Yes, there is definite joy in the American road trip, even the modern ones with Google maps, in-car entertainment, and multi-zone climate control.
We are all tired, all of us on the last night in the last hotel on the last leg of a rolling road trip to visit family in New Jersey. It’s a solid two hours past our children’s normal bedtime, but they are awake, their little blonde heads still damp from swimming in the hotel pool, their eyes sleepily watching cartoons as the air conditioner kicks on to chill us to sleep.
Our hotel is in Front Royal, Virginia, a town that sits along the Shenandoah ridge, one with a friendly looking Appalachian downtown and businesses named Smoots Auto Center and Knotty Pine Restaurant and Lounge. I don’t know anything about this town beyond noticing that there are a lot of what I would describe as motor lodges, a vestige, perhaps, of a time when more tourists pulled off Highway 522 to explore the caverns buried around these valleys.
This trip has been one of constant motion. We’d started this morning in a different hotel a stone’s throw from the Jersey Shore, were treated to breakfast by my aunt and uncle and their grandson, and followed that with an abbreviated but fun board game session. The night before, we’d been at a different aunt and uncle’s house, splayed out on their deck in the mild evening, my cousin’s Pandora channel playing on the outdoor speakers while their dogs yipped about. The day before, a cookout and hours-long swim at my cousin’s house in North Jersey; the day before, time spent with my aunt and three cousins at her townhouse.
In total: we have hugged and visited sixteen aunts, uncles, and cousins and their children at four different stops. In the mornings, we try to explain to our children who they are meeting and remind them how they are related.
It might seem like an odd thing to do on the face of it–spending six days rolling up and down the east coast, popping in for short squalls of laughter and meals and catching up before zooming off to the next hotel, the next white-noise air conditioner, the next over-chlorinated pool–but somewhere inside of me is a homing beacon, something that reliably pulses and compels me to do this, to jam the car with suitcases and kids and haul off to the land of my birth.
“The land of my birth”–a funny thing to say, since I have spent virtually my entire life in North Carolina. But these road trips are as much ingrained in my DNA as sticky Carolina summers. My brother and I grew up learning how to manage time in the back seat of our parents’ car, sleeping to the noise of radial tires droning along, committing the checkpoints along the way: breakfast in Christiansburg or Roanoke; halfway stop in Winchester; climbing the mid-Atlantic spine on I-95; then the excitement of crossing the Delaware Memorial Bridge into New Jersey, counting the Turnpike exits until we saw the hallowed “Shore Points” sign, a jaunt across to the Garden State Parkway, meaning we were truly almost there; pulling into my grandparents’ driveway.
We grew up chasing the myth of “making good time.” I learned to anticipate the lurking bottlenecks on Baltimore’s beltway, knew to pace myself on any drink brought back to the car–another bathroom was hours away–and spent time daydreaming about what it was like in so many of the towns we breezed by.
Front Royal was one of those towns–I’ve never been here, even though I have driven past it no fewer than fifty times. It thrilled me to arrive via a highway rather than the interstate, passing kitschy tourist pull-offs like Dinosaur Land and its 1960s era statues of creatures long extinct. We check in, and I dutifully push a luggage cart out to the car once more, piling on two suitcases, a folding crib, a gym bag full of swimming gear, my backpack and laptop, the dopp kits. The kids try to guess which floor our room will be on. They rush to be the first to push the elevator buttons and explore each new room; Thomas checks every light switch. At night, they fade away watching television.
As a child, I was always thrilled to make road trips with my parents. We sometimes spent long spells with my grandparents in the summer, but the journey to and from was as much of an event as anything else. We were in transit, in proximity to cities like New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. Somehow just being near a big city–witnessing its traffic, gulping air as we rolled down the windows to pay tolls–made me feel cool.
Time, as it is wont to do, marched on. My relatives began to pass away or move away. I encumbered a new generation with my own children. And at some point, I had to reckon my persistent homing pulse against the context of a wife and three kids.
My grandparents’ house is no longer in our family–its new owner completely remodeled it and made it into something beautiful, but it’s not the house I loved, the house that was my home far away from home. When they were saving mementos after it sold, among other things I asked for one of the heavy, wooden bar stools from the kitchen, specifically the one that squeaked loudest when you turned in it. I could hear the bar stool’s squeak from the yellow guest bedroom upstairs that would always be mine when I came to visit; it meant Nana was awake, that breakfast was coming and coffee was brewing. It meant the world was right and good.
