Some days I feel as if I'm depriving my kids of a fundamental American experience. Then I watch the families dragging down the sidewalk on West Colorado Avenue. Mom and Dad are generally up front with the kids bringing up the rear, smirking and giggling at the sight of the back of Mom's shorts. Dad looks like he'd rather be playing golf or, better yet, sitting in an air-conditioned room watching golf on TV.
Maybe that's just how I see them because they remind me of my own family vacations from childhood -- bittersweet experiences that combined occasional adventure with enough family togetherness to last a lifetime.
My family loaded the station wagon about every other year to visit someplace we'd never been before. The year I was 9, we visited the Smoky Mountain National Park and stayed in Gatlinburg.
Here, every window was painted with a caricature of a moonshine-swiggin' hillbilly dressed in saggy overalls, chewing on a piece of straw. Banjo tunes tinkled and twanged over the Musack on every sidewalk.
Our parents set us loose one day, and we rushed to the Ripley's Believe It Or Not Museum, a forbidden delight we couldn't wait to see. A winding corridor took us past a gruesome, 5-gallon jar of urine-colored liquid. Inside, newborn Siamese twins, joined sternum to spine, floated like a ghostly double question mark. My little sister begged to leave, but my brother and I insisted on continuing the tour until we saw the 2-headed calf. We came upon it at the end of the tour, past the photos of the world's tallest man, the human pincushion and the world's fattest woman. Stiff and glassy-eyed, it was stuffed and stood behind a glass barricade on a patch of faded Astroturf, a taxidermist's dream.
My father's peculiar delight, when vacationing with us, was attempting to frighten us to death in unfamiliar environments. On this particular trip, when we rode the chair lift to the top of the mountain facing Gatlinburg, he hung over the back of his frontmost chair, yelling back at us:
"It feels like this thing's gonna' fall! If it falls, try to grab on to a tree limb!"
We had never seen a mountain before, much less floated above one, dangling from a thin cable that looked barely attached to our heavy metal chairs. I screamed, fueling my father's gleeful fire. I imagined the brutal impact of the free fall and tried to figure out the best way to survive. My father rocked like a madman, making his chair shimmy on the cable. My mother clutched the bar across her lap and stared straight ahead, saying nothing.
On every vacation thereafter, my father tormented me whenever we crossed a bridge, saying it felt unsteady beneath the wheels of the car. The rest of the family listened in silence as we performed our familiar ritual: He teased and I cried, begging him to stop. He laughed and I cowered in fear, imagining the plunge into the river, the frenetic attempts to swim out the car window. I imagined myself surviving, but knew one of my siblings would not.
The year our family came West, the last time we ever vacationed together, I was 14 years old. My father drove us to the top of Pikes Peak, allowing the car to wander toward the crumbling gravel edge of the road, trying to get a rise out of me.
"This road doesn't feel too sturdy," he said, glancing over the seat at me. "Oh God, I think it's gonna give."
I gave him the response he wanted, halfheartedly. My adolescent heart was hard as stone. He didn't frighten me any more; he infuriated me. He didn't know I would stop thinking of him as someone who would protect me. He didn't know how truly unfunny he really was.
He didn't know -- or did he? -- the family vacation was permanently over and the road home would be long and rough.
-- First published in July of 1998, and reprinted this week because the author, in spite of herself, is on vacation with her family, in a van, crossing Colorado.