If you grew up in America in the 1970s and 80s, a vacation with your family likely involved piling in a car with your parents and siblings and being stuck with them for eight or more hours on the open road with little other than each other to keep yourselves entertained and sane. Entire movies were made about The Great American Road Trip. Yet this world has slowly faded away without our hardly noticing thanks to cheaper airfare and advances in technology and convenience.
My guest today set out to document what he calls the Golden Age of Road Tripping before it vanishes from our collective memory. His name his Rich Ratay and in his book Don’t Make Me Pull Over! he walks readers through the history of the American family road trip. Today on the show, Rich and I discuss how it was actually bicycles that kickstarted America’s interstate highway system, when automotive road tripping really started taking off, and all the iconic businesses that built up around the nation’s new pastime, including Stuckey’s convenience stores, motels, and attractions like the world’s largest frying pan. Along the way, Rich shares stories from his family road trips growing up as a kid, particularly his memories of his dad taking on the role of leader, protector, and refueling-stop-minimizer during their expeditions. We end our conversation discussing the decline of the family road trip, what we miss out on when we take a plane to our destination, and why Millennial parents are ushering in the return of road trips to American culture.
This episode is definitely a nice drive down memory lane, and great one to listen to as you hit the open road.
- When and why did Americans start building cross-state and cross-country roads?
- What was the first transcontinental highway?
- When did American families start taking to the roads for vacations?
- How was the road trip executed before gas stations, roadside restaurants, etc.?
- How was that infrastructure implemented?
- The ways in which the interstate highway system fundamentally changed America
- The rise and fall of Stuckey’s (and other roadside stands and diners)
- On running out of gas and driving on fumes
- The role of Mom and Dad in the dynamics of a road trip
- How roadside attractions sprung up
- How road trippers used to entertain themselves in the car
- What caused the decline of the great American road trip?
- Why young millennial parents are bringing back the road trip
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- Penny-farthing bike
- Map of the Lincoln Highway
- The History of Camping in America
- Route 66
- How to Road Trip With an Infant/Toddler
- Thoughts on Driving Across the Country
- How to Execute an Impulse Road Trip
- How to Do Laundry on a Road Trip Like John Steinbeck
- How to Plan an MLB Road Trip
- The Hole N’ The Rock, Moab, Utah
- The Mystery Spot, Santa Cruz, CA
- The Thing
- Top 50 Roadside Attractions
- Minuteman Missle Site
Connect With Richard
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast.
If you grew up in America in the 1970s and ’80s, a vacation with your family likely involved piling in your car with your parents and siblings and being stuck with them for eight or more hours on the open road with little other than each other to keep yourselves entertained and sane. Entire movies during this time were made about the great American road trip, yet this world has slowly faded away without our hardly noticing, thanks to cheaper airfare and advances in technology and convenience.
My guest today has set up to document what he calls, “the golden age of road tripping,” before it disappears from our collective memory. His name is Rich Ratay. In his book, “Don’t Make Me Pull Over!” he walks us through the history of the American family road trip.
Today on the show, Rich and I discuss how it’s actually bicycles that kick started America’s interstate highway system, when automotive road tripping really started talking off, and all the iconic businesses that built up around the nation’s new pastime, including Stuckey’s convenience stores, and motels, and attractions like the world’s largest frying pan.
Along the way, Rich shares stories from his family road trips growing up as kid, particularly his memories of his dad taking on the role of leader, protector, and refueling-stop-minimizer during their expeditions.
We end our conversation discussing the decline of the family road trip, and what we miss out when we take a plane to our destination and why millennial parents are ushering in the return of road trips to American culture.
This episode is definitely a nice drive down memory lane and a great one to listen to as you hit the open road. After the show’s over, check out the show notes at aom.is/dontmakemepullover, all one word. Rich joins me now via clearcast.io.
Alright, Rich Ratay, welcome to the show.
Rich Ratay: Thank you, Brett. Thanks for having me.
Brett McKay: So you have a book of history out on a very important topic that I think gets overlooked, because it’s part of, I think, almost every single American’s upbringing. That is the road trip. It’s called, “Don’t Make Me Pull Over! An Informal History of the Family Road Trip.”
