I’ve been thinking a lot lately about our family’s upcoming road trip vacation. We’re leaving in less than a week. Friends are watching the house. My parents are watching the dog. The mail and newspapers have been stopped. We’re starting to pack.
I’m starting to think about what I might encounter on this drive across the prairie land of America: bugs, heat, thunderstorms. Tornadoes, maybe? (Hope not.) In my head, I hear that lonely opening note of the theme song to the Little House on the Prairie TV series, and I imagine not a covered wagon, but its modern equivalent — an RV, plodding across prairie grass and snaking along solitary roads.
On our way, we’ll encounter Robert’s Prairie Dog Town, a palace constructed entirely of corn, and, so I’ve been told, a creature called a Jackalope. We’ll see Salt Lake City, the Golden Spike that connected the Transcontinental Railroad, and a rodeo. We’ll witness the spouting of Old Faithful at Yellowstone National Park. We’ll be at Mount Rushmore for Independence Day fireworks (actually, for some reason they take place the day before Independence Day). We’ll visit my late father-in-law’s hometown of Ipswich, South Dakota. And, of course, my personal pilgrimage, the destination which I’ve personally spent hours imagining: the Laura Ingalls Wilder Homestead in De Smet, South Dakota.
Here, we will spend the night on the Ingalls homestead in a covered wagon, much as I imagine Laura and her family must have done over a hundred years ago. We are all excited for what is, for us, the adventure of a lifetime.
When I consider road trips, I think about some of the original “road trip” stories. There’s Homer’s Odyssey, which tells of Odysseus’ long walk home from the Trojan War. There’s Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, made memorable to me by a great teacher. There’s Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, in which much of her childhood is spent on her family’s westward journey. There are other, more modern road trip stories. Jack Kerouac’s On the Road comes to mind. And I realize that much of my expectation about our trip and the adventures that await us comes from the images formed in my mind from books.
We will have some long days of driving, particularly through lonesome places like the Nevada desert. Tom and Huck will have to entertain themselves without skateboards. Thoughtful Husband and I will have to navigate through unknown territory and find our way back from wrong turns or mismarked roads. This is the part of our trip which I have not pre-planned but which I suspect I will remember long after it’s over.
“Where are you guys going?” friends ask as our departure draws near. When I tell them, most respond with shocked surprise: “You’re driving across the Midwest for a vacation?” Perhaps it’s been a while since they read Homer or Chaucer or Laura Ingalls Wilder or even Jack Kerouac. They don’t remember that the best road trips are about the journey and not the destination.