In 1985, my wife and I loaded our three children — 13, 9 and 6 — into our Dodge K-Car and set off on the longest road trip of our lives, more than 1,000 miles round-trip, with stops to see Washington, D.C., my wife's brother in New Jersey, my brother in upstate New York, and my wife's sister in Erie, Penn. We not only survived the trip, we enjoyed it and got to see what other regions of the country are like.
I thought of that trip this weekend as I drove more than 400 miles in two days to relax (briefly) at the family lake house and to see our 7-year-old grandson compete in a swim meet. The driving was uneventful. The 10-year-old car performed gave us no trouble, and other drivers on the road did not frighten us (as has happened too many times in the past). I arrived home feeling exhausted from the intense concentration high-speed interstate driving requires, but the contrast between a road trip today and one less than 30 years ago is startling.
When we set out in 1985, we packed a satchel full of cassette tapes that we could all listen to. Our oldest daughter brought her own Walkman to play her own tapes through a headset because she didn't like our taste in music. We also packed a songbook my wife had knitted together from scraps of song lyrics — children's songs, mostly, that we all could sing when the children grew tired of counting cows or finding specific words on billboards or other highway games meant to relieve young passengers' boredom.
We followed a route provided by AAA, marked on a map mailed to us after we submitted a request well in advance. We followed our relatives' careful directions to find their homes, whether in an urban area or in a vast forest.
We still carry road maps in our cars but seldom refer to them. We have a GPS device that will give directions to wherever we want to go, and our cell phones will provide the same service. Had we been delayed or been confused by the directions, we had no way of contacting our hosts. Today, we provide regular updates of our progress along the way via our cell phones. If we're delayed, we let our expectant hosts know. If we miss a turn, we can immediately correct the error. If we have a breakdown, we can call for help and let our hosts know what has happened. The anxiety of waiting and worrying when a traveler still has not shown up an hour after they were expected is a thing of the past. We call them and find out where they are.
As we consider another road trip, I'm thankful for the unimaginable (in 1985) advantages of cell phones and satellite navigation. The contrasts are almost as great as the stories my grandfather told me of driving a Model T for hours through muddy, narrow roads with few places to stop along the way in the 1920s. But the road still is long, wearying and exhausting.