So I mean, what was the impetus behind this book? Were you just one day waxing nostalgic about your own road trips as a kid and decided, “I want to look into that.” What happened there?
Rich Ratay: Well, kind of like that. Shockingly enough, the idea for writing a book about family vacations actually occurred to me while on a family vacation. Now, my dirty little secret is it wasn’t a road trip that time. We’d actually flown to that particular destination. But I was sitting on a beach chair, and I looked over at my sons, who are eight years old and six years old at that time.
I got back to thinking about what life was like for me when I was there age and traveling the highways of the 1970s with my own siblings and parents. I’m the youngest of four kids who grew up near Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It occurred to me how profound those road trip experiences really were to me, especially at that impressionable, young age, of say around eight or ten years old.
They’d given me many of my fondest childhood memories. They’d broadened by horizons in so many ways. At that age, going to different areas of the country, trying completely different foods, hearing the different ways that people talked, even though we were still in the same country. I also realized that those long hours of traveling together really shaped my relationships with my siblings and my parents for really a lifetime. They brought us closer in so many ways.
But it also occurred to me at that same time how little I knew about how this great American road trip experience really came to be. I had very little idea of how America got its roads and its interstate highways, how we got things like 8 track tape decks and fuzzbusters, why our station wagon had fake wood paneling on the sides.
So when I got back from that trip, I hit the library. I did about a year’s worth of research, reading book after book and doing more research online. I found so many interesting stories, and anecdotes, and just little historical nuggets, that I knew I had the stuff to write an interesting book. So I sat down and spent the next four years writing a book.
Brett McKay: I bet when you were looking at your son, too, you’re probably thinking, “He has never experienced that world, and he probably never will, either.”
Rich Ratay: No, no, that’s right. Even though we still take many road trips, and I’ve always traveled … my wife and I have always taken our kids on road trips from a very young age. But just the landscape has changed in so many ways, of course with the rise of our personal electronic devices and the fact that there’s so many more exits with restaurants and service stations along the interstates these days. It’s just not the same, it can never be.
Brett McKay: Well, let’s get into it. I mean, it’s interesting that you don’t think about a history of road trips, but certain things had to have happened for the idea of a road trip to have occurred. Like the first one is, okay, of course cars had to be invented, but the other important aspect of that is like cars had to have something to drive over to do a road trip. When did Americans start thinking of, “Hey, let’s build roads that not only go within a town, or maybe within a state, but go across state lines.”
Rich Ratay: Really it wasn’t automobile that inspired America to start building better roads, it was the bicycle. Specifically, the invention of what’s called the safety bicycle. Until the invention of the safety bicycle, we had basically those penny farthings, those high wheeled bicycles with the pedals fixed to a large and very tall wheel. They were very dangerous bicycles, because if you fell off the perch of those high wheeled bicycles, you were liable to, of course, break an arm, break a collarbone. Really, they were strictly kind of the domain of daring young men who used to ride those types of bicycles.
With the invention of safety bicycle, all of a sudden, the pedals came down and were situated between two equal sized wheels, powered by a chain or a treadle. Really, the safety bicycle kind of democratized bicycles, it made it safe and easy to use for women, for older folks, and especially kids.
That inspired a real bicycling boom into the late 1890s and that era. Many of these bicyclists formed bicycling clubs, which petitioned lawmakers to start building better roads so that they could ride these bikes farther out from their cities and enjoy the riding of their bicycles more. It just became known as the Good Roads Movement.
Then, of course, automobiles started coming along in the 1890s as well. They gradually overtook bicycles in popularity. It was the latest new thrill machine, especially for some of those daring young male drivers. Automobile clubs started overtaking bicycling clubs in popularity. They kind of assumed the mast of wanting to help create these better roads in America.
Brett McKay: So like the first road or highway made for cars, when did that happen?
Rich Ratay: Well, I mean, the first major transcontinental highway was the Lincoln Highway, which was the brainchild of an entrepreneur and self-made millionaire named Carl Fisher. He had made his money as the head of Prest-O-Lite headlamps, which were the first gas compressed headlamps used on automobiles. Of course, he wanted to promote automobile usage and wanted to get more people interested in buying automobiles in order to support his products.
