In my opinion, there are two kinds of people in this world: Those who never stop looking for adventure in their lives, and those who are content to let life happen to them.
I am usually one of the former, inspired by all the great places and experiences my parents exposed me to as a kid, and I always set the bar too high when it comes to planning the next thing on my list.
But more often than not, things don’t always go your way, and I’ve noticed some startling parallels between my travels and National Lampoon’s Vacation movie series.
Clark Griswold always kind of reminded me of my own father — ever the perfectionist, especially when it came to making family trips and events perfect for his children.
And like Clark, my own dad never lost his childhood sense of wonder and excitement. Truth be told, all the trips and experiences were as much for him as they were for us.
But when you have such big expectations, add in a few teenage daughters, and stuff in life happens – as it usually does – it makes for some interesting times.
And some memories that, while not always funny at the time, are what I cherish to this day.
Never mix business with pleasure?
Like Clark, my dad worked in product development of sorts with the Food and Drug Administration.
When he could, he took us on business trips with him so we could add another experience to our childhood “bucket list.”
With my dad as enthusiastic as a kid in a toy store, we once attended a trade show in the city – all sorts of new food products that were sure to change the world were being marketed.
It was to be the unveiling of NutraSweet and other chemically-laden wonder foods that were going to make us all healthier and safer, and my dad was super excited.
Except that I was a bored kid who didn’t want to hug the giant “sugar free” m&m or spend any of my precious weekend time sampling the products. I mean, you’re not supposed to take candy from strangers, right? Especially if there’s no sugar in it.
There was the business trip to Boston – my first time on a train and a stay in the nicest hotel I’d ever been to for my dad’s business convention.
He was so excited. We’d see all the historic sites – Bunker Hill, Quincy Market, dinner at Luke’s Lobster. I remember all that, but what I remember most is one of those quirky moments when family time sometimes becomes too much.
The problem was, I was a hormonal, stubborn pre-teen who was not going to share a bed with my little sister. I’ll probably never be in a hotel that nice again, and I chose to sleep in an uncomfortable chair in the lounge.
There’s still a family photo somewhere of my parents and sister, huddled around me while I scowled in my chair-turned-bed.
And I smile every time I see it because I know this was another of my dad’s “dream trips,” and I wonder how they survived me being such a brat.
I think he knew what I know now after raising my own kids: I’d appreciate it all someday.
Another year, another business trip, this time to Savannah — a beautiful city, but darned hot in the summer.
We stayed in an old cotton-warehouse-turned-hotel. No AC, just ceiling fans to add to the “southern charm,” where — no lie — I definitely started believing in ghosts.
There were some weird things going on in this place; some very strange noises, and although it was a cool trip, it scarred me for life.
This was partially due to a near-death experience that occurred when I sat on the railing of our bed and breakfast right behind a porch swing. Yeah, I don’t know what I was thinking either.
My sister (probably her plan all along) decided at that moment to take a leisurely swing — and knocked me clear off the railing.
If my dad was stressed-out trying to combine family time and business, he never showed it. Everything was always a big deal; always an adventure.
We had to see everything there was to see, and we did. We just had to add a little family drama each time to make it interesting.
Stuff like this inevitably happened on our family trips all the time.
My sister’s trip to the ER on our vacation to Ocean City (I didn’t want her following me and accidentally broke her finger when I slammed the door), the time I fainted at Antietam Battlefield because I was coming down with the flu, and all the other things that went wrong on trips, despite my dad’s determination that this – this – would finally be the perfect vacation.
And when the drama got to be too much, my poor dad could go full-on Clark Griswold when he found out Wally World was closed.
Not Aunt Edna, but pretty darn close.
Now, this wasn’t funny at the time, but looking back, this particular trip makes me smile because it’s a perfect example of what happens when families have to travel together under stressful circumstances.
Don’t get me wrong – this was definitely not a vacation or pleasure trip.
My grandmother, who I loved dearly, had just passed away. My mother and aunt, twins, were devastated.
My mother has always been a bit of a homebody in contrast to my father and his wanderlust, and she never liked to fly – or even drive long distances. And while my aunt loved to travel, she was petrified to ever get on a plane. I believe she referred to them as “death traps.”
Neither of them was up to driving at all, or thinking about anything but their grief, and my uncle was unable to make the trip to Michigan for the funeral.
My aunt took the train from South Carolina to our home in Virginia. And then we were met with a predicament: Three adults, one child, and two teenagers — clad in black leather and teen angst – had to fit into one vehicle because flying was out.
I’ll never know why we didn’t rent a van or come up with some other kind of plan, but once my father made a decision, we went with it… to the bitter end. (Clark!)
We no longer had the gigantic Buick family station wagon that I spent much of my childhood in.
We were older now, and my dad wanted a foreign car – so six of us and our luggage piled into a little Toyota.
We were to take turns sitting on the back floorboard of the car (Seatbelts in the 80s? No way!), with all the whining, complaining, pushing and shoving for space you can imagine.
I don’t remember much about that trip, except my father threatening to tie one of us to the roof if we didn’t make the best of it.
At least none of us wound up like Aunt Edna.
Once in a lifetime…
As I got older, my love of travel grew to match my dad’s – and my sister preferred to stay home with our mom.
We took several trips together when I was a teenager, always planning way more than could be done in the allotted time.
But we had one adventure that very few people ever get to experience.
I don’t remember why, but we were going home after visiting family in Michigan via a flight out of Detroit Metro. Maybe we missed our flight (unlikely with my detail-oriented father); maybe we were on standby, who knows?
But we were at the gate very early in the morning when an airline employee pulled my father aside. There was a flight that had to head back to D.C. and they would put us on it.
And they would put only us on it.
Whatever the reason, in this case, our timing was finally perfect on one of our trips. My dad and I were put in First Class, given whatever we wanted to eat for breakfast, and the flight attendants and even the co-pilot sat in the seats around us telling us stories of the skies.
It would never happen in this day and age, and I’ll never forget it.
Just once, everything aligned for that once-in-a-lifetime trip.
So, what’s the point?
The point of my story, and those of probably millions of others, is that nothing is perfect.
The anticipation we feel prior to travel or even a major life event is often better than the trip or event itself.
Family travel can be stressful and not all that fun sometimes. Wally World might be closed when you get there, or you may get rained out the entire week you’re on vacation at the beach.
The difference is how you handle the disappointment when your dream trip doesn’t exactly go your way, and how you can still create good memories when it doesn’t.
Like my own National Lampoon-like childhood, there’s always going to be good and bad. There was so much build-up and anticipation to our adventures that, in hindsight, it was impossible to live up to.
But the excitement and sense of anticipation about our next adventure lives with me to this day whenever I go somewhere new. I can’t help but set the bar too high.
I plan trips for weeks so that everything is “perfect.” After all, it’s in my genes.
It never is, but I know that even when things go off the rails, we can look back and laugh at it all someday. And maybe, once in a while, all will go as planned.
And I consider myself lucky. Our family adventures never ended in kidnapping or jail time. You gotta count your blessings.
Off to the next imperfect adventure.