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I remember when I was a boy bemoaning our 16-hour rides to visit my grandmother in south Mississippi that my Dad would tell me that someday, in my lifetime, I would be able to get in a car, tell it where I wanted it to go and just let it take me there. The roads and something we didn’t even know – technology – would do the rest.
Even if his prediction was not the stuff of George Jetson, it seemed logical to me. And if road engineers, automotive engineers and political engineers were on the same page, it might even be possible. Bud, Dad, I’ve clung to that wonderful image for about a half-century now, and I don’t think we’re going to make it. Having just returned from a family driving vacation of about the same distance as those trips to Mississippi – 600-plus miles each way – I can attest we still have a lot of miles to cover. This is not to be one of those bemoaning treatises about being locked in the car with two children and open road ahead. For one thing, the kids were wonderful, and, two, such trips always form a part of our personal growth. We learned from them. Like Chemistry class and Castor oil, they, too, were good for us, no matter how distasteful. If nothing else, they were edifying Back in the days when my two brothers and I would crowd – an appropriate word – into our big Mercury at 3:30 in the morning and set out for Nanny’s house, everything seemed exciting. After all, we knew we would get to eat breakfast in a restaurant, a real treat, and we would find new picnic spots along the way. Never mind that Mom and Dad had to negotiate with other drivers those two-lane highways of numerous navigational changes and, among the three of us, precious seating assignments. Everything was always wonderful, at least until we ate that anticipated breakfast in Nashville. Every trip was planned with the intricacy of AAA. There were alternate routes, times to avoid certain cities and a worn Standard Oil road map marked not only with those facts but also with the locations of the best roadside parks as well. A moment here for illumination: In the days before interstate highways and rest areas, highways such as U.S. 60 were dotted with roadside parks, where you could eat, rest, toss your litter and find a version of a bathroom that surpassed a maple tree. There were such parks next to Big Bullskin Creek and in Middletown and Clayvillage, to name a few. So if you were traveling just about anywhere, the locations of the better parks were important to timing your stops. When one of those stops started to fall into disrepair, it was a sad moment. But now such plans and pains aren’t as difficult. We have not only AAA but Mapquest and Google maps to tell us which way, how far and how long our trips will take. Many of us have GPS and Onstar to help us stay on track or tend to our problems. We no longer have to scan our AM radio dials in search of a mutually acceptable radio station – Mom and Dad learned quickly teens couldn’t condone country music – but we have FM and Satellite radio and CD players and changers. You can get books on CD at any Cracker Barrel – a pause for another wonderful invention – and some of our vehicles have DVD players built in. And about those vehicles. Our big Mercurys now have different forms. Our old debates of who would get to stand on the hump in the back or sleep on the floor or sit between the adults up front are gone. There are more comforts, and most people with three boys now wouldn’t attempt such a trip without having an SUV or minvan. The arenas for arguments are much smaller than they were. Yes, we still have to we worry about road repairs and traffic jams, but we generally have plenty of warning bout the next gas station or rest stop. Those 600-plus miles now take about five hours less than they would have back in my youth. And we now have at least four lanes in which to navigate and to enjoy a little bit more of a cushion with our fellow travelers. At least that sometimes seems safer. But I’m still looking for those lanes where I could lock my car to the road and let it go. Maybe next year.