He came up with the idea of building this transcontinental highway, which he envisioned going from Times Square in New York City all the way to San Francisco. So he called together a number of his friends in the auto industry. He was very well connected and gathered them for a big dinner party and announced this big idea to build a transcontinental highway. He got many of them to contribute money from their companies and not of their own pockets. Among the early contributors to the Lincoln Highway project were Thomas Edison, Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, President of Goodyear Frank Seiberling.
But still the funds weren’t nearly enough, so he had to eventually come up with another idea as well. That idea was called Seedling Miles. Basically, he used some of the donations that were privately contributed to build improved sections of this highway, then travelers … motorists would be able to travel over these improved sections and compare them side by side with the unimproved sections, the dirt roads, and see how much better they were. This inspired demand by those motorists to enlist their own local leaders to engage in efforts to improve those sections as well, and then connected these Seedling Miles together into one unified whole.
So construction of the Lincoln Highway began in 1913. It was hoped that it would be completed in time for the 1915 world’s fair in San Francisco. It didn’t quite turn out that way. Portions of the Lincoln Highway remained unimproved until well into the late 1920s.
Of course, there was a very famous crossing of the Lincoln Highway by the 1919 Motor Transport Convoy, of which a young lieutenant by the name of Dwight D. Eisenhower was a member. This was a huge U.S. army military expedition. It included 81 vehicles attempting to cross the Lincoln Highway. They actually started in Washington, D.C. and connected with the Lincoln Highway at Gettysburg.
They just had a devil of a time. It took them well into the weeks to cross the Lincoln Highway. They had to use a part tractor, part truck called a militor to constantly extricate vehicles that were stuck in the mud. They often had to get off the Lincoln Highway entirely and cut through farmers’ fields because they found the going easier.
There was a 1916 road guide created by the Lincoln Highway association that described any attempt to cross the Lincoln Highway, even at that time, as something of a sporting proposition. As a final note of advice to anyone attempting to do so, it encouraged them to not wear new shoes.
Brett McKay: So I mean at this time, it was rough going? This was … People who attempted it, they weren’t taking the Lincoln Highway to go visit some roadside, some attraction, or visit grandma and grandpa, these were people who were basically daredevils. They wanted to see if they could drive a car all the way across. Officially, road tripping in America didn’t start with the Lincoln Highway.
When did, just say, average Americans, families, decided, “Okay, we’re going to take to the road to go visit grandma or grandpa in another state.” Or, “We’re going to a national park.” When did that start happening? Was it not ’til the ’30s or ’40s?
Rich Ratay: It was actually really in the 1920s. That was when there was a craze called auto-camping. Really what made auto-camping possible was Henry Ford and his mass production, which really brought the price of cars down and within reach of average, middle-class Americans.
Really all auto-camping was trespassing with a car. You would be traveling along a back road, and when night fell, you would simply pull over at the side of the road where there was a nice clearing or just a farmer’s field, and you would pull a tent out of the back of your truck or just sleep in the car. Of course, this wore out its welcome with property owners along those roadways pretty quickly, people squatting on their property at night and squatting in their bushes in the morning.
So municipalities began to set up their own campsites, where these travelers could set up a camp and stay the night. Other entrepreneurs saw how popular that these municipal campsites were becoming, so they set up what were called cabin camps, which were just little campsites with huts and very spare amenities, a stove, a heater in there, maybe a mattress, where some of these travelers could stay the night. Gradually, these cabin camps kind of evolved into more formal buildings, motor courts, and eventually then into the early motels.
Brett McKay: We get the motel. I imagine the development of Route 66 sort of brought driving even further into the mainstream.
Rich Ratay: Yeah, Route 66 was built predominantly during the 1930s. In large part, as many of our highways were during the 1930s, it was built as a work program under the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration, of course. It was kind of a jobs program to get and keep people working during the Great Depression.
Brett McKay: Then along the this, they started building. The thing that we got to point out, too, is that okay, the roads were there, but there was no infrastructure, except for a few maybe municipal camps, maybe a few motels. But unlike today, where there’s an exit every ten miles, they didn’t have that. What’d they do for gas? What’d they do for … Did you have to prepare and really plot out and be, I don’t know, strategic about planning a road trip back in the day?
