Author: Vivian Cumins

My family never took exotic summer vacations when I was growing up. There were no trips to the beach or weeklong voyages to Disneyland. We never boarded an airplane or stayed in a hotel. Instead, we road-tripped to Iowa, the land of endless cornfields, grain bins, and silos—and home to Melvin and Opal Schmidt, a.k.a. Grandma and Grandpa. I loved going to Grandma’s house, but even more, I loved the journey to Grandma’s house. For my parents and older sister, Vicki, our vacation started once we reached our destination. For me, vacation began in the backseat.

Made it to Grandma's House (Family Vacay, Iowa, 1977)

Made it to Grandma’s house (family vacation, Iowa, 1977)

Backseat vacations meant my mom would take me to TG&Y to pick out a few boredom busters for the trip. I would thoroughly examine the shelves stocked with toys, books, and trinkets and then selectively choose either a deck of Old Maid cards or an activity book. I loved activity books! They were full of coloring pages, connect-the-dots, and word-find puzzles. Sometimes I talked my mom into buying me a new box of crayons, too. As I got older, my mom still took me to the store prior to our trip, but my choices evolved over time. Instead of activity books and crayons, I chose TigerBeat magazines filled with pictures of teen heartthrobs such as Scott Baio and Shaun Cassidy.

The night before our nine-hour journey, I watched my dad map out our trip with the help of his oversized Atlas. For those of you unfamiliar with an Atlas, it is a book of printed maps that lists every highway, byway, road, and street within the United States. There was no such thing as GPS back then—the Atlas was our GPS. And my dad was a professional at reading them.

While my dad figured out the logistics, my mom prepared lunches and snacks for our mobile picnic. The main course included three types of sandwiches: peanut butter, ham, and bologna with mustard—all on white Wonder bread. Paired with the sandwiches was a large bag of Ruffles potato chips. For snacks, she stocked up on pretzels, crackers, and cookies. Drinks were a variety of Shasta pop – I always called dibs on the root beer. Mom neatly wrapped each pop can in aluminum foil before placing in the cooler. She said the foil kept them colder longer.

The backseat belonged exclusively to Vicki and me; it was our domain. Shoe removal, though not mandatory, was the first order of business, followed by pillow placement. The left side belonged to Vicki, and the right belonged to me. The space between us was reserved for our store-bought activities, which we would get to later—the first few hours were spent giggling and playing “Slug-bug,” “Rock-Paper-Scissors,” and “I-Spy.”

Naps ultimately followed, and, luckily for us, the backseat was long enough for Vicki and me to stretch out. Since seatbelts were simply a suggestion back then, my dad shoved the buckles into the seat cracks so they wouldn’t poke us while we slept. The humming sound of tires rolling down the highway lulled me to sleep in a matter of seconds. I slept like a rock in the backseat. I recall times when my mom had to shake me awake for a bathroom break.

Pitstops took place at either the Sinclair or Texaco gas station. As a little girl, I didn’t like the Sinclair station because it had a big, green brontosaurus statue out front. I knew the dinosaur wasn’t real, but it freaked me out. I still don’t like the Sinclair dinosaur.

Except for gas stops, my dad always drove straight through, which made my fidgety body uncomfortable. I loved backseat vacations, but leg stretches were few, and that made me cranky. Whiny inquiries of whether we were there yet would begin to invade the car after approximately seven hours. The whiny inquires came from me. My mom’s responses were always “no”—until fields of corn stalks came into full view. Only then would she tell us to put our shoes on. We were almost there!

From the front porch, Grandma and Grandpa waved as we pulled into the drive. Big hugs and lipstick kisses smothered us before they escorted us inside, where Grandma’s delicious food was waiting for us at the kitchen table. Before going in, I would take one look back at the car. My backseat vacation was officially over, but I wasn’t sad. I would get to go on another in two weeks when we headed back home.