I think that to go on vacation is in my blood. It all started with my parents. I suppose the military lifestyle is to blame, or perhaps something they put into the water on all those army bases. Regardless, my genetic code has altered and mutated to the point where the act of going on vacation has now been passed on to my children as well. That’s how that stuff works.
Personal observations have shown me that a vacation means different things to different people. Of course to everyone, a vacation means a break from the otherwise ordinary daily routine. Some people take vacations in order to go off and pursue a particular hobby or interest such as snow-skiing, or off to tour museums and such.
Some take cruises to sun washed oases on ships that flit from island to island like a bee sampling pollen on flowers. Still others wish only to relax, to stay at home and hideaway with a good book and catch up on their sleep, in order to be refreshed enough to continue with their daily struggles. Then there are those poor sods who take a break from a paying job, and spend a week or two of unpaid labor consisting of something like painting the house or re-modeling the kitchen.
For me a vacation can be summarized by the definition of the word itself. To me a vacation means to vacate…vamoose…scram…leave Dodge. What you do once you’ve successfully vacated your premises has more to do with your personal likes,coupled with the depth of your pocketbook. In those formative years up until I was fifteen and left the military lifestyle, I cannot recall a year when our family did not vacate the premises.
My wife unknowingly bought into this need of mine to periodically vacate, when she married me in 1978. The very first thing we did after our marriage ceremony was hop in my pre-packed VW Beetle and set off on a rambling ten day trip down to Key West. Even that “other thing” that most newly weds do had to wait until we were well under way….and out of the car I might add. This need of mine to vacate would prove to be as regular as the changing seasons. Like most newlyweds we had dreams and ambitions for our lives. These dreams would include one day raising children of our own. We’d have a house and careers and live the American dream. We had it all planned out.
When one has dreams they wish to be fulfilled, it is often important to set goals for yourself. These goals act as benchmarks on the road to your desires. Well I must say that my ongoing goals most often and successfully revolved around my yearly vacation time. Yes, I had those other more mundane dreams of new cars, new house and stuff like new hunting or fishing equipment, but those were dreams to be acted on and resolved during the working year. Of course once the children came along, their needs came first and were not to be stinted on. All these needs created the usual numerous demands upon our financial resources. Demands and needs which must be met. Up to a point.
Somehow by the Grace of God and utter financial irresponsibility, our family managed to take a vacation of sorts every year. Our vacations over the years were never very fancy, as money was never very plentiful. We did spend a couple of vacations at Disney World in Orlando but of course our accommodations were not in the park but rather off site at cheaper digs. Several years we went on long driving vacations up North and stayed at relatives homes or their lakeside vacation cabins.
A half dozen or so vacation years were spent camping in the Smokey Mountains National Park or in the national forest in the beautiful Blueridge Mountains of North Georgia. As the kids grew and our finances improved somewhat, we spent five vacations in a rental home on the Florida Gulf Coast in an area we discovered that hasn’t gone all commercial. We found it to be cheaper to rent the home than to stay in a motel and of course we could do all our own cooking. The one thing all our vacations had in common was that we departed our normal haunts, and we drove to wherever we’d opted to vacation.
Today our kids have grown up and left our home, yet I can observe in them this same inherited compulsion to pick up and leave once a year for points unknown, yet strangely familiar. For our family as well as the families of my brother and sister, it’s as if we are salmon swimming around doing our thing when once a year the urge hits us to go off and find that river. Who and what a person is has everything to do with the lives of their parents. Same with Salmon.
My parents both lived and grew up in a single location. I believe that upbringing was an aberration on their own genetic tree so to speak, as their own parents were the offspring of wanderlust filled immigrants. World War Two would reawaken this wanderlust. Dad had five brothers and one sister. My Dad and three of his brothers would serve during the war. Dad and one other of his brothers would end up making a career out of the service. None of the four who served would end up making their home state of Michigan their home.
