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If there was ever a time Americans needed a vacation, it was the

1970s. Nearly everyone had a good reason to pack up their station

wagon or VW minibus and leave it all behind.
The gloomy conclusion to the war in Vietnam had sent morale
plummeting, while race riots taking place across the country
kept tensions high. Unemployment and inflation skyrocketed
and remained elevated so long that economists had to coin a
whole new term for the phenomenon: stagflation. All the term
really meant was that although the seventies also gave us great
new things like backyard hot tubs, home VCRs, and countertop
microwave ovens, fewer people could afford them. The pressure of
making ends meet also helped push the traditional nuclear family
into meltdown. The number of divorces filed in 1975 doubled that
of a decade earlier. Couples who did stay together had fewer children.
The U.S. birthrate plunged to its lowest level since the Great
Depression—half that of the baby boom years. Even the government
appeared to be falling apart. Just years into the decade, first
a vice president and then a president were forced to resign amid
allegations of corruption—and hardly anyone placed much faith
in the officials who remained.
Not even a night at the movies offered much escape. In keeping
with the sour mood, many popular movies of the seventies
centered on disasters, demons, and dark conspiracies. Audiences
were trapped in The Towering Inferno or booked on a doomed
flight in any of three Airport movies. If you avoided being swallowed
up by the ground in an Earthquake, you might be devoured
by the Jaws of a great white shark. The Exorcist offered a hell of
a fright. And if the devil didn’t get you, the government would,
even if it took All the President’s Men. If you somehow managed
to avoid all that, you could still be subjected to Linda Blair shaking
her booty in Roller Boogie. It’s hard to say which fate was most
Things got so bad that Americans tried just about anything
to find relief, from joining the Moonies (a controversial religious
movement blending teachings of many faiths nicknamed for its
founder, Sun Myung Moon) to disco dancing to learning to macramé.
They were desperate times indeed.
All things considered, it isn’t surprising that many people,
including my parents, decided the best plan was simply to sit out
as much of the seventies as possible at some distant beach, historic
battlefield, or theme park. Anywhere but home.
Despite the flagging economy, Americans continued taking
vacations throughout the seventies in record numbers, just as
they had since the close of World War II. Thanks to two decades
of prosperity, increasingly generous terms of employment, and
broader acceptance of the benefits of taking time off from work,
more Americans than ever before were able to escape the daily
grind, if only for a couple of weeks each year. In fact, 80 percent
of working Americans took vacations in 1970, compared to just
60 percent two decades earlier. As a result, attendance at national
parks, historic sites, and other attractions surged 20 to 30 percent
every year until 1976. Only then did the decade’s second major
fuel crisis force many families to pull the plug on their trip to see
Old Faithful or halt their march to the Gettysburg Battlefield.
To reach these far-off places, my family, like most others,
traveled by car. It wasn’t that we enjoyed spending endless hours
imprisoned together in a velour-upholstered cell, squabbling over
radio stations and inhaling each other’s farts. It was that we had
no other choice.
Air travel had always been too expensive for anyone not named
Rockefeller or traveling on the company dime, much less a pair
of middle-class parents taking four kids to the beach. Adjusted
for inflation, a domestic plane ticket in the seventies cost two to
three times the price of the same ticket today. Given the cost, it
shouldn’t be too surprising—and yet still is—that as late as 1975,
four in five Americans had never traveled by plane. Not for a
weekend getaway to Las Vegas, not to head off to college, not for
a once-in-a-lifetime honeymoon in Paris. Never.
Although ordinary Joes couldn’t afford a plane ticket, nearly
every family could afford a car, often two. If there was one thing
America was very good at, it was producing automobiles. Following
World War II, American car factories needed only to do
some quick retooling to go from churning out airplanes and tanks
to cranking out cars faster than ever. And thanks to a booming
economy, Americans could afford to buy all those shiny new cars
as fast as they rolled off assembly lines. By 1972, the number of
cars on the nation’s roads exceeded the number of licensed drivers
(inviting the troubling thought that many cars were simply
driving themselves around). What’s more, Americans loved to
get behind the wheel. During the 1970s alone, Americans logged
14.4 trillion highway miles—enough to travel from Earth to
Pluto and back 2,500 times. To be sure, most travelers selected
closer destinations, as there are so few decent hotel options along
that route even today.
