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Aug 26, 2020

Hotels Push the “Nostalgia” of Family Road Trips—Whose?!

They’re not like those Eastmancolor® postcards

By Ed Goldman

Hotels are regrouping during the pandemic by promoting the purported nostalgia of family road trips, according to a story in the New York Times. I guess the idea is that you and the whole family are just stir-crazy enough in the confined space of your home to jump into the confined space of your car and go on a long drive, spending your nights enroute in the confined space of motel rooms.  

This makes two questions pop into my mind, which, in keeping with the spirit of today’s discussion, has a Vacancy sign posted on my forehead:

  1. Have any of these hotel executives or marketing mavens ever seen the National Lampoon “Vacation” films—especially the first one, called simply, “National Lampoon’s Vacation”?
  2. Have any of these people ever even been on a family road trip?

The family road trip on 1950-60s picture postcards, all of which must have been shot in Eastmancolor®, often depicts a paneled station wagon parked on the shoulder of a pristine mountain road, a stunning valley vista below, a cloudless azure sky above, and a porcelain-white family of four admiring the view: Mom and Dad in their late 30s and matching flannel shirts; 10-year-old Sis in a polka-dot dress and matching hair bow; and eight-year-old Little Brother, with a nagging forelock, in a mini-version of Mom and Dad’s flannel shirts, a sling shot draping out of the back pocket of his shorts. That scamp.

There’s also an avid cocker spaniel, collie or golden retriever captured in mid-romp just outside the station wagon’s tailgate—a dog you intuit would never, ever dash back excitedly onto the pristine mountain road and be struck by an 18-wheeler, or, chasing after a mischievous pocket gopher, frolic his way over the cliff.

What the postcards don’t show is anything resembling my own memories of family road trips, such as:

  • Our family’s 1961 Rambler American (with reclining seats) overheating every 15 minutes while ascending the mountain;
  • My dad—his hands, arms, face, beige windbreaker (with Tartan-pattern lining), ecru chinos and sage-green deck shoes, covered in grease after fixing the Rambler American’s frayed fan belt by somehow splicing his own 34-inch-waist leather belt onto it. Mission accomplished, we were able to flap-whap-flap our way to the crest of the mountain, where there was a sole gas station owned by a codger named Gus, who installed a new fan belt at only five times the usual price.  
  • Stopping for the night at a Travelodge—the motel whose logo was a somnambulistic little bear in a billowy nightshirt and floppy nightcap—and finding it had only one room left for the four of us (my eldest brother Jerry always opted out of adventures like these, going so far as to enlist in the U.S. Army for three years, which I found a little extreme). 

This is when I first learned to share a cot with Stuart, my middle brother, who had shaky-leg syndrome all of his life. This was problematic when I was seated next to him at the dinner table, but catastrophic when sharing a bed big enough for the aforementioned pocket gopher (and possibly, its significant other). In short, this is also when I first discovered the comparative comfort of sleeping on a recently vacuumed Travelodge carpet. To this day, when I vacuum my carpet at home, the aroma induces a nostalgic reverie and I lie down on it to nap.

Now that this very weird summer of 2020 is either drawing to a close or withdrawing from exhaustion, I suppose that some families will still embark on road trips. Some parents may feel inspired to go for one last hurrah—to (as Groucho Marx sang it in “A Night at the Opera”), “Sing Ho for the Open Highway! Sing Ho for the Open Road!” 

But most will realize that with almost every school district in California not reopening, in an effort to try to contain the pandemic, a road trip may be the antithesis of what the doctor ordered. Instead, they’ll wisely order a pizza from a local parlor and “National Lampoon’s Vacation” from a streaming service. Still much thriftier than buying a new fan belt.

Ed Goldman's column appears almost every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. A former daily columnist for the Sacramento Business Journal, as well as monthly columnist for Sacramento Magazine and Comstock’s Business Magazine, he’s the author of five books, two plays and one musical (so far).