The word stay-cation may have been coined in the early aughts and became hip along with “gas-tank getaways” during hard economic times in 2008, but for some of us growing up back in the 20th century, all family vacations fit that definition.
I grew up in Marshfield, a small town smack in the center of Wisconsin. Our family trips rarely ever even crossed state lines. We’d drive an hour or two to a slightly less small town and book connecting rooms at the Howard Johnson’s with another family from our neighborhood. Safety in numbers. My father taught middle-school social studies and my mother looked after me and my brother Bryan, four years my junior, until she went back into retail when I was 10. So while we never thought of ourselves as poor, exactly, money was carefully budgeted.
So other than the usual shenanigans of summer—chilling at the public pool, playing baseball or kick-the-can, climbing trees and throwing crab apples at each other—we had one official family vacation each year and it had to be economical.
My parents loaded up the 1970 Chevy station wagon (with the rumble seat) and looked down the highway to Wausau, a city with a shopping mall. And so began our late-summer tradition, a sort of sneaky trick to get us to cooperate for back-to-school shopping, an activity neither my brother nor I loved. Visualize a child whose bones have turned to rubber leaving him unable to stand as he collapses into feverish whining beneath the rotary display of the year’s color choice of corduroy pants. But in exchange for the torment of JC Penneys changing rooms, we got some pool time, fancy breakfasts at Denny’s, and dinner at the Ground Round, a low-cost steak franchise that also served free popcorn, as evidenced by its abundance on the floor. This was living.
My parents rarely went out anywhere, so this modest vacation sufficed even for a modest change of scene and a few days of not having to cook, dust, or clean dishes. But after a few summers we had exhausted Wausau and needed a bigger mall. We drove one hour farther east (distances are measured in hours not miles in Wisconsin) to Green Bay where we confirmed that yes, all Howard Johnsons really did look alike and boast the same color scheme as the Miami Dolphins. Did I mention this was the 1970s?
While some families made the two-day pilgrimage to Disney World returning with mouse ears, sunburns, and the standard-issue Florida conch shell, we made the two-hour run to the hometown of the Packers for the dime-a-ticket Bay Beach amusement park (still in business, by the way, and still a dime). I picked up my souvenir when I slid down the two-story burlap-sack slide without the sack and rub-burned my elbow into gonna-leave-a-scar territory (still a scar, only cost me a dime).
That year we also visited a sorry train museum nearby that we didn’t know was sorry. Years later I feel a poignant ache imagining my parents, young with two kids, stretching a few dollars to try to entertain us. I asked my brother if he remembered. He draws a face. “Train museum? Nope.” Then he smiles: “Midnight hot fudge sundaes.” I call my parents to see what they remember. They, too, remember the family vacations fondly, but differently. No one remembers the train museum.
Once we even went to Chicago! Gasp! And visited the neighborhood our travel-partner family had lived in back in the day, years after white flight had changed the demographics. This detail doesn’t escape my memory as we exchanged polite greetings with bemused African Americans stopping to stare at the two white families and their kids wandering through the neighborhood peering in windows.
The Big Event on that trip was a professional baseball game. My brother, a Cubs fan thanks to cable TV and WGN, couldn’t contain himself. In fact, he needed to pee. When he came back, Gary Mathews and slugger Andre Dawson had hit back to back home runs. That’s something he remembers, not fondly.
The promotion at Wrigley Field that day was a cube of notepaper, about the size of a box for a baseball, with “I’m a Cub fan and a Bud man” printed in the upper corner of each sheet. One was under every seat, and at the end of the game, we foraged until our arms were full, and made memos and to-do lists on them for the next 20 years.
Wisconsinites know there are two seasons: winter and road construction. Driving home from Chicago in 90-degree weather, we got stuck where the Interstate went down to one lane in the middle of nowhere, and we watched as our friends’ car overheated and they had to shut off their air-con. (We only had the free variety of temperature control, which still allowed us to put our arms out the window and let the wind wave them up and down—despite parental warnings of them potentially being ripped from our bodies by traffic or road signs which, like the objects in the mirror, were allegedly much closer than they appeared.)
My mother tells me, “You kids were always good in the car.” Not a lot of bickering or territorial protests: “Stay on your side! Stop touching me!” We’d count license plates from other states, watch for wildlife, or sort through baseball cards. For a break we’d stop for ice cream—always the very Wisconsin novelty flavor, Blue Moon, best described as the milk left over from a bowl of Fruit Loops—or the turn-your-tongue-blue Icees from K-Mart (another school-shopping venue). Today, I suppose, we’d be on our devices or watching a DVD on a screen in an SUV.
I learned to admire, and aspire to, my dad’s sense of direction. Without Google or even a city map, he’d roll into Minneapolis or Chicago for the first time and manage to get us where we needed to be as if he’d driven a taxi there.
We never visited exotic Instagram-worthy destinations, and, in fact, I am not sure we ever even brought a camera. But in a selfie, you can’t capture the thrill of laughing until soda pop comes out your nose or the thrill of staying up past your bedtime to eat hot fudge. But as my mother informs me, “You really had fun. But at the end of the trip, you were always ready to be home.” And maybe that’s the best part about vacation: that moment of satisfaction when you return to the comfort of the familiar.
While I fail to remember many of the specific moments of all those humble trips, the emotional memory remains strong, and there are moments I miss the rumble seat, Mom and Dad up front with a tinny, one-speaker AM radio, and the anticipation that would give me butterflies in my stomach. So many years later, I travel for a living, circling the planet each year, chasing the horizon, and—for better or worse—eating far off the food map of Denny’s and the Ground Round, from horse liver to chicken sashimi. But those little trips close to home remain golden. I’m still writing gas-tank getaway articles, more so during hard times or gasoline price hikes. I still have never been to Disney, and I am not sure I’m missing anything.
Kevin Revolinski is an avid traveler and the author of 15 books, including “The Yogurt Man Cometh: Tales of an American Teacher in Turkey” and several outdoor and brewery guidebooks. He is based in Madison, Wisconsin, and his website is TheMadTraveler.com