Lost in Vacationland

By Bill Bryson

My father lived his whole life in Iowa. But come summer he would be seized by an urge to get out of the state and go on vacation. He would load the car to groaning, hurry us into it, take off for some distant point, and after having driven to almost the next state, return to get his wallet, then take off again.

Behind the wheel, Dad was more or less permanently lost. I don't think he ever went through a really important intersection without getting siphoned into a black hole of one-way streets, an express-way into the desert or a long toll bridge to some off-shore island.

His specialty was getting hopelessly lost without ever actually losing sight of the target. He never arrived at an amusement park without first approaching it from several directions, like a pilot making passes over an unfamiliar airport.

My sister, brother and I would see it on the other side of the freeway and cry, "There it is!" Then after a minute we would spy it from another angle - on the far side of a cement works or across a river.

Sometimes all that would separate us from our goal would be a high chain-link fence. On the other side you could see happy, care-free families parking their cars. "How did they get in there?" Dad would cry. "Why can't the city put up some signs? It's no wonder you can't find your way into the place," he would add, overlooking the fact that 18,000 other people had managed to get on the right side of the fence.

Most of the time Dad was just kind of lost, but whenever we got near something we were really intent on seeing he would become seriously lost. Generally it would take him about an hour to realize that he had gone from the first stage to the second.

As he blundered through some unfamiliar city, my mother would suggest that we pull over and ask directions. But Dad would press on in that semi-obsessional state that tends to overcome fathers when things aren't going well.

Eventually, after driving the wrong way down the same one-way street so many times that merchants would come out to watch, Dad would stop the car and announce, "Well, I think we should ask directions," in a tone that made it clear this had been his desire all along.

Seldom was this more than a partial breakthrough. Either my mom would get out and stop a patently unqualified person - perhaps a nun on an exchange visit from Costa Rica - or Dad would go off to find somebody and not come back. The problem was that Dad was a great talker. He would go into a café and ask the way to Giant Fungus State Park and the next thing you knew he would be having coffee and a chat with the proprietor, or the proprietor would be taking him out back to show him his new septic tank. In the meantime, the rest of us would have to sit quietly baking in the car.

After a very long time my father would reappear, wiping crumbs from his mouth. "Darnedest thing," he would say, leaning through the window. "Guy in there collects false teeth. He's got over 700 sets. He was so pleased to have someone to show them to, and then his wife insisted that I have a piece of blueberry pie. They've never heard of Giant Fungus State Park, but the guy said his brother at the gas station has. I'm going down there now." Before anybody could stop him, he'd be gone.

Dad had just two criteria for gauging a holiday attraction: was it educational and was it free? Thus he loved historical markers. There are thousands all over America, and they are always dull. I know this because my father stopped at every one of them. You knew before you got there that they were going to be boring because if they had been even remotely interesting somebody would have set up a hamburger stand and sold souvenirs. But Dad would never fail to be impressed. Usually they would commemorate something obscure - the birthplace of the inventor of the moist towellette, for example.

He would read them aloud to us, even when we asked him not to. Then he would say, "Well, I'll be darned," and without fail would pull back on the highway into the path of an oncoming truck, which would honk furiously and shed part of its load as it swerved past.

My father also loved battlefields. He would go striding off with a guidebook and map, enthusiastically retracing the Battle of Lickspittle Ridge, or whatever.

Once I had the choice of going with my mother to the museum and looking at dresses of the Presidents' wives or staying with my dad, and I rashly chose the latter. I spent a long afternoon trailing behind him, certain that he had lost his mind. "Now this must be the spot where General Goober accidentally shot himself in the armpit and had to be relieved of command by Lieutenant Colonel Bowlingalley," he would say as we hauled ourselves to the top of a steep summit. "Pillock's forces must have been regrouping over there at those trees" - and he would point to a grove three hills away and rush off, documents fluttering in the wind.

Afterward, to my disgust, I discovered that the museum with the First Ladies' dresses had taken only 20 minutes to see, and my mother, brother and sister had spend the rest of the afternoon in a Howard Johnson's eating hot-fudge sundaes.

Sometimes we'd see billboards for some attraction as we drove along. There might be a figure of a ghost and the words "VISIT SPOOK CAVERNS! OKLAHOMA'S GREAT ATTRACTION! JUST 69 MILES!" A couple of miles later there would be another sign saying "PLENTY OF FREE PARKING AT SPOOK CAVERNS. JUST 67 MILES!" Sign after sign promised the most thrilling and instructive afternoon any family could hope to have.

These promises would be supported by illustrations showing eerie lit chambers the size of cathedrals, in which stalactites and stalagmites had magically fused into the shapes of witches' houses, bubbling cauldrons, flying bats and Casper the Friendly Ghost. We children would begin pleading to stop, taking turns to say, in a sincere and moving way, "Oh, PLEASE, Dad, oh pleeeeease."

Over the next 60 miles my father's position on the matter would proceed from a flat refusal on the grounds that it was bound to be expensive and our behavior since breakfast had been so disgraceful that it didn't warrant any special treats, to studiously ignoring our pleas, to asking my mother privately in a low voice what she thought about the idea, to ignoring us again, to saying that we MIGHT go if we started to behave and kept on behaving more or less forever, to finally announcing - sometimes in an exasperated bellow, sometimes in a deathbed whisper - that, all right, we would go.

Then he would quickly add, "But we're only going for half an hour - and you're not going to buy anything. Is that clear?" This seemed to restore to him a sense that he was in charge.

By the last two or three miles, the sign for Spook Caverns would appear every couple hundred yards, bringing us to a fever pitch of excitement. Finally there would be a billboard the size of a battleship with a huge arrow telling us to turn right and drive 18 miles. "Eighteen miles!" Dad would cry shrilly, his forehead veins stirring to life. Then after we bounced down a dirt road with knee-deep ruts, the road would end in a desolate junction without any clue of which way to turn.

When eventually found, Spook Caverns would prove to be rather less than advertised. The caverns, damp and smelling like a long-dead horse, would be about the size of a garage, and the stalactites and stalagmites wouldn't look the least like witches' houses or Casper. The only possible way of assuaging our disappointment would be if Dad bought us each a rubber bowie knife and a bag of toy dinosaurs in the adjoining gift shop.

So, as the sun sank over Oklahoma, and Dad, hours behind schedule, embarked on the difficult business of not being able to find a room for the night, we children would pass the time in back by having noisy knife fights, breaking off at intervals to weep, report wounds and complain of hunger, boredom and the need for toilet facilities.

After a week or so of this kind of searing torment, we would fetch up at some blue and glinting sweep of lake in a bowl of pine-clad mountains, a place full of swings and amusements and the gay shrieks of children splashing in water. Dad would become funny and warm and even once or twice might take us out to a nice restaurant. This was living. This was heady opulence. This was vacation with Dad!