Rich Ratay: Oh, absolutely. You would commonly have gas cans with you that would have spare gas. Of course, the only place that you could really find gas was in towns and at general stores or farm supply stores that would commonly have gas, of course, for farmers and their tractors. But it was very unpredictable where you might be able to find a diner to stop at to eat, where you would find a place to stay. You had to be much more self-reliant and prepared to deal with the unpredictable any time you traveled, certainly in any of the days prior to the interstates.
Brett McKay: Right. Then the development of the interstates, that happened after World War II. So I guess there was a lull in driving, because there was rationing going on during World War II. Then after the war, big boom in car production, like we took all this Arsenal of Democracy, we built up and just unleashed it on consumer products. Tons of cars rolling of the conveyor belts, and then also of course, we have the interstate system that was developed during the 1950s and 1960s.
I thought it was interesting, like we often think of interstates being associated with the era of Eisenhower. That’s where it got its genesis. But it really didn’t get finished until the 1980s, which I found really surprising.
Rich Ratay: Yeah, amazingly, the interstates, of course, were begun in 1956. Originally, it was thought that they would cost about 30 billion dollars and take ten years to build.
Brett McKay: I love the optimism.
Rich Ratay: It goes without saying that those projections were slightly off. I think in the end, it took about 130 billion dollars to build the interstates, and of course construction of the interstates did, as you mention, last into the 1980s. It turned out to be the most expensive peacetime project in history.
Brett McKay: They’re still working on it, right? Even today. I think I-35 had construction going on. That’s from like … it goes through Texas and Oklahoma.
Rich Ratay: Right, well I mean, from the time they were first built, the interstates were really only constructed to last about 20-30 years. Really, we’ve been rebuilding the highways even before they were completed in the 1980s. It has been one long road project, I guess.
Brett McKay: So the interstate system, that really … that kicked off, I think, the road tripping boom, because you had lots of Americans driving cars, lots of Americans with vacation time, with disposable income. We’ve got this big shiny interstate system that can take you from one end of the country, either north or south, or east to west.
Rich Ratay: Yeah, and the interstates really … I mean, they fundamentally changed America, because they were a highway system that was built exclusively for high speed travel. For the first time, you had super highways that eliminated intersections via overpasses and underpasses. Of course, most of them were built to be four lane with broad shoulders. They were restricted spaces, so you weren’t liable to get stuck behind a tractor or a wagon being pulled by a horse or anything like that.
They greatly reduced the travel times that it took to cross the country. They made America a much smaller place. For the first time, all these destinations that people once could only read about in newspapers and magazines, now they could suddenly travel to given ownership of a car, a few days off, and a few dollars for gasoline. An entire family could travel almost as cheaply as one person. It made America a much smaller place.
Brett McKay: So we got the highway systems. More people were taking to the roads. But even during this time, there weren’t the gas stations, the sort of mega corporate chain gas stations that we have today that are just there, like we said, every ten miles, twenty miles. When you planned a road trip back in the 60s into the 70s, you had to think about, “Okay, I’m going to start here at this time, I know I’ve got this much gas. I can make it to this destination.”
Walk us through the development of the infrastructure. What did planners think about when they were developing the highways to ensure travelers weren’t stranded on the freeway by themselves in the middle of nowhere?
Rich Ratay: Yeah, well first of all, one of the big things that they planned to be as part of the interstates were what were called “the safety rest areas,” or what we just simply call today, “rest areas.” Of course, the purpose of these rest areas was to give motorists a place to pull over without leaving the restricted space of the highway. It was a place for them to be able to fix their cars in the event of mechanical breakdowns. It was also to offer families a place to pull off the road and have a picnic and take a break from the hardships of driving. Of course, all the rest areas offered restrooms for families to use for that purpose. There was also a kiosk where families, or especially the drivers, dads, could go look for directions so that they knew how to proceed along the interstates.
Gradually, over time, the rest areas also became … they kind of developed a role in public relations, as well, because one of the things that the interstates did, of course … I mean, prior to the interstates, you traveled on two lane highways, which took you through every town and city along the way. You got kind of a taste for different areas of the country. You traveled relatively slowly through these areas, so you got to see the cities around you. You got to see the products that they made. You got to see the food they served. You got a taste of the local culture.
What interstates did is they really avoided taking motorists into those small towns. They really kind of isolated motorists from the countryside around them. So what local communities began to do, in order to give motorists a taste of their local culture, is they started turning these rest areas into almost public ambassadors.
