In the lazy summer Sundays of my childhood, after the third bowl of Honeycombs and the fourth failed attempt to scare up a playdate, my parents would pull out the big guns: "Hey kids," they would holler. "We're going for a drive in the car."
For my brother and I, it wasn't good news. But it wasn't negotiable either. Reluctantly, then, we would allow ourselves to be loaded up into the family wagon, along with my mother's adventurous spirit and my father's cigarette smoke. These were the summer roadtrips of my youth.
Sometimes, we had a destination in mind, like a giant, oversized nickel, or the rural site of my father's nostalgically recalled adolescence. But, more often than not, we would just drift from one anonymous town to the next, my parents chattering animatedly in the front seat about pretty houses and charming main streets. In the back, my brother and I would roll our eyes, and compete with each other to spot the most out-of-province license plates. Too many years and aimless automobile journeys later, I am now piloting my own family vehicle on a whole new chapter of road trips. And it's amazing how the concept has transformed itself in my brain.
Sometimes, when the sun has beat down too long, and the possibility of visiting the park at the top of our street even one more time is too much bear, I take Adam aside and together we craft a plan. "Let's go somewhere," I'll say.
"Yes," he'll answer, with the same kind of parental desperation my own voice has betrayed. "But where?"
We'll talk for a bit, introducing and discarding possibilities, all the while cognizant of the kid-powered incentive each must include if we have any hope of selling our offspring on the idea. Finally, we'll settle on something like a distant (but much-celebrated!) ice cream parlour, or a small-town cemetery that's rumoured to be haunted. Anything. So long as it gets the children—all four of them—into the car and locked up in their car seats.
And then Adam and I climb into the front, blissfully isolated from the lawless chaos of the back seat, and start the engine.
For the next hour or so, the scene is perfect. Adam and I enjoy our up-front asylum immensely, and occasionally even get to complete full sentences of conversation with each other before being interrupted by our tidily confined children. When things start to unravel (and they always do), we flip on a Jack Grunsky CD or toss some fruit leathers into their laps. That buys us a bit of time.
But in the end, we are generally drawn into our passengers' little dramas, and are forced to referee a squabble over the Magna Doodle, or to engage in a word game that yanks us out of the sanctuary of our own discourse. Ultimately, the whole thing erupts into misery, and the refuge we'd enjoyed in the front evaporates. It's then that we turn the car around.
But somewhere on the outskirts of the city, just before we've reentered familiar geographic territory and in between the increasingly insistent juvenile demands to know exactly when we're going to be home, a few brief glimpses of the magic of family road trips—from a big person's point of view—return to the front seat. There is still time for a handful more private parental exchanges (including—lo and behold—a few comments about pretty houses and charming main streets). For a couple of private smiles. And time, too, if only for a moment, when the only sound in our lively, tumbling family unit is the turning of the wheels of our car.