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Wandering the West

Aside from motherhood and apple pie there can’t be a more ingrained American institution than the summer family road trip. Especially in Park City where everybody is from somewhere else, the summer car trip to see relatives or go to the California beaches is part of growing up, or being a parent.

Every summer weekend growing up we made the six hour road trip to get to our Northern Minnesota lake cabin from our home 300 miles south. Six hours is a long time for a restless kid, but we passed the back seat time looking out the window. I learned how to farm looking out that window spring plowing, planting, tilling, fertilizing, tilling some more and the payoff of harvest time. I learned to tell a soybean field from a potato crop, and wheat from corn. I knew corn had to be "knee high by the Fourth of July," and measured each year’s crop against the calendar. I could follow small town economics by the coming and going of auto parts stores and clothing shops on the short main streets of the upper Midwest. We played license plate games, although most every plate was Minnesota, Iowa or South Dakota. We slugged each other when we saw a VW bug. We also slugged each other playing endless games of "rock, paper, scissors."

And as the fertile fields of corn gave way to the potato fields I knew the soil was getting sandier. And at a certain bend of the road entering Menahga I could see the first forest of tall Norway pines and I knew the cabin was just twenty minutes distant. Another road trip was ending.

In the summer of ’62 we had the granddaddy of all road trips. My Dad won a Cadillac Fleetwood in a sales contest. We’d been a Chevy family until that summer, so with the World’s Fair beckoning in distant Seattle, Dad gassed up the Caddy, loaded my mom, sister and me in the spacious interior and cruised west. We hit the Black Hills, saw caves and Mount Rushmore, and scurried across the western plains, where wide-open brown-grassed ranches replaced green farm fields.

We got to central Montana and saw the Rockies vaguely in the distance. Each mile made them more distinct. Soon a panorama of forests, rocky cliffs, rivers and waterfalls moved past our Caddy windows and we were in a world foreign from our native farm country. The windows were our entertainment, the scenery ever changing, right up to the moment when we stopped because the Pacific Ocean got in the way.

But now as I see cars passing by on I-80 or I-15 or US 40, I see a disturbing trend. The blue glow of television screens now replaces the stares of faces out the side windows. Kids look straight ahead, to drop down TV screens, or screens built into the backs of the front seats. The screens are versatile. They can play DVD’s, video games, and now, live TV. FLOTV advertises, "Kids can watch their favorite shows in the back seat." It urges parents to "turn your vehicles into a live mobile TV," and points out that "road trips can be a lot more fun with live mobile TV." Plug a video game console into the screen and your kids can shoot car thieves dead in Grand Theft Auto instead of being distracted by Deer Creek Reservoir on the right or Bridal Veil Falls on the left.

Nosing around the internet, I found hobbyists who build "carputers’ with in dashboard video screens so front seat passengers can watch TV, play games, or browse the internet instead of wasting too much time staring at the highway in front of them.

Perhaps I’m just stuck in the past. It seemed to me, as a kid, and me as a parent who turned many weekends into Jackson, Moab, and St. George road trips, that the road trip was a great way to connect with the family, share the scenery, and learn about the neighborhood and the world. Trips were adventures, not ordeals to be endured.

I treasure memories of riding in the back seat of Dad’s Cad even the boring parts.

Like Nebraska.

Larry Warren is a reporter, author and filmmaker who has made the West his beat the past 35 years. He is now general manager of KPCW in Park City.


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