Travel Young, Travel Often

Do you remember your earliest vacation? My first foray beyond my own area code happened when I was just a few weeks old and my parents nearly froze me in a camper near Nashville, Indiana. (To be fair, they didn't have access to the Weather Channel then.) We have photos of me on Daytona Beach at two-ish, I cried at the top of the line for Space Mountain at five, and I spent all of my earliest summers in the Canaan Valley of West By God Virginia.

The first vacation I vividly recall being on, though, was a Christmas trip to New York and Connecticut when I was eight. It was my first time flying, and I was hooked from the start.

During the flight, the Piedmont crew gave me little traveler's wings and we saw the aurora borealis out in the cold, crisp December sky. In the city, I skated at Rockefeller Center and trudged through ten inches of fresh snow in my silver, pink, and purple moon boots to have a Coke at P.J. Clarke's. My favorite memory of that trip, though, isn't even the city. I most remember the service at New Canaan's Roger Sherman Inn. As a typical third grader, I'd brought my favorite doll along for the ride. The Inn's hostess showed us to a room which not only offered a twin bed for me, but a little crib for my doll as well! I was old enough to know you don't get that treatment at the Holiday Inn.

By the time seventh grade and the "favorite place you've ever been" assignment came up, I'd added Greenfield Village, Ontario, Laguna Beach, Hollywood, San Diego and Washington, D.C. to my scrapbook. I'd been to Circus Circus in Vegas and managed to run out of gas on Christmas Eve in the middle of the Mojave Desert.

Once upon a time, I even had dinner in Mexico. It was just a quick jaunt into Tijuana but still involved converting currency and felt truly foreign.

My teen summers added requisite "trips with historical value" to Colonial Williamsburg and Robert Frost's farm in New Hampshire.

We also developed a family habit of driving to Chicago for Christmas shopping at Marshall Field's and always stayed at the fit-for-a-princess Palmer House Hilton. The first year, we rolled up to the marquee after a five-hour trek through snow, and I stepped into the hotel's grand lobby wearing a wrinkled old jogging suit. Every year thereafter, I dressed up for my Palmer House arrival. I'd always wondered why my Grandmother Virginia insisted on wearing heels and a dress to fly, and it was then that I finally understood her reasoning. The Palmer House was my first experience of feeling painfully underdressed, and I didn't intend to repeat it.

Before graduating high school, I'd been to Bourbon Street and to the Cafe du Monde for beignets, watched the wild ponies and sampled soft-shelled crab at Chincoteague, and fallen in love with thoroughbreds in Kentucky.

Those early trips influenced my future travels and even area of study. Keeneland gave me a real taste for live sporting events, and I channeled that into a bona fide career in sports management. Sand and surf enthralled me most, so I found my way to Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, for my first real job out of college. A brief walk at Laguna Beach as a child sold me on living on the West Coast someday, and I eventually moved to California. Something about the tired, smoky history of P.J. Clarke's still pushes me to visit the best hidden bars and cafes in every city, searching for that same level of authenticity.

Many of the lessons I learned as a well-traveled child resonate today:

  • No matter how hot it is, pay attention as your father walks you through the historic maneuvers made at Gettysburg. It will mean everything to him when you show interest in something he considers sacred. 
  • Stop at each college or university you pass on every trip, even when your kids are young. It will save precious travel time when they reach high school. We'd already knocked out Alabama, Bennington, Cincinnati, Dartmouth, Dayton, Indiana, Miami, James Madison, Michigan, Ohio State, San Diego State, Washington & Lee, West Virginia, William & Mary, and Xavier by the time I was a freshman. (Also the University of West Florida That Wasn't, but that's a really long story.) I ended up attending the very first school I visited as an infant: Marietta College. Go figure.
  • Take off the headphones for at least a few hours of the car ride. I may have groaned at listening to "the Harrys" (Harry Belafonte and Harry Chapin) from the backseat, but now that I'm older, I have a real appreciation for the music my parents loved. When I hear anything from The Lovin' Spoonful, I'm sky-rocketed back to those endless hours heading East on the Pennyslvania Turnpike. God, I'd trade anything to take one of those trips again.
  • Perhaps the most important lesson my parents showed me through all the miles we covered together? As much as possible based on your available budget, let your family experience various levels of accommodations. For every splurge on the Palmer House or Roger Sherman Inn, we stayed in a dozen Knights Inn style motels, campers, and tents. We didn't always have reservations, and we often used the trusty AAA book and maps as our sole guides.

I grew up learning to fully appreciate luxury, find the simple joy in less elaborate lodging, and travel with enthusiasm and resourcefulness. I'll never be able to thank my parents enough for helping me see beyond my own hometown at an early age. 

Happy travels to both you and your little ones. Just be sure to fill up the tank before leaving Las Vegas. The Mojave's a heck of a place to get stranded.