My family alone was responsible for approximately 1 trillion
of the miles logged by travelers in the seventies. At least that’s
how it seemed to me: as the youngest of four kids, I was the
one relegated to the backseat, rear window shelf, or rear cargo
compartment of a series of fine American automobiles purchased
by my father over the course of the decade. Together, we toured
the country (well, half of it, anyway—we rarely traveled west of
the Mississippi) in week-long journeys taken two and sometimes
three times a year.
We were hardly pioneers, of course. By the time we got rolling
on our family road trips, Americans had already been beating a
well-worn path to the Grand Canyon and sunny beaches of Florida
for more than half a century. But for much of that time and in
many areas of the country, the routes those motorists took were
often little more than dirt tracks. Even in populated areas, drivers
often had to pick their way through a confusing maze of privately
owned turnpikes and poorly constructed two-lane highways built
simply to connect one town to the next.
It wasn’t until well after World War II that America got serious
about making long-distance road travel fast, safe, and convenient.
That’s when the country began rolling out the first of its mighty
interstates, the so-called superhighways. The interstates were marvels
of a modern era, unlike any roads Americans had traveled
before. These high-speed highways weren’t narrow and hemmed in
by trees and tall buildings. They were wide and broad-shouldered,
with huge swaths cleared on both sides to invite in sunshine and
blue sky. What’s more, they were elevated well above the surrounding
terrain, affording drivers and passengers a panoramic view of
the landscape. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the interstates
was the way they instantly made the country seem so much
smaller. Suddenly it was possible to travel from one state to the
next and even one coast to the other in a fraction of the time it
once took. Places many Americans could once only read about in
newspapers or see pictures of in magazines were now all within
reach, given a reliable car and enough cash for fuel. What’s more,
the whole family could come along. In an automobile, four or five
people could travel nearly as cheaply as one.
Making things even nicer for my family, many of the interstates
had been around long enough by the 1970s for an ample number
of restaurants, gas stations, motels, and other conveniences to
sprout up along their sides. By and large, we could count on exits
with such services at regular intervals, allowing us the opportunity
to fill our tank, grab a bite to eat, or rush in to take a quick potty as
needed. At the time, my siblings and I took all of these things for
granted. It seemed like they’d been around forever. Of course, we
were young. Compared to us, it all had been around forever. The
reality couldn’t have been further from the truth.
Like any destination worth reaching, it took considerable time
and effort to make everything that went into those great road
trips possible. It took the relentless determination of a long list
of pioneers to plan and build the roads, highways, and interstates
that allowed my family—and maybe yours too—to motor across
the expanse of our country and go anywhere we pleased. It took
the raw courage of a handful of daredevils to blaze the trails those
road builders would follow. And it took the boundless ingenuity
and quirky ideas of a long list of clever innovators and dogged
entrepreneurs to create what we remember and think of today as
the Great American Road Trip experience.
After all, somebody had to be crazy enough to be the first to try
to drive a car across the country. Somebody had to chart the first
road maps, open the first motel chains, and cut the first drivethrough
window into the side of a hamburger joint. Somebody had
to come up with nifty gadgets like the police radar gun (boo!), the
Fuzzbuster (yay!), the CB, cruise control, and the eight-track tape
deck. Somebody had to decide it was just fine for precocious sevenyear-
olds like me to roam around the car—and even sprawl out
across the rear window shelf—completely unrestrained. Somebody
had to create the first station wagon; then somebody else had to
come along years later, look at a perfectly fine brand-new design,
and say, “You know what that model needs? Some fake wood paneling
on the sides!”
So who were these somebodies? Where did they find the inspiration
for all these ideas? How did everything we remember and
love about those great road trips come to be? And why don’t many
families seem to take those long road trips together anymore?
Make yourself comfy. We’ve got some serious ground to cover
along the seldom-traveled back roads of America’s history. Fascinating
stories await.