They would set up plaques in these areas to tell those who stopped at the rest areas about historic events that had taken place in the area. Or they would create elaborate murals out of tiles inside the buildings that described some of these events or gave people an idea of the products that were manufactured in that particular area. They really began to fill a vital role in public relations for many of these small communities.
Of course, that was also reflected in the design of many of these rest area buildings, as well. They used locally sourced materials, timber and brick and stone that were specific to that area of the country. Some of these buildings were built in the shape of teepees or oil derricks, things of that nature, that reflected the local industry.
So these rest areas really took on kind of a role in public relations for many of these communities. Many of those classic rest areas are now starting to disappear. There’s just not the need for them anymore as our cars have gotten more reliable, we don’t have to stop and have rest areas to fix our cars anymore. We don’t need to stop and look for directions, because we have those on our GPS systems or on our smartphones. Of course, there’s many more restaurants and exits with restaurants and service stations for us to get off and use the restroom, and we don’t need to use rest areas for that purpose anymore. So unfortunately, many of those classic, great rest areas are starting to disappear from our landscape.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I was noticing that. I took a trip to New Mexico a couple weeks ago, and I noticed some of the rest stops that I’d stop at as a kid, they were closed up. They were taking down the structures that were there. I was like, “Man, that’s an end of an era there.” I mean, to your point about the food things, I remember we stopped at those not only to go pee and just play around, but I remember my folks, part of getting ready for a big road trip was we’d pack a cooler full of food, maybe some sandwich meats, some bread. We’d stop and we’d have a picnic at one of these things. Nowadays, you can just stop at a Love’s or whatever and get a southwest egg roll, and be on your way in ten minutes.
Rich Ratay: Yeah, those exits are simply much more frequent now, and places to stop and eat are much easier to find. In the 1970s, and of course before then, setting off on a family road trip was much more like setting off on an expedition into the wild frontier. You didn’t know when you were going to find those exits the service stations. You couldn’t always count on restaurants. You couldn’t count on finding gas stations as frequently. You did have to be prepared and take things like picnic lunches with you.
Brett McKay: So one of the businesses that have started because of more Americans taking road trips thanks to the interstate highway system, one that I’m familiar with because I saw them all the time on road trips I took as a kid, is Stuckey’s. Tell us about the precipitous rise of Stuckey’s and their tragic fall.
Rich Ratay: Yes, well, Stuckey’s was started by a gentleman by the name of Williamson “Bill” Stuckey in 1930s. He was a pecan farmer and he found himself with a bumper crop of pecans one year. He figured, “Okay, I’m going to go out to the highway and just set up a roadside stand and sell some of these extra pecans that I have here to all these motorists that I see passing by the highway in front of me.”
He attracted quite a few motorists. They loved picking up his pecans. Pretty soon, he sent his wife into the kitchen to make some desserts with these pecans, so that people would have more of a reason to stop. She came up with all these pecan desserts, with pecan pies, and pecan divinities, and whatnot. It became a very popular stand. Soon, he added on a restaurant aspect to it, and a souvenir shop as well. His Stuckey’s grew in popularity.
He had a very distinctive strategy for placing, or locating each one of his new Stuckey’s that he added onto his chain. He started out in Atlanta, which was the biggest city near where his farm was. He had essentially a big gulp drink, and he would sip on this drink and drive out along the interstate, and when he felt nature’s urge, he would pull off to the side of the road, and get out his road map, and make a little mark on his map where he had to respond to that urge. Then he would get back to driving, drive further down the road until when he needed to go again. He’d make another X there. Those would become the locations for each one of his Stuckey’s, because he felt other drivers would be having that same experience. I guess that explains why Stuckey’s had very clean restrooms, too.
Now the thing with Stuckey’s is they would always have multiple, multiple billboards, up to 50 billboards for each Stuckey’s location. Bill Stuckey was a big believer in putting out these billboards to promote his locations and get people to stop. That worked well and good until Stuckey’s started going out of business in mass in the late 1970s, mainly because of the rise of the real fast food restaurants, like McDonald’s and Wendy’s and their convenient drive thru service. Pretty soon, motorists wanted to barely even stop, they wanted to drive through and pick up their meals and keep going., rather than go inside to Stuckey’s and have a sit down meal at a Stuckey’s.
