Don't Make Me Pull Over: An Informal History of the Family Road Trip
By Richard Ratay. Scribner, 2018, 288 pp.
Most of us who took family road trips as children will instantly recognize Richard Ratay's title and the car scenario he describes: parents up front, kids squabbling in the back, Dad, who is driving, reaching back with one hand to grab a misbehaving youngster while yelling, "Don't make me pull over!"—and nearly taking the car off the road.
It's amazing we survived.
In this entertaining book, Ratay takes readers on a tour of the American family road trip, from its origins to its surge after World War II and finally to its decline in the eighties, when it was largely supplanted by air travel. Drawing on his own childhood experience of car trips with his parents and three older siblings, he enlivens his narrative with personal anecdotes, while delving into the many factors that made this peculiar form of travel both possible and popular.
The underlying story is complex, and Ratay does a good job simplifying and interweaving its economic, social, cultural, and technological strands: the development of the interstates, the great highways linking the country from coast to coast; the increasing affordability of cars; the emergence of reliable, reasonably priced restaurants and places to stay, like Howard Johnson's, McDonalds, and the Holiday and Ramada Inns; the creation of theme parks and other tourist attractions that would encourage families to take trips and the fact that, thanks to labor unions, workers had paid vacations that enabled them to take them.
In his personal accounts, Ratay captures the essence of the family road trip, with its discomforts and pleasures, its tedium and sense of adventure, and he provides a very enjoyable journey to the past. I haven't thought about Howard Johnson's and its twenty-eight flavors of ice cream or those marvelous personalized road guides, the AAA TripTiks, for years, and I'd forgotten that in those days we didn't even have to wear seatbelts.
I especially enjoyed Ratay's affectionate portrait of his car-loving father, who would delay getting gas till the last minute, was always on the lookout for speed cops, and was so eager to "make time" that he wanted to skip meals. My own father did the same and was so obsessed with "making time" that on one car trip we returned home a full day early! He thought that was great.
A peculiar form of travel indeed.