Mom had four brothers and five sisters. None of her brothers were old enough to serve in the war. Mom, by marrying my Dad, would become the only one in her family to live outside her home state of Michigan. Dad’s brothers who did not serve, plus his parents, would also remain in Michigan. His sister ended up marrying a navy veteran after the war and she too would relocate out of state. See a correlation between the military and travel in this tale?
The formative first fifteen years of my life, when I followed along with my Dad as he pursued his career, saw the birth of wanderlust in myself. Dad, like most military officers of his day, was given thirty days of leave each year. Compared to the civilian sector, thirty days seems rather generous. But for a military family on the move, it borders on a neccessity.
Growing up, our stateside vacations were always trips to visit Mom and Dad’s extended families. These vacations always involved long road trips. My parents would plan out these trips in order that they be as inexpensive as possible yet also allow enough funds be able to treat us kids to an adventure or two. Lunches and dinners on these trips generally consisted of picnics at road side parks or rest areas, and sandwiches or burgers eaten in cheap motor courts or motels for dinner. If our destination was deemed close enough by my Dad, we would not stop overnight.
Those trips were particularly grueling and usually entailed leaving at four o’clock or so in the morning and arriving late at night. Typically on those trips, the stops for mini-adventures were curtailed. Longer trips saw us stopping at attractions such as caverns or waterfalls or maybe a zoo. Once arrived and ensconced in a relatives home we partook of any local entertainment offered by our related hosts. We might go for picnics or be taken fishing on a nearby lake for instance. But mainly we just hung out.
Mom’s home was a farm along the shores of Lake Leelanau in northern Michigan, not far from Traverse City. I loved it there! Lake Leelanau is a long narrow lake flanked by low sand ridges covered in hardwood forests and cherry orchards. Behind the farmhouse and fields these hills rose, and near the lake were dark and spooky cedar swamps. A boathouse and dock were along the lake and the waters were full of easy for a kid to catch pan fish. The drinking water for the farm came from a spring creek which came out from the hills and ran beside the driveway to the house. The water was cold and clear but dark tannin stained. Watercress littered the surface interspersed with dark holes which held brilliant colored brook trout. The barnyard held all the usual farm creatures such as chickens and geese and of course dairy cows. All in all a great place for a kid to romp and explore.
Dad’s family was scattered, as I’ve mentioned, but all trips to see Mom’s family in Michigan also included visits to his brothers and parents who still resided there. None of them lived on a farm, so such visits, though filled with familial warmth, were nonetheless a bit less entertaining than visits to my Mom’s family farm. When possible during Dad’s annual leave, we would visit his further flung brother’s and sister’s families. Two of them lived along the Gulf Coast so these trips meant time spent on the beach and swimming in the ocean, plus the added delights of crabbing ,flounder gigging and surf fishing.
Having such a far flung family resulted in a benefit almost like that of owning various vacation homes around the country. We got to experience the lifestyle and see the charms of all those respective places. I experienced many personal firsts on trips such as these. These firsts included seeing the ocean and swimming in it, going into a cave, catching my first fish and shooting my first firearm, seeing my first mountains and crossing the Mississippi River. I even once got to stay in one of those first chain motels to spring up along the new freeway system…The Holiday Inn! Remember the Holiday Inn sign? It was a rippling neon sign like the Coke sign in Times Square. You could often see it miles ahead, beckoning the traveler like the Sirens Song. It sang out. “Stop Here!—refresh yourself in our sparkling modern motel! . . . See how the worldly wise traveler lives!”—Walt Disney didn’t do it any better!
Tours in England and Germany did not call an end to our annual driving vacations. Rather they just added to the adventure. Like stateside trips minus the relatives. They’d be all travel and all play.
I would learn later in life that Mom had been the driving force behind our annual European Vacations. Mom was in charge of keeping the household finances, and she was good at it. This did not mean that she was not a financial risk taker. She decided that the best investment she could make for her family while we were stationed in Europe, would be to see to it that we took advantage of where we were, to see and do everything that was possible for us. She believed that anything she could do to broaden her children;s horizons would be worth the expense in the long run.