So Stuckey’s started going out of business in mass, but those billboards remained. That used to get my family into real problems, because we would be cruising along, and my dad was one of those dad’s that was a big believer in making time. He wanted to get to whatever that day’s destination was in whatever time was humanly possible. So if that meant not stopping for meals, that was okay with him. If it meant ignoring our pleas to get over and use the restroom, that was okay with him. But he would also stretch every tankful of gas to the bitter limit.
We would see these Stuckey’s billboards saying, “Hey, great food, get gas. Next Stuckey’s 15 miles.” We would be kind of running on fumes as we’re trying to leg it out to the next Stuckey’s, following these billboards one after the other. Yup, get gas at Stuckey’s. We would follow the billboard to the Stuckey’s location. Of course, we’d find that they’d gone out of business. Then of course we were in a bit of a situation at that point with an empty tank and unable to get any gas at a closed Stuckey’s.
Brett McKay: Did you guys run out of gas frequently on your family road trips?
Rich Ratay: You know, in the end, we did not. My dad, his thing was, he believed in his heart of hearts that automobile engineers calibrated fuel gauges so that when the low fuel light came on or the needle went to E, that there was 40 miles worth of gas left in the tank. This was a theory that he put to the test many, many times. His favorite gambit was the, “small town up ahead,” with extra bonus.
The low fuel light would come on, and my mom would kind of be urging him, “Hey, Chuck, it’s time to get off the interstate now. Let’s get some gas.” He’d say, “Oh, I think I know of another town down the road here,” Diresville or Bumbleberg or whatever kind of desperate sounding small town name that he could come up with. We would pass the exit with the clearly marked signs to a nice Sinclair gas station where we could have filled up. We’d continue on to try and get to Diresville or Bumbleberg.
Of course, pretty soon we’d pass a sign listing the town that he had referenced. It would say it’s 35 miles away. We had many anxious moments where we were like a tennis crowd, shifting our heads from the gas gauge, to the road ahead, to the gas gauge, to the road ahead, looking for some sign of civilization down the interstate, that there was a gas station coming up.
More often than not, we actually made it to that small town and our salvation, until a rainy, dark night in Arkansas in, I believe, 1975 or 1976, when our car suddenly started sputtering, and we lost the power steering. Sure enough, we were out of gas. My dad pulled over to the side of the road and wound up having to hitchhike to the next exit. Forever after that, he would have to listen to my mom when she said it was time to get gas.
Brett McKay: I think on my one family road trip, we ran out of gas once. I remember my dad had to hitchhike into town and get a can of gas. That was kind of interesting, throughout the … besides giving the formal history of road trips in America, you wove in vignettes from your own family history of road trips. I thought it was interesting, because I saw in those my own family, the dynamics. Like the role of dad in a road trip. He was like a captain of an expedition, right?
I remember being out there when we ran out of gas. It was like, there was no cell phones. There was no pay phone nearby. It was like mom and dad having to take care of three kids in the middle of nowhere and … I can imagine now, being a parent, like how frightening that would be. You’re in the middle of nowhere, and what do you do in that situation?
Rich Ratay: Yeah, as you pointed out, I mean my dad was very much captain of the ship. We drove this big land yachts, so I guess it was appropriate to call him the captain. My dad did 90% of the driving. As I mentioned, his thing was making time. He wanted to get whatever that destination for the day was as fast as possible. I know other fathers enjoyed stopping at every historic landmark along the way, and stopping at all the great roadside attractions along the way. My dad was not that type. He just wanted to get to whatever destination that he set for us for that day as quickly as possible.
Of course, once we got to the motels, he was the ultimate price negotiator, I guess. He would always give them some sob story about how times were tough for middle class families out traveling in the 1970s in those tough economic times and try to haggle them down to try to get their best price that they would be willing to give him. Or he got them to throw in rollaway beds for my sister and I for no extra charge.
He was very much kind of the engine of our family road trips, where my mom was much more the steering wheel, kind of trying to keep us guided in the right direction and kind of look out for the concerns of us kids, as well.
Brett McKay: You mentioned your dad not stopping at roadside attractions. My dad was one of those, “make time,” guys. Always, even then, I was like, “What are we making time … We’re going to get there and we’re not going to do anything. What’s the rush?”
