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My partner tells the story of her family’s Brady Bunch-inspired drive to the Grand Canyon and back, two parents and three kids with pop-up camper in tow. The Brady Bunch drove from Los Angeles, but Kim’s family lived in New Jersey. Theirs was a serious haul.
At other times, they went on joint vacations in New England with other families, or solo trips to Ireland to see the motherland (literally — her mother was Irish). They were a traveling family, real vacationing types.
My family didn’t get out much. Our trips consisted of drives to one nearby town (about an hour away) to see my mom’s parents and drives to another town (about 90 minutes away) to see my dad’s parents. The paternal grandparents owned a skating rink, so that made for a fun getaway, except that I never quite got comfortable on skates, and at some point the rink burned to the ground and my grandparents moved to Florida.
The first actual vacation I remember us taking was in 1982 or 1983 — my mother and I disagree about what year it was. My parents had long since divorced, but my mom was dating a man who had a truck camper with two beds where my brother and I alternately slept and played games and most likely fought during the long drive to Chicago. It took about five hours, a real long-distance trip for us.
My memories from that trip are few, but crisp: The walk-through model human heart and the baby chicks in an incubator at the Museum of Science & Industry. The scary motel where we stayed the first night, with prostitutes working on the street outside the window. Sleeping in the camper during the drive. And the zoo — oh, the zoo.
The Brookfield Zoo was the first serious zoo I visited. It was large and beautiful and the animals were so exotic. As I remember it, they were all happy and peaceful in their zoo exhibits — I’m much more cynical these days about wild animals in confinement.
Somewhere there is a photograph of me standing next to a statue of a lion at the zoo. I must have climbed up onto the pedestal, because it’s shot from below. I have floppy hair, big glasses — very early ’80s — and am wearing shorts and a Kansas City Royals T-shirt. I’m tan and smiling and am so obviously thrilled to be on my first vacation.
I remember the zoo trinket I bought — a brushed silver dish with a tiger cub etched on it, bearing the name of the zoo. I have no idea what happened to it, but it was my most prized possession for a while. It also was relatively expensive, compared with what my mother hoped to see us spend on zoo trinkets, but I talked her into it. I convinced her that I needed that dish.
It wasn’t until college that I expanded my states-visited list to 10, quickly reached when I took an internship in Ohio, just across the Kentucky border and right near West Virginia. After a post-graduation vacation drive to D.C. and then Vermont, I stopped counting states.
Nowadays I don’t sit still much. I’m either away from home or scheduled for a flight in the near future. I am the vacation planner in the household; I find and propose intriguing destinations, and after Kim gives the okay, I get to work making it happen. We’ve been to dozens of destinations, including Seattle, New Mexico, California and Vermont several times each. Crossing the border we’ve hit Canada, Ireland, Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands. I also travel pretty often without her, because I can’t sit still — I have all those years of immobile youth to make up for.
This coming weekend, I’m flying to Chicago to meet my brother, his wife, and my adorable 4-year-old niece. They live in Iowa, but they’re driving over to enjoy the big city. The drive is faster now; the slow two-lane highways of my youth have given way to an enhanced infrastructure and higher speed limits. Cassie, my niece, will experience Chicago years earlier than I did. But she’s already a traveling kid; last summer she came to our house with her parents.
This weekend — a hastily planned jaunt that came about when my brother mentioned that they were thinking about a getaway and I invited myself to join them — will be full of good times. I can’t think of too many bad times I’ve had when Cassie’s been around. It’ll also be full of memories, as the Brookfield Zoo is high on our to-do list. I haven’t been there since 1982 (or 1983, depending on whom you believe), and visiting with my brother will provide perspectives I couldn’t possibly come up with on my own.
Cassie will get whatever zoo trinket she wants; her Aunt Kris is liberal with the credit card where nieces are concerned. If things haven’t changed too much, I’ll get a photo of myself standing next to the lion statue. It won’t be my most exotic vacation, or a very long one, but it will definitely be one of the most special.