Summertime Memories Revived in Road Trip

June 25, 2008 at 6:50 PM EDT

JULIA KELLER, NewsHour essayist: Now it begins, the season of the great American family car trip. One minivan, check; parent or parents in the front seat, check; a back seat, occupied by a squirming little brother or a fidgety little sister, check and check.

The destination might be the beach or the mountains or Disney World. It might be Washington, D.C. It might be the Grand Canyon or the grandparents.

This annual rite of passage has changed over the years, of course. It used to be station wagons and magnetic checkers. Now it’s a minivan or SUV and portable DVD players. And the change in the price of gas — ah, of that, let us dare not speak.

Yet the family summer car trip remains, at its core, timeless. It is still about packing up, heading out, then coming home. It is still about traveling as a unit, a community. It’s a latter-day Lewis and Clark expedition, only this time with snacks.

Maybe that’s why the family summer car trip is at the heart of so many stories, featuring so many different kinds of families. Stories from the road always enthrall us, but we’re most enchanted when the travelers are connected by blood or desire and their fates are intertwined.

CHEVY CHASE, actor: Wally World, here we come!

JULIA KELLER: The 1983 film “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” starring Chevy Chase as the hapless dad trying to get the wife and kids to Wally World, is one kind of family road trip, but there’s also “The Wizard of Oz,” which is really just a glorified road trip with a makeshift family.

And don’t forget Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” a few centuries before. John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath,” for all of its dusty tragedy, is, at bottom, about a family car trip. And so is “On the Road,” Jack Kerouac’s jazzy tribute to American wanderlust and passionate friendship.

It’s not about where they go or why; it’s about who comes along for the ride.

The family summer car trip is a good working metaphor for the progress of life. You start out in the back seat. You’re a kid with no power, no say over when or where or if the car stops or goes.

Then you grow into adulthood and, before you know it, you’ve moved into the front seat. The steering wheel is in your hands.

And yet you sometimes find yourself secretly missing that back seat, that place where the biggest thing you had to worry about was keeping your little sister’s mitts off your Superman comic book.

And while you’re moving from the back seat to the front seat, the car is moving, too, past the busy blur of the years that fly by like painted barns, and mile markers, and Burger Kings.

Unlike other odysseys you make in your life — off to college, off to marriage or a relationship, or a job — with the family summer car trip, you know you’ll be coming home again. You’ll end up back where you started, maybe hauling a few souvenir snow globes, but home, full circle.

And you realize that what actually matters isn’t where you go or when, but who you go there with, even if it’s an especially annoying little sister who, by the way, never did return that Superman comic book of mine, and you better believe I’m telling Mom.

I’m Julia Keller.