Many of my favorite childhood memories, and indeed many favorite memories period have come from journeys on the road. I was fortunate to have grown up in a family that took regular trips during Christmas, Spring Break, and even during the summer to locations all across the United States.
The entire process of vacationing is still exciting to me, just as it was back then. I still have trouble sleeping the night before a big trip, I still get a faster heartbeat when I cross a state border or come to an airport, and I still love to watch my mom and sister struggle to fit everything they ‘need’ into the largest possible suitcase we own. (Yes, you can put your curling iron in my bag.) Even before I’d ever heard the familiar saying, the journey was always more important than the destination, but that didn’t mean we didn’t have fun once we got there.
For most of our trips, we had a travel itinerary starting at 6 AM. My dad always said that at 6:01 we would be late and the bus would be leaving. Thankfully, the bus never left at 6:01, but more often than not it wouldn’t be too far after. We would almost always stop at a Bob Evans or Cracker Barrel on the road for breakfast, though we had drinks and snacks in case we were hungry. For my sister the mornings were spent sleeping sprawled across the bench seats of the van. My sister would plug in her walkman and sing loudly until my dad could no longer stand TLC or Ace of Base or whatever other popular band was hot at the time. My mom and dad would sit up front watching for deer and listening to one of a few cassettes that we owned, Neil Diamond, a collection of 50s songs, or the likely culprit, the Beach Boys. On some trips I too would fall back asleep, but on many I would pull out an atlas and a flashlight and follow our progress by watching the mile markers on the highway and the cities on the exit signs. Our vacations took us throughout much of the eastern US and as far west as Arizona. You can imagine how outstanding this was for a kid to enjoy the changing scenery of the US. I understood at an early age that there was far more than my small corner in Michigan that encompassed the United States. Whether I appreciated it then is irrelevant, for I appreciate it now.
Through all my vacations I learned a great deal. I learned a lot about travel. I learned a lot more about hidden benefits of traveling and skills that are effective in all acts of life. I learned about time management. People think they have time management, but many simple know that there are several hours in a day in which to accomplish things. I’m talking about understanding how to effectively manage your time to get the most out of an experience.
My dad didn’t make us leave at 6 AM sharp because he’s a mean guy who always woke up at six and didn’t want to change his sleeping routine. My dad always made us leave at six because it would maximized the time we could spend at our destination. He understood how to manage our time on the road so that we could arrive at a place early enough to rest if need be, or to enjoy the evening of a place without the stress of trying to drive further than our bodies would allow. I didn’t realize at the time, but managing time on our vacations has taught me how manage my time in other activities. I optimize my time and get the most out of all my experiences, and this has helped me to realize the greatest potential in any activity.
My dad also always kept to his 6 AM start time. As I stated, it wasn’t very often that it was much after six that we left the house. While I never realized this in my groggy, half-awake state, but I learned a great deal about accountability from traveling with my father. There is a famous saying that says, ‘to be early is to be on time, to be on time is to be late, and to be late is unacceptable.’ While this may get some eyes rolling, there is a great deal of truth in it. There is no reason why we should ever be late to a planned time and I understood this because of my vacations with my family.
My favorite skill I have learned and am quite proud of is my map-reading skills. I will not hesitate to say that I have a great sense of direction and absolutely love to read maps. Ask anyone who has traveled with me and they will no doubt back me up in saying that I can find where we need to go if necessary. I feel that map reading is one of the greatest skills you can acquire and having a sense of where you are is important to understand where you are going, both in reality and metaphorically.
I can’t say that I’ve never been lost before, but being lost is one of the best things that can happen on a vacation. True it may be the cause of some stress at the time, but being lost can also lead you to some of the best memories and places to visit on a vacation. What I mean is that when you are lost, you usually ask a person for directions to find where you are going. There is nothing more thrilling than speaking with a local about where to go and things to do and often talking to someone who knows where you are can give you a better sense of where you are going. Sometimes the people are so backwards from what you know that just getting directions can be an excellent memory. But every person you talk to will add to your overall understanding of the places that exist, and there is nothing better than understanding.
Car trips are changing though. The packing list has become a bit different for everyone. In addition to your clothes (and the curling irons), there is a new influx of phone chargers, camera chargers, extra batteries, iPod chargers, laptops (and their chargers), and of course those ugly glows coming from the windshield in the form of GPS systems.
I recently learned a new term called techno-pessimism. I read it in a book by Richard Florida, a sociologist of sorts who is unveiling his fourth book on what he calls ‘the creative class’ in April. While I do not remember his exact words, I know that a techno-pessimist is someone who is a bit distrustful of all our new technologies for fear that they will help to ruin our neighborhoods. As we become more connected with our technologies we slowly find ways to become more isolated from each other to the point that we lose our culture and sense of community. It is certainly something that I find myself concerned with.
Now don’t mistake me for some extremist who would love for nothing more than all the satellites to crash and us to go back to living with candles and no television. As I type this commentary on my computer, I am listening to streaming music from the internet, looking at notes I compiled on my iTouch, and sitting with my phone safely in my pocket. After this I’ll probably check my e-mail accounts, Facebook, and find a way to ensure that more of you read this article, through new technologies. I do not wish to be some sort of hypocrite who rails on technologies and goes home to his home full of the latest and greatest technologies. I use my technologies and do not know how I would accomplish the things I do without them. But, I do I have apprehensions toward some technologies. Some instances, like the lack of keyless entry on my car, are simply coincidence that my car is older than most. Other instances, like the lack of texting on my cell phone are a personal choice. I am fearful for disconnect that technologies can cause and would certainly classify myself as a techno-pessimist.
But for all my technological dislikes, the one I hate (yes, hate) is the GPS. Perhaps I’m jealous of the fact that any person can use a GPS to find where they need to go without ever consulting a map. Perhaps I just don’t like the… cough… soothing voice… cough… of the robot voice guiding you to your destination. Whatever the reason, I know this: The art of reading maps and navigating is being lost quickly. As more people rely on their GPS systems, more people are blinding driving to a place with no idea of what they may be passing through to get there. Our dismal sense of geography may indeed get worse. Sadly, GPS systems don’t work on geography tests.
Perhaps, the worst thing of all is that there is no more getting lost. People no longer have the need to ask for directions, and why should they? When you have a GPS, you can get where you want to be. Travel becomes easy. Travel becomes perfect. But, travel isn’t easy. Travel isn’t perfect.
The country is full of beautiful places and often there is scenery to be seen that adds to the whole journey. Some of my favorite memories are waking up with the sun or seeing the light on a valley or a mountainside that are missed when we are so mindless in our travels. Many of my favorite memories are people that we bumped into along the way. Funny accents or genuine hospitality or just a great suggestion for a place to eat are all pieces that get lost when you only stop at restaurants in your GPS. In many cases just asking directions from someone is a story in itself and provides miles of laughter.
Above all else, speaking with people, even if just for directions, is the only way we truly understand a location. There is so much to know and understand in our world and traveling helps to fill just a tiny bit of that knowledge. But just seeing a place is never enough. To truly understand a place you have to connect with the people who are there every day. Is the GPS a good piece of technology? All technologies have good arguments for what makes them great, and the GPS is no exception. But what good is a device that takes the adventure out of travel? Without a little adventure there is no journey, just a destination. I urge everyone to have a good vacation. And the next time you leave at 6 AM, make sure to take your eyes off the GPS screen to watch the sunrise. I guarantee you’ll never forget it.