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'On the road again'

Even a family vacation by car is an opportunity to do nothing but watch and listen

By Drew Halfnight

Out on the Bay of Fundy, the darkest waves look like breaching porpoises. A ferry grumbles up the sound, carrying obscure cargo. Sparrows issue quaint cheeps. A cormorant takes off splashily. The seaside birches dance noiselessly in the breeze.

Here on this quiet inlet, there's not much to do but watch and listen.

Sure, you can swim in the icy Atlantic water. You can lie on the grey pine deck in the sun or comb the beach at low tide for white shells and blue sea glass. You can bask in the fragrance of sweetgrass and wildflowers, too.

But you can also do nothing at all.

Recently, my family embarked on what I'm calling our first-ever road trip — an ambitious summer sojourn across a good part of the American continent. We expect adventures and misadventures alike. We hope to avoid disaster.

The trip will entail about 40 hours of voluntary confinement in my Pontiac Grand Prix sedan. The car is 15 years old. The air conditioner and CD player don't work. And if it rains hard enough, the windows fog up in the most hazardous fashion. It's my own version of the Wagon Queen Family Truckster from the 1983 comedy, "Vacation," which sees the Griswold family in an ill-fated cross-country trip.

Before leaving Toronto, we laid in provisions: a huge Toronto Public Library tote bag full of dried pears and papaya, mixed nuts, seeds, plantain chips and rice cakes, as well as all kinds of stuff we would never end up using, like a mask and snorkel, headlamps with dead batteries and an umbrella.

Our objectives are eclectic. We stopped at a family cottage in Connecticut, a wedding in the Berkshire Mountains, and a campground in Maine. After our stay at a cottage on a friend's farm in St. Andrew's, N.B., we moved on to another small farmstead in the Eastern Townships of Quebec before making our final stop in the Mile End quarter of Montreal.

The journey is a throwback to my own childhood, when my parents used to pack our six-person family into a banana-coloured station wagon for epic summer road trips. It has also allowed me to relive my days as an aimless backpacker in Europe and Asia.

Today, I feel the same old thrill as we prepare to rumble off to a new destination.

I feel some trepidation, too. Memories of the Colorado blizzard my family endured in my mom's aquamarine Trans Sport minivan come to mind (My siblings and I called that van, which appears on many lists of the ugliest cars ever made, "the dustbuster without a handle.").

This time around, I've experienced the joy of discovery vicariously, through my daughter's eyes. I saw her try her first bowl of oceanside clam chowder soup, run splashing into the cold Atlantic and explode with laughter after a rooster crowed in her face.

She's also made new friends along the way, bitten into a cucumber plucked fresh off the vine, helped her daddy build her first bonfire and spent her first night ever in a tent.

The family road trip is no longer the great North American pastime it once was. Our current obsession with speed, convenience and style makes barnstorming between nowheresvilles in an overstuffed car seem hopelessly passé and the epitome of uncool.

Plus, the rising cost of gas, food and hotels deters even middle-class families who can afford these vacations, such as they are.

So this is my paean to the Griswoldian odyssey. Here's to cramped style, haggling over directions and speed, and hoarding mementoes. Here's to creepy campgrounds and taking things a day at a time.

Most of all, here's to finding yourself in some strange corner of the world, and taking the opportunity to do nothing but watch and listen.

Author's photo
Drew Halfnight is a father, journalist and high school teacher in Toronto.
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