I’m off to my brother’s wedding in a couple of weeks. It will be the first time my immediate family has been together since 2006. Getting together these days can get a bit pricey and off course means taking time off from the daily gig, but I never hesitate. Thinking about this made me reflect on our family trips over the years and how priceless they are.
A road trip in my family normally included piling 4 young kids and two parents into a Volkswagen microbus, and trekking off across county. Sometimes it was a 2000-mile round trip to a National Park or a maybe it was a 1000-mile trip to Cape Town and back to pick up a new puppy. This was before the days of AirBnB or VRBO, so my folks would somehow organize pit stops and accommodation along the way. Sometimes these stops were at family friends and sometimes they were in roadside motels. Normally it was one room with all of us piled in, and sometimes it was two rooms with my sister and parents in one, and me and brothers in the other. If we were in the bush and I was sharing with my brothers then I’d go sleep with them telling me the hyenas had broken through the parameter fence and I would be the first to be eaten.
Most stops along the way involved unpacking the car, taking family pictures with my dad’s beloved Nikon and exploring our new accommodations. It was incredibly exciting winding down a dirt road towards a small dark farmhouse or checking into a motel in the middle of the country at 9pm at night. As a kid I had no concept of time or space other than the road ahead, dinner (probably sweet corn on toast) and which bed I’d be sleeping in that night. Picking beds with older brothers involved a highly complex hierarchy that normally involved my mother’s intervention once the younger brother (me) was told his bed was the mattress on the floor or the bed closest to the door.
A highlight on these road trips was sitting up front with my dad in the passenger driver seat and wearing the seatbelt while studiously paging through the road atlas. My father had a rule – you had to be a certain height before you could sit up front so that the seat belt would cross your chest and not your neck when you were sitting upright. Height was key and a instant disqualifier for my little sister.
A couple of times the car would overheat and we’d limp into a small Karoo town garage in the middle of nowhere. Remember this was before cell phones, so if you broke down on the road then you flagged someone down for help. A roadside stop for us would mean target practice with my older brothers, by throwing stones at anything that looked like a target, irritating my little sister or just waiting around watching cars go by. I never doubted for a second it was permanent breakdown…sooner or later we piled back into the car and moved on to the next adventure. Only now do I appreciate how my parents must have stressed about getting the car fixed, the delayed schedule, keeping us fed and occupied while staying sane…remember no cell phone to contact the hosts awaiting your arrival.
As a family we still laugh about these trips. Whether it was Yosemite when we got lost in back country trying to find the Hetch Hetchy valley or finding a cockroach in a bowl of soup in a small back country motel. Most of the time it’s the unplanned things on the way that weren’t on the itinerary that keep us laughing.
I remember a return trip from a National Park and setting up “camp” in a small town in the middle of nowhere. We were all piled into one room and it was so cold we all put multiple layers of clothes on and slept next to each other to warm up. I don’t know what my parents were thinking but I was having the time of my life…it was so exciting. We were freezing cold but everyone was laughing and trying to keep warm. My mom told me later they ended up waking us up at 4am and leaving because the car was definitely warmer. We were all still wearing 3 or 4 layers of clothing and headed to the gas station to fill up with petrol. At the pump next to us there was a farmer filling up his truck…and he was wearing shorts and a t-shirt. We still talk about that cold morning and laugh about the “farmer at the gas station”.
These memories are the glue that binds my family together. It’s the small moments we still laugh about years later. Of course we all drove our siblings and probably my parents crazy (my best wrestling techniques, which involved straddling my brother’s chest while holding his arms down with my knees were perfected when I was around 10 years old).
Looking back I think my parents were probably a little nuts and naive to pile 4 kids into a microbus and drive across the country, but I’m glad they were and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.