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American road trips I have known and loved

I used to envy kids whose parents took them on road trips. Every summer they’d pile into the family station wagon and head off to see the country, singing all 16 verses of “Found a peanut” between pit stops for hot dogs and ice cream. They were bound for Golden Gate Bridge and the Grand Canyon, for the Alamo and Hoover Dam, for every iconic American sight that had ever beckoned to me from the pages of Life magazine–sights denied me because my own parents, both skittish drivers, would not spend much longer than hour behind the wheel of our used Buick sedan for fear of getting caught in traffic (not that we had much of that in southern New Hampshire, circa 1959).

I didn’t realize that my classmates were most likely eating bologna sandwiches at roadside picnic tables, not sundaes in a gleaming booth at Howard Johnson’s. I never thought of the sticky back seat, the elbow in the ribs from a bossy older sibling, the seemingly endless wait for a chance to pee. I felt like the most deprived child in all of Oyster River School–the only one (so it seemed) who had never seen Mount Washington, the highest peak in the northeastern U.S. and just a couple of hours from home.

In adult life I’ve more than made up for all that. I married a guy who likes to drive and likes exploring even more. We’ve been road trippers since Ben and Jerry were selling their wares from a converted garage in Burlington, Vermont (yes, we stopped for ice cream there, and like everyone else in the lineup we took our turn holding the screen door open). My husband does all the driving himself because on my personal terror scale the driver’s seat ranks just behind the electric chair.

He has sometimes pointed out that I might want to do something about this, but the last time I tried, I was one of those dithering drivers who inspire what Dave Barry calls “helpful corrective gestures” from people like my husband. To avoid what might be called my fair share of the driving, I will happily cook every dinner until death do us part (of course I’ll also be avoiding frozen fish sticks, my husband’s entrée of choice in the days when he shared the cooking). In three days we set out on our next adventure, an art-themed road trip from Toronto to California. So I’m getting in the mood by replaying greatest hits from road trips past.

lobster lane bookshopMost distinctive roadside shopping: Lobster Lane Bookshop, South Thomaston, Maine. If hobbits lived in coastal Maine and collected lobstering gear, this warren of low-slung shacks is the kind of place they’d design. Festooned with buoys, it invites you to get lost in a maze of aisles just wide enough for one reader whose idea of enchantment is browsing shelves crammed with books formerly held by many hands of the living and the dead. We staggered out with armloads of decades-old Life and Time magazines, which for years we couldn’t part with, even though we didn’t read them, because their musty scent brought back memories of Lobster Lane.

Most mystifying regional accent: On a two-line highway in South Carolina, we stopped for fried catfish and ordered a glass of milk for our son, then about nine years old. The waitress shoved a bottle of Miller in front of him. When we protested, she gave us a piece of her mind: if we wanted “melluh,” we should have said “melluh.” This was not your typical southern accent but something on the verge of another tongue, discovered down the road a piece from the bustling airport in Charleston. I’ll remember that accent forever. I hope it still exists.

Most eye-popping small town: Spring Green, Wisconsin(population about1,600). This little place, where kids can ride their bikes down the middle of the road and not encounter one car, is a living architectural museum for the students of Frank Lloyd Wright, whose nearby home and studio at Taliesin draw visitors from all over. We had never heard of Spring Green when we showed up at Taliesin and learned we’d have a chunk of time to kill before the next tour. As so often happens on road trips, what looked at first like a setback was in fact a lucky break because Spring Green is chock-a-block with elegant mid-century buildings. My favourite: the curvaceous M&I Bank, for which all the furnishings down to the waste baskets were designed to order.

Most soul-stirring moment: Reading the Gettysburg address at Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where Lincoln delivered it. We had come from Cemetery Ridge, where an ebullient gaggle of teens were re-enacting Picket’s Charge. The faux confederates seemed to have a competition going for the loudest death cry, and it struck me that I’d been about their age when I first read the Gettysburg Address in my American history class and wondered what the fuss was all about. Now those 10 extraordinary sentences never fail to remind me what writing can do. It would take me 10 paragraphs to tell you why.

Most down-home café: Flora and Ella’s Pie Place in LaBelle, Florida, where we heard a broad-beamed waitress tell a patron, “My husband died and left me and now I can be just as fat as I want.” I don’t remember what I ate at Flora and Ella’s, where ample wedges of pecan, key lime and coconut cream sat in glass display cases to be ogled and compared before you chose one. What I remember is the broad veranda, the wooden counters dating back to 1933 and the sense that time had stopped. I hear the Flora-Dora fried chicken was really something special, but I’ll never get the chance to taste it. The recession bit deep into this roadside business, and in 2011 it closed for good.

Most curious tradition in lawn decor: an old clawfoot bathtub sunk into the ground with a statue of the Virgin nestled inside. These makeshift shrines used to dot the countryside near Chateaugay, New York, where we watched for them every summer on our annual drive from Toronto to New Hampshire. It must have been close to dusk when we spotted our very first Virgin, extending her arms to road-weary travelers with a couple of hours to go until dinner in Burlington, Vermont, and a squirming four-year-old chanting, for no understandable reason, “The bear went over the k! The bear went over the k!” (Why couldn’t he just sing a real song like “Found a Peanut?”) Our son has no memory of the bear chant–or the Virgins, for that matter. The last time we drove through Chateaugay, they had just about disappeared.

Most hair-rising drive: the Mount Washington Auto Road. Yes, I finally made it to my state’s most famous landmark. My intrepid husband drove us all the way up–although he did blanch when the park ranger handed him a flyer that began “The Mount Washington Auto Road has a near-perfect safety record” [my italics]. We thought about that “near-perfect” business on the hairpin turns, with sheer drops to our side and our Renault gamely huffing like an out-of-shape weekend runner who has realized that braving a marathon was a really dumb idea. We declined our “This car climbed Mount Washington” bumper sticker (who’d want a used car that had done such a thing?). But we know that it. That’s what matters.

Click here to read a favourite post about losing stuff on the road.

Posted by Rona

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