She was determined not to waste this opportunity to be exposed to all that the European continent has to offer. To this end our family would spend the majority of Dad’s annual leave on the road in Europe. She would plan these trips through shrewd financial planning, tempered with her own pioneering spirit. She played the long game well. At her initial instigation we would set off each year in search of new and different places and adventures. Of course we would do this on the cheap!
Our families first trip overseas was a three year tour in England which began in the early fall of 1954. I was too young to remember much of anything pertaining to our time in England so what follows is family history passed down to me in later years. Every year in England our family would spend several weeks wandering the landscape of the British Isles as well as jaunts across the channel. Evidently the American Dollar went quite far in those days and my parents could afford for us to stay in pension styled small hotels or Bed and Breakfasts. A forward operating base of sorts would be established in a particular city or town and daily patrols would set out to see the local sights.
These sights would generally be of the free or almost free variety. We’d go visit museums or castles and palaces open to the public. Cathedral visits were often made. The European Cathedrals are as much works of architectural wonder and splendor as they are destinations for people of faith. The English seaside was visited, and the Cliffs of Dover. Stonehenge was done. Holland and it’s fields of tulips above which windmills churned were seen. Paris and the Eiffel Tower. Le Arc De Triomphe and the Burgundy and Norman countryside. We evidently went to see Olympic skater Sonja Henje do her thing. All this would set the stage for our next tour in Europe. The one I remember most.
The year 1960 found us at the beginning of a three year tour in Germany and a continuance of our annual European Vacations. My Mom figured to see a lot of countries while we were there and though the dollar still went pretty far overseas in those days, still the distances involved, and the associated expenses, would alter somewhat the style of our vacations, if not the substance.
It was determined by my Mom that our annual vacations would seek to stretch our dollars by becoming family camping vacations. Mom had never really camped before, although her personality had been well prepared for it, having grown up in the life of a hard working and self sufficient farm family. Dad on the other hand had grown up camping out while on hunting and fishing trips, so was well versed on the subject. Even had he not grown up learning to camp, the Army had provided him all the necessary experience.
The Army is big into camping. In fact they ought to own the intellectual rights to the word “camping”. The Army likes to go places too and also is often forced to do so on the cheap, thus it’s love for camping out under the stars…..and in the rain…and in the mud..and have I mentioned the snow? Yep…big campers the Army. Nightly accommodations would be required for our trips so my parents would purchase a large, three room, canvas monstrosity of a tent that a group of circus roadies would be challenged to erect.
During our three years in Germany we would visit many European countries on our annual camping expeditions. Among them would be France,Denmark,Holland,Austria,Switzerland,Spain and Italy. Sprinkled among those biggies would be little postage stamp countries like Luxembourg,Lichtenstein, Andora and Monaco. I’ve also likely forgotten to mention several. In all those countries the things we did and saw closely mirrored those of our earlier English tour. Historical, Cultural and Religous sights were seen. All the normal visits to sites of antiquity plus natural wonders like the Alps, The Black Forest and the man made wonders like the canals of Venice. I saw too many sights and had too many experiences to properly relate in this type of writing so I’ll focus just on the camping aspect of our trips.
I think it must be said that had our trips not been of the camping variety we would never have been able to afford to go to all those places we did. Camping meant saving money on hotels and meals and was a very accepted means of travel and sightseeing among the denizens of the European Continent. Camping was somewhat different than here in the States. I would venture to say that most family camping here in the States occurs in places like State and National Parks or public owned land and forests. Some camping here does take the form of stays at places like KOA campgrounds, but a lot of stays in places like that involve staying in motor homes or campers and not for the majority part tents.
