If summer had a theme song, it would have to be this: Are We There Yet. It doesn’t matter if you are headed to the beach for a week’s vacation, to the water park for the day or just to the ballgame for the afternoon, travel time will never pass fast enough for someone in your car. Otherwise games like punch bug would have never been invented.
My favorite are-we-there-yet memories involve an annual July migration to Wildwood Crest, NJ, for an entire week of family vacation. For many summers, that included my great-grandmother and my maternal grandparents as well. Like true pioneers, we would strategize for weeks, pack our supplies carefully and set off in a caravan before the sun was up. Our wagon was a Mercury with real fake wood-grain paneling on the sides. The back seats folded down to make room for all kinds of exciting things like rubber horseshoes, an inflatable giraffe and an aluminum jug of lemon blend.
I was an only child so my most vivid summer memories involve traveling only with adults. My own children remind me constantly that I don’t have a real handle on travel reality without having been strapped in the backseat with a sibling. Regardless, the beach trip was the one time a year I was allowed to travel as a potential human projectile and could lie down in the back on a faded blanket somewhere among the grocery boxes. The route to the beach in those days never involved any type of four-lane highway. Racing along the open stretches of Route 30 at 45 miles an hour was our honored pilgrimage.
Say what you want about embracing change or keeping life exciting by trying new things but the truth is, kids like the predictability of routine. It makes them feel more in control of their circumstances and when it comes to an important ritual like vacation, it sweetens the anticipation.
Over the years, my parents learned to minimize my are-we-there-yet inquiries by capitalizing on routine; we noted our vacation travel landmarks. The first one was only 30 miles from home. Next came the drive-in theater; I was 14 before I ever saw a movie on a giant outdoor screen so that concept was always full of intrigue. Next, we kept an eye out for the house that was shaped like a giant shoe.
By the time we had been on the road for nearly three hours (or three days, depending on who you asked), our first official stop was always for a slice of warm shoe fly pie with real whipped cream in a restaurant shaped like a giant windmill. Not only was having dessert for breakfast an unheard of treat in the 60s, the whole idea of stopping at a restaurant, period, was huge for a middle class family that had saved all year to afford seven days in the sun and sand. I always had a tough time managing to squirrel away some of my allowance money for vacation and a tougher time yet not spending part of it right out of the chute on some tourist-themed chatski from the Dutch Haven gift shop.
Route 30 took us right into Delaware where the next trip marker was a giant clock at the top of a stone tower. Delaware was a short state from a backseat traveler’s perspective and that clock was a literal symbol that enough time had passed that we would soon be entering New Jersey.
Across the state line, we kept an eye out for the giant rocking chair on top of the furniture store knowing that we would be stopping again soon to fill the car’s tank and empty our own. The first step onto a New Jersey roadside made it all real. Even the dirt was different there; it sparkled. Are we there yet always got cranked up into a frantic how much longer as soon as my feet touched that sandy NJ soil. By the time we hit the marsh areas where we could hear the gulls, I knew my real summer had begun.
I think we had a 12-year streak with that same beach trip and it never once occurred to me that a week at Heather Courts where we stayed without air conditioning or a pool or a balcony overlooking the ocean was anything other than a first class vacation. We cooked every meal in our little kitchen and Grandma Bone slept on the pull-out couch. At night we sat on folding chairs on our little slab of concrete in front of our unit and watched the cars travel along Atlantic Avenue and we were happy.
About 10 years ago my husband and I took our kids to Cape May for vacation and we made a stop in Wildwood coming home so I could take a picture. Heather Courts still stood, dwarfed then by the huge hotels built between it and the ocean. En route to the giant rocking chair, I regaled my teenagers with tales of my summer vacations without IPods, pizza or air-conditioned cars. I realized they had stopped listening long before I had stopped talking when a bump in the road snapped them both out of their snooze. The gap of generations was instantly bridged by my old music; they awoke mouthing that same summer theme song: Are we there yet?.