I love planning vacations, perhaps even more than being on vacation, particularly road trips. I pull out the large orange Rand McNally road atlas or, better yet, go buy an up to date one for the year, all the time dreaming about where and when and how and what, thinking about all the places we could go, things we could see, history we could soak up. I bring it home and open it up on the table and spread it out before me. Then I add to it the brochures I have received by mail, or Fodors and Frommers Guides I have bought, and I settle in for spell of dreaming. I study pictures in the travel brochures, trace the snaking lines of red and black and blue highways in the atlas, tick off the names of towns, and visualize the look and feel and smell of all the places we will go. Oh, the places we will go.
No one else is much excited about this planning. One is concerned about what we will eat. One is concerned about who we will meet. And another is concerned about where we will sleep and shop. Mostly, I just want it to be local. I want it to be something unique to the places we visit, something I cannot find here. I want to eat local, meet local, and shop local. We have Outback and Taco Bell at home. We don't have a place like "Butts by the Creek" (a barbecue lodge), Lil' Abner's (a desert steakhouse with a two-pound steak cooked outdoors on mesquite), a beach filled with multi-colored sea glass (somewhere in Cape Breton), or the confluence of weirdness and hipness (Venice Beach). I want an out-of-place experience, to walk in someone else's backyard for awhile, to feel what it would be like to be someplace else, to, in a sense, not be me.
This is a time for imagination, not reality. I call it the dream stage of vacations. For a time, reality is suspended and you assume that you give sin a couple weeks off, kicking its dust off your feet as you pull out of the driveway in your station wagon, windows down, luggage rack laden with suitcases, lawn chairs, bikes, and most of the garage, afraid to look back lest you change into a pillar of salt. Goodbye suburbia. Good riddance cookie-cutter houses. Goodbye tired routine. Goodbye cats, faces pressed to window glass. It's dream time. Oh, the places we could go.
But. And that's a big, big but. Road trips ain't tidy. One car, four people. miles to go, the inevitable mis-steps along the way (motels that look like crack houses, jarring road construction, a big stretch of ugly landscape, an encounter with plain folks who are just teensy bit too plain spoken, and local diner food that isn't like Grandma's cookin' at all), and by golly when I checked the rear view mirror sin reared its ugly head setting right smack between my young'uns who done commenced to picking on each other. Wait a minute. I'm somewhere in the Ozarks in my vacation dreaming! I'm sounding a bit too colloquial.
But the guidebook I'm reading said it'd be this way. "Of course it isn't all pretty," it says on page one. And I appreciate the candor, because when the dreaming stage is over, reality sets in. The fact is, vacations bring out the best and worst in us. Sad to say, you can't take a vacation from yourself. We have to bring ourselves with ourselves. Sometimes, out there in Eureka, Arkansas, after a little (huge) family spat, you may wonder why you did this, what happened to the dream. But look at it this way. You get to find out how bad you are, what a selfish pig-headed brute you remain, while you're surrounded by the people you love and who love you in spite of you. They are merciful. You can go to bed and wake up and the slate will be clean, all forgiven, and you'll look out the door of the Holiday Inn at the highway ahead and realize it doesn't get much better than this, catch a glimpse of the road twisting out of town and believe in second, third, and even fourth chances, that over every hill and around every curve is something new and some one new. Even you can change. Oh, the people we can be.
But I'm not there yet. I realize that vacations are like that, reality writ large, but right now I'm dreaming. Let me enjoy it. I want to turn my wheels into the Great River Road, follow Route 66, trace the path of Lewis and Clark, criss-cross the Big Muddy, eat all kinds of barbecue and local specialties, tick off towns like Hannibal, Vicksburg, Crosby, Kaskaskia, eat at the Front Street Cafe, West Side Cafe, and East Bend Diner, dip my toes in the mighty Mississippi, and sleep where famous and infamous people slept, hang with locals, and walk their streets. Oh, the places we will go!
When I was three I used up on the car seat between my Mom and Dad, seat belt-less, and watch the road, giving directions to my Dad, looking at the map even before I could read it. I'm still doing it.
"Savor, and enjoy," says the guidebook. So true. So right. I think I will do just that.