Ah, Sunday drives. If you can find two words in the English language that more abruptly call to mind gargantuan Cadillacs, clean-cut hair styles, and slow cruising, let me know.
Sunday drives were a big part of my growing up. I spent countless weekends in the backseat of some Pontiac or another, sliding around with my brothers on the vinyl upholstery, listening to Karen Carpenter on the radio and smelling my mother’s Jean Nate.
My parents were both from Ohio. They grew up there, trudging through the snow (uphill, both ways, of course) and working at various gas stations and five-and-dimes throughout their teens. But about a year after they got married, my dad jumped at a great job offer in the aerospace industry and they moved to California. They drove the 2,500-or-so miles when I was 6 weeks old – two young 23-year-olds, eyes open wide, amazed that they were permanently in a land of squawking seagulls and 70-degree temps. And their amazement at the west coast ultimately resulted in regular weekend awe: every chance they got, they’d get out their maps and explore.
All through the late 60s and early 70s, we drove. My parents and I, then later my two brothers, would drive to Newport Beach in a Pontiac Catalina and watch the waves crash on the jetty. We’d go to Balboa Island and ride the ferry for a dime and get ice creams on the island. We’d drive up to Lake Arrowhead to the snow, or visit Santa’s Village. We’d cruise Long Beach’s “Ports O’ Call” and look at the kaleidoscopes. We’d go Huntington Beach’s “Old Towne Mall” and get fruity lollipops. We regularly went to the Knott’s Berry Farm shops, where we looked at rocks and walked through a lava tunnel, and we often went behind the Disney hotel to see the dancing waters show for free. My early years were like being on vacation every weekend, because my parents still couldn’t believe they weren’t tourists.
When I had my own kids, even though I was as native as a native can be, I decided to replicate a lot of these trips. They’re almost all free, and perfect for a young couple on a limited budget. A lot of my friends were opting to enroll their kids in expensive classes and activities every weekend, but I couldn’t afford those. So I hoped that our family day trips would be satisfactory learning experiences. And, overall, I think they were. At the very least, they made us a close family.
We did Roger’s Gardens in the spring to see what was in bloom and watch the tiny train; we did Bell Gardens every fall to walk the corn “maize.” We watched the dancing waters show at Disneyland; toured Mission San Juan Capistrano for tamale festivals; rode the Balboa ferry; watched the trains arrive at the SJC depot; picked apples in Julian; dipped our toes in the ocean at numerous beaches; walked the trails of various wilderness parks.
When I started freelancing several years ago, I tended to have to work on the weekends, and our day trips came to a sudden stop. But this weekend, we revived them: We drove up to Santa Barbara mission for my littlest son, who is doing a report on it. He took pictures and we did the tour, and my teenagers even came along and contributed to the day. We ate doughnuts in the car, gazed at the spring-green hills, hopped out to take roadside pictures, and created another bucket of memories.
It reminded me, actually, of how important Sunday drives are, and how they can provide a lifetime of memories for a child. The best things in life – laughter, inside jokes, family closeness and family memories – truly are free.
How about you? Do you have memories of Sunday drives? What are some of your most vivid memories as a child of something your family did for free?