Vacationing on a budget was standard fare when I was a kid. My folks could barely feed six kids, pay the bills and keep up with house repairs. Luxury vacations weren’t even on their radar screen.
Our summer vacations often involved a long hot drive in a car with no air conditioning through one little country town after another on a two-lane highway to visit some relative I’d never even heard of before.
You see, in the days when I was a boy the Interstate highway system was incomplete. This meant that to get somewhere you had to drive on the U.S. Highways or state roads. Of course they all went right through the middle of the county seat where traffic was always congested.
My Dad couldn’t leave to take us anywhere until he got off work on Friday night. So Saturday mornings usually meant loading up the car with everything Mom had already packed and heading out as early as feeding and changing a couple of babies would permit.
Saturdays used to be very busy times for people in the little towns along the highways. The courthouse lawns always had a bench where we saw old men sitting and whittling. The locals were shopping at the Mom and Pop stores along Main Street, tractors were sputtering along the highway between fields, flatbed trucks with grinding gears grumbled along in the steady line of traffic that stopped and started over and over as we made our way eventually past the only stoplight in town.
I can recall looking out the open window as we sat on the hot pavement waiting our turn to move. I could hear the conversations of people walking on the sidewalks as they passed by. I could look into the windows of the hardware stores, the drug stores with the soda fountains and the dress shops where ladies were holding dresses up on hangers and giving them a good look over.
I can remember the smells of farm trucks, of grease, and hay and cattle. I can recall the final whoosh of air as we cleared the light and followed the line of traffic between little towns.
Along the highways were many small motels, some advertising that they had TV’s in the rooms, very few offering a pool.
Shiny silver diners seemed to be everywhere offering customers a “bottomless cup” of coffee, country ham or farm fresh eggs.
Every so often there would be some sort of roadside amusement. An old Indian outside of a Teepee who would let you pay him to get your picture made was a regular stop for us somewhere along the way.
And as we made our way toward our destination we saw the landscape change. Rugged farms turned into groomed pastures. Struggling little farm towns turned into historic places where the houses were huge, the trees mature and the streets wide and clean.
In some Kentucky towns it seemed as if there was still an old Southern feel to the place, a charm that even a kid could not ignore.
Our stops for gasoline were always met with the “ding-ding” of the bell hose stretched across the pavement to alert the owner that he had a customer. As we sat at the pump a man would emerge from one of the two open garage bays wiping his hands on a shop rag and take my Dad’s order for gas, and fill the tank, check “under the hood,” maybe sell us a can of oil, add water to our battery or fill our radiator.
There was no convenience store; the bathrooms were accessed from the outside using a key chained to a log, and if there was anything to buy inside the little glass windowed office it was usually a corn cob pipe, a Nehi or a Moon Pie.
Yesterday I was in Flemingsburg and with the help of my I-phone mapping application I plotted my trip home through Frankfort via the “country route” rather than taking the expressway.
As I felt the weightlessness cresting the hills on the rolling old roadways, passed through little towns and enjoyed the changing scenery, I was taken back to the days of those old low-budget vacations we enjoyed as kids, and it occurred to me.
This year, if money is tight, or if you just want to enjoy a bit of nostalgia, consider taking your family on a Kentucky vacation, along the old scenic highways, instead of busting it to Florida, or South Carolina.
Drive the old roads instead of navigating TSA at the airport. There are lots of State Parks, historic sites, beautiful scenery, festivals and food fairs, outdoor theater, quaint little restaurants, cute gift shops and tons of other things to do, close to home, inexpensively and yet richly rewarding.
This year, if you haven’t already made your plans, pull out a map, sit down at the table with your kids, plot out a route, anticipate what you will see and then drive Kentucky.
You never know what you will do for the imagination of a bright-eyed boy staring out the window at the old men on the courthouse lawn. You might just give him memories that will last a lifetime.
Marcus Carey is a Northern Kentucky lawyer with 32 years experience. He is also a farmer, talk radio host and public speaker who loves history and politics. He is a prolific and accomplished writer whose blog, BluegrassBulletin.com, is “dedicated to honest and respectful comment on the political and cultural issues of our time.” He writes a regular commentary for KyForward.