Their house was the center: where my father’s family would gather, where I’d spend mornings on the patio watching my grandparents work crosswords or evenings in the cold downstairs den watching baseball and eating cereal. When we left, Nana would stand in the door and wave until we turned onto Swimming River Road. The new owners replaced the entrance.
And still I brought us back to New Jersey–not directly to that house, of course, but to four houses. To visit relatives on Mom’s side and Dad’s side. It’s a different trip now, with different pathways. It doesn’t mean the same thing for my kids as it means for me, which is a way of saying that their motivation for enduring hours on end in the back seats has to be different.
So we ate quickly tonight and rushed back to change into our swimming trunks and jump into the hotel pool, Julia developing a more confident stroke already, Thomas discovering the hilarity of a belly-flop, Annie daring to float out into the middle of the water with me and let go, her little legs kicking under her puddle jumper floaties. Tomorrow we’ll wander through the caverns. Thomas and Julia have been carrying around brochures all weekend.
When we trekked across to the Shore yesterday, the kids had fallen asleep, and I ducked off the Parkway toward my grandparents’ home, just so I could drive by again. I passed the pizza place and the Acme and Lincroft Liquors. I entered the horseshoe neighborhood street where they lived from the opposite end so I could stretch it out–remembering the time my father brought us all up as a surprise for Christmas, remembering how they’d kept a blue bicycle for me to ride in the summers, how I would pedal around and around and around in the late summer evenings, listening to the tack-tack-tack of the sprinkler systems, watching for the cute, older girl whose father owned a first-generation Corvette. As I drove toward my grandparents’ old house, I still struggled to understand I couldn’t swing into the driveway and find them there, waiting with a glass of iced tea, asking if we made good time.
I didn’t even slow down when I drove past.
But I made the turn onto Swimming River and drove past all the old horse stables and orchards to Colts Neck, finding the simple, white, cracker-box Presbyterian church. I followed the gravel path into the nineteenth-century cemetery and parked at the back and visited my grandparents.
They’re buried in a plot next to their longtime friends Andy and Betty. I stood at the foot of their graves, quiet. HOGAN. Lichen had begun to grow around the carved letters of the headstone. My grandfather died nineteen years ago; Nana passed a little more than five years ago, but the grass still hasn’t filled in. Their funerals seemed so far away, the tents, the covered folding chairs, the yellow roses. I kissed two fingers and held them against the center of the simple cross between their names and remembered their warmth and love. Across the yard, a fellow was mowing grass, but he paid me no attention. I quietly slipped back into my car so as not to disturb the sleeping children.
My kids won’t come here on their own, and that’s okay–Nana only met Julia before she died. To be fair, I don’t go to Texas and visit my great-grandparents’ graves, either. And I also haven’t had the chance to visit my Mom’s father’s grave at a veterans’ cemetery in Florida. I worry about that.
We decided to drive out to Asbury Park, so the kids could walk around on the boardwalk and feel the ocean breeze. Leaving the church, I felt a deep, cold question emerge: when would I come back? How many more times?
One of Nana’s dearest habits was telling the same stories over and over again–something that became dearer as she slipped into dementia–and these trips aren’t too different for me. I ring the same bells I loved to ring as a child: I devour my Aunt Shirley’s pork roll and egg sandwich; I laugh at my Uncle Bill’s jokes; we turn on baseball as the kids fall asleep. It is so comforting to see Delicious Orchards and think about my last trip there with Nana, so profoundly sentimental to smell the sycamore trees in their neighborhood.
Yes, there is definite joy in the American road trip, even the modern ones with Google maps, in-car entertainment, and multi-zone climate control. But I worry about where we will go when my relatives are gone, or when my children overrule my fuzzy sentimentality and demand a trip somewhere else.
Perhaps then we will simply have to explore together, all of us learning new checkpoints as the tires click along the concrete seams, searching out a spot to plant another lovely row of childhood memories, new bells for us to hear, for my own kids to endeavor to ring again and again, even after we’ve left them for the great beyond, or some quiet, simple churchyard to lay down with our friends and wait.