In Europe, most of the campgrounds were not in themselves destination points, but rather simply places to establish temporary quarters while you explored or visited the surrounding area. Most of the places we camped were often little more than a farmer’s pasture. It was quite common for landowners to set aside a place in their fields in which they could charge a small fee for folks to set up their tents. In most cases the only facilities would be a primitive latrine and a pump from which to draw drinking and washing water. Sometimes these spots would butt up to a stand of trees but often as not they were in wide open fields with no ready shade to hand. The only time we actually spent in and around the campground was generally in the morning prior to heading out, and at dinner time, and of course night ime.
We would arrive at these campsites looking like an uprooted family of Okies. The five of us, all our clothes and personal items, and all associated camping gear, crammed in, and atop, our Studebaker Lark Station wagon. One year there were seven of us when an Uncle and one of my female cousins flew over and toured with us. Can you imagine seven people and all that gear in that wagon?
I don’t think a Coyote smuggling illegal immigrants across our border could have stuffed more folks and gear into our car! Laundry facilities being fairly non-existant, Mom also brought along a washboard and large galvanized tub in which to do our laundry. All hot meals were cooked on a two burner Primus stove hooked up to a bulk propane tank, from which sprouted a gas distribution post servicing both the stove and our lantern. We ate out of cans often. Big cans of beef stew or chicken dumplings. Some I suspect was Army rations as I seem to remember a lot of OD colored cans. This fare was supplemented by fresh local breads, cheeses and sausage. Eggs would be on the menu if available.
During all our camping trips I don’t recall ever running into any fellow American campers. Of course we didn’t meet every camper at those campgrounds but I’m sure any Americans would have stood out. For our bigger American cars if nothing else. The one notable exception to this was running into my Dad’s aunt in Lucerne Switzerland. She was on a European group tour and by sheer coincidence ran into Dad at an American Express office where they had both gone to cash travelers checks. Small world ain’t it. We would of course meet many of our fellow campers and if they happened to be English speakers we’d converse with them. I can remember sitting around with Europeans sharing our respective food and drink.
I remember after having my birthday celebration at our campsite one year, I took my new western styled gun belt and cap guns out into the dirt lane along which the campsites were arrayed, and then having mock western style shootouts with some Frenchman or other native of Europe. I’d draw and fire and he’d make a big production of falling over dead. Great fun! Almost universally we were treated well by those European campers, enjoyed our associations with them and never had any problems. When we left for the day we would leave behind in camp all our clothes and equipment. Once my Mom left a clothesline full of clothes to dry and off we went. Later in the day we received unexpected rain. Upon returning to camp, the first thing Mom noticed was that all those hanging clothes were gone. Initially fearing someone had stolen them she was ashamed to discover that a kind camper, upon seeing the approaching rain, had collected our dried clothes, folded them neatly and placed them on a cot in our tent way from the rain..
Looking back on those days makes me proud of my parents and their pioneering spirit. Our trips were in essence much like those of my parent’s forebear’s when they too packed up and went off in search of new lands and experiences. Just the thought of what my Dad would have done had that Lark suffered a catastrophic failure on one of those trips. I mean, where over there could he have found something like a Studebaker water pump for our car?
I bet he used to sweat bullets every time we pulled out. Of course there were numerous U.S. Military bases of one kind or another spread out all over Europe and we indeed would avail ourselves of them while on our journeys, for things such as filling the tank with gas, or purchasing more of those swell cans of stew and chili! In fact the only nights I can recall not sleeping in a tent on these yearly excursions was once when we stayed a couple of nights at an Army recreation facility in the Garmisch-Partkenkirchen area in the Bavarian Alps and once as I recall in a somewhat similar U.S. Air Force facility somewhere along the seacoast in Spain.
All in all those vacations were a wonderful experience. A real eye opener into life on the European Continent. I can thank my parents for all they did in helping me to broaden my horizons and expose me to different people and different places. I would not trade any of those material things my parents could have bought us instead of spending that money on those trips, for that which those trips taught me. Nor I think do my kids feel deprived for similar reasons. It sometimes seems my goals in life have been looking forward, and planning, where my next way station along the road is going to be. Be on the lookout for me next time you are on the road. Who knows, our dreams may be calling us to the same place!