.
Users would talk in this funny slang, a mix of police 10-codes, military jargon, and Southern slang, saying "Keep on truckin''" and closing out conversations with 10-4. It was fun, catch,y and incredibly popular. Even [cartoon voice actor] Mel Blanc went on the CB radio and entertained kids with his voices.
Q: Why did CB radio disappear?
Gas became easier to come by, so that was one factor. And there was no more maximum national speed limit.
Q: What are road trips like today?
We've lost the idea that the journey is the destination.
Everyone has their smart phones and devices that they can use to retreat into their own little worlds. We're more distant, and it will be difficult to get back to that shared experience of the road trip that we look back at so fondly.
Q: When you're on road trips with your family, do you threaten to pull over or turn around and go home?
All the time!
Q: How often do you follow through on your threats?
Never. I am my father's son, and he was always about getting to a destination as soon as possible. I'll threaten to pull over, but I'm going to keep making time.