Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Improvisational Vacation: Destination Unknown by Lea Nolan

When I was young my family didn’t have a lot of money for summer vacations. We didn’t travel often, but when we did, my parents made it an extra special adventure. We’d pack our bags, load ourselves into the station wagon, then start driving without a plan, reservations, or destination in mind.

For serious.

We’d embark from our house on Long Island and drive west toward New York City. When we approached a critical highway juncture, my father would ask, “North or south?”

We’d all yell out our vote and the majority would rule. He’d turn left to go south, or turn right to go north, and we’d drive until he and my mother got tired, or they couldn’t stand the sound of four kids fighting in the backseat. Did I mention we didn’t run the air conditioning either because, as my father swore, it wasted gas? Four hot, sweaty kids, melting on a sticky naugahyde seat in August. No wonder we were cranky.

The constant refrain from the back of the station wagon.
Sometimes we ended up in Canada or the Adirondack mountains in upstate New York. Other times we made it all the way to Florida. Once we ditched our trek to Orlando early and stopped in Virginia instead.

Weirdly, it all worked out. There was always a place to go that would entertain us for a long weekend or a full week, a hotel or campground with a vacancy, or a cabin to rent. And on the few times there wasn’t, we’d pull over to the side of the road and sleep in the car for the night.

I know what you’re thinking. Sleeping in a car on the side of the highway? We might as well have attached a neon sign on our roof that said, Attention serial killers: 6 undefended bodies here for the taking.

Luckily, it never came to that. Maybe it was a different time, or perhaps we were more trusting, but my parents never thought twice about these summer travel escapades.

As a grown up wife and mom with three nuggets of my own, I couldn’t imagine doing this with our kids. Our vacations are planned months in advance in meticulous detail. I know where we’re going, how long it’ll take to get there, what restaurants are available (sometimes with reservations), and which activities will be waiting for us when we arrive. There’s always an annotated list and sometimes there’s even a spreadsheet.

I’d like to think my kids have as much fun as my sisters and I did back in the day. But there’s a part of me that wonders if my own lack of spontaneity dampens the excitement of our vacations. There was something special—although wildly unpredictable—about the adventures my parents took us on. Not knowing where you’ll lay your head at night, and being open to landing just about anywhere, is strangely freeing. I couldn’t do it now, but there’s a secret part of me that’s glad I’ve had the experience.

What do you think about the idea of an improvisational vacation? Could you take one? Are you up to the challenge?

~Lea Nolan


  1. For a few years while we still had both kids at home, we took wild-and-crazy road trips with them for spring break. Not entirely unplanned, but we decided on the next day's destination at the end of the day before and made many unscheduled stops. Bonus points for a stop that added another state to the list of states they'd visited. On the wildest one, we added 10 states and visited Niagara Falls on a whim. Good times!

  2. Who says spreadsheets aren't fun? ;-D

  3. Wow! Spontaneous vacations... So, here's the thing. We never had family vacations. Instead, I got to LEAVE the family and it was awesome.

    Starting when I was four, the year my evil little sister was born, my grandparents liberated me from hell and took me to Orlando when Disney was nothing more than the Magic Kingdom. It was my first airplane trip. I remember this so vividly. We stayed in a hotel called the Shellborn in Miami Beach for a few days, then boarded a huge air-conditioned bus for the trip to Orlando.

    We did this for a few years because my sister, with her various temper tantrum issues, was not er, portable -- shall we say...

    I never knew where we or when we were going. Just woke up one day and got picked up. I loved those trips.

  4. I am not a spontaneous person, so it sounds like hell to me. But in theory, that is awesome!

  5. I've taken a few vacations in a car like that green wagon...