There was a concept that was foreign to me as a child and, frankly, even as a single adult that has grown on me to the degree that I'm not sure how I did without it previously. It's the family vacation.
Growing up, we didn't take vacations, mostly because any off time my father had needed to be reserved for travel associated with the almost yearly memorialization and internment of one of my two-pack-a-day, bacon-with-every-meal uncles.
Yes, I understand that seems callous, but my mother and father were the youngest and oldest in their respect large families, and had left their hometown very early in their marriage, so I didn't really know these people. And, let's face it: After a bit, you'd think you'd notice a pattern and potentially do something about it. Like, put down the Lucky's and throw in a salad.
The Lovely Mrs. Smith's family, however, were big believers in both the idea of a communal vacation and in going to the same place every year. So, when my wife asked my opinion on where our young family should go and got a blank stare of non-comprehension from me (not for the first and certainly not for the last time), well the course was set. Or the fix was in, depending on how devious you may believe her to be.
As a result, we've been going back to the same place roughly every year of our married life that included children. Which is just fine with me, since my wife and I enjoy it and the kids seemed to either love it, tolerate it or at least hate it quietly, depending on which circle of puberty hell we were joining them in at the moment.
I mention this to say, we did it again. Which, like the tides we encounter while there is, basically, a lead pipe cinch.
Now, while the location hasn't varied more than a few miles and a different rental home over the years, the to-and-from part has changed quite a bit. Previously, we would load up whichever monstrously large vehicle we were driving at the time with all our children and typically some of their friends, all the assorted gear, stuff we didn't need and would likely break or lose and not something we would later desperately need.
We would either do this at the pre-Crack of Dawn so as to avoid traffic (and our children being awake), which made for a very long day, or break it up with a hotel stay, which made for two very long days and another chance to lose a retainer.
We would break up the monotony of this by playing a series of car games. The first was called "Are We There Yet?" and started as soon as one or all of the children woke up, roughly at Russellville. This would be followed by a round of "How Much Farther?" which started about Little Rock. Then there was another favorite, "Stop Looking At Me!" and then "I Have To Go To the Bathroom, Yes, I Know We Just Stopped for Lunch and Gas Five Minutes Ago But I Didn't Have To Go Then."
And then we played the final round – "The First Person Who Speaks Gets Let Off at a Rest Stop in Mobile, Alabama" game. Which, despite the fact that it was never going to happen, did seem to work. And forever warp my children's impression of Mobile.
Now the Lovely Mrs. Smith and I tend to travel by ourselves, which means we pass our time trying to figure out Spotify, noticing (frequently) that the residents of Mississippi seem to enjoy deer hunting, not fixing their roads and slowing down traffic and arguing with Google Maps.
We also still play the "I Have To Go To the Bathroom" game but it's sort of a different deal.
These are frantic, stressful, difficult times. The world changes, moment by moment and often not for the better. Even those events most familiar to us have been altered in many ways, lessened to a great degree.
So with that, and despite the challenges it's good, even necessary, to take a break, to return to the familiar, to spend time with family. To watch a perfect sunset, knowing there will be another just like it tomorrow, and that you'll be there to see it, at least for a few days.
And if you want to know where the best rest stops are across most of the Southeast, we can help you there. We're champs at "I Have To Go To the Bathroom."
Gary Smith is a recovering journalist living in Rogers.