But anyways, every now and then, he would throw us a bone and we would stop at some crazy roadside attraction, because I saw the billboard for something. The one that I was pretty excited about was, “The Hole in the Wall,” which is someplace in Utah. Some guy built his house inside of a mountain. It was pretty cool, because the bathtub was like carved into stone. It was really neat.
But you talked about this is another part of like the road trip economy that built up as more and more Americans started taking to the roads. These crazy roadside attractions.
Rich Ratay: Yeah, absolutely. Obviously, many private entrepreneurs saw this road travel boom going on, saw all these motorists hitting the highways, so they came up with their own attractions to try and entice people to get to stop over and spend some money.
Among the most notable early ones were, “The Mystery Spot,” in Santa Cruz, California. It was a place where supposedly the laws of physics meant nothing, and you were led out to this cabin on a hillside. The ball bearings appeared to roll uphill. People would have to stand at all these odd angles. It looked like they should be falling over, but they were able to somehow maintain their balance and stand up.
Of course, all the guy had done was build a cockeyed cabin onto the side of a hillside. There was no visible horizon for people to be able to reference. It was all an optical illusion, but it gained a lot of notoriety. It was featured in Life Magazine and in several television shows. It became world famous.
Another famous one was, “The Thing,” in Texas Canyon, Arizona, where there were all these billboards for hundreds of miles leading into this … not even a small town. It was just a roadside stop in Texas Canyon, Arizona. These billboards would ask, “What is The Thing?” or, “Come see The Amazing Thing.” I won’t give away what, “The Thing,” actually was, but it was … Obviously, they were successful in getting a lot of families to stop there.
Down in the south, of course, they had many alligator farms trying to get you to stop off and look at dozens of alligators and large pythons and whatnot that were kept in these roadside farms. You also had all of these, “World’s Largest,” statues here in Wisconsin. We had the world’s largest Muskie. There were multiple world’s largest frying pans. I think at one point there were six contenders for that. There was a bunch of world’s largest chairs, world’s largest office chair, rocking chair, right down the line. There was even a world’s largest boll weevil statue in Enterprise, Louisiana.
Of course, I think many of us have heard of the largest balls of twine. For years, for actually decades, there were two competitors for that title. One in Darwin, Minnesota, and another in Cawker City, Kansas. They competed back and forth for decades for the true title holder of the world’s largest ball of twine.
Personally, one of my favorites was the one that I discovered on a road trip with my family just a few years ago, when we made that classic American excursion out to Mount Rushmore. We stopped off at the Minuteman Missile Historic site in South Dakota, where you can still see decommissioned Minuteman Missiles in their silos, just like they were during the Cold War of the 1970s and ’80s. I thought it was just a fantastic museum out there. It’s actually at the same exit that you get off of I-90 to go visit the Badlands out there. That became one of my all time favorite roadside stops, I guess.
Brett McKay: Another aspect of road tripping that’s changed, that’s no longer the case, is entertainment. Now, people have iPads, iPhones, whatever, games, Nintendo Switches, but back in the day, when you were a kid on a road trip, you had to really think about how you were going to entertain yourself for possibly eight hours, nine hours in the car. Tell us about sort of the brief history of road trip entertainment that you uncovered.
Rich Ratay: Yeah, well I mean, obviously back then it was much more of an interactive experience. You were a family traveling together, and you had no one but each other in order to pass the time with. Many families would play those great family road travel games, like License Plate Bingo, and the Alphabet Game, and Twenty Questions. One of my family’s favorite activities was to play Mad Libs, which are still around to this day, but …
My mom would also keep something at her feet, which we affectionately came to call the game bag. That was filled with all sorts of games and activities, like those plastic mazes where you would have to navigate a small ball bearing through a maze to get it to an endpoint. There’d be the magic slate writing pad, where you used a plastic stylus to write on a gray sheet of plastic, then you could lift up that sheet and it would erase whatever you had drawn so that you could make a new drawing over it. Or there was Wooly Willy, which was a cartoon character beneath a plastic bubble. You used a magnet to guide black metal shavings over Wooly Willy’s face in order to create mustaches and beards. I’d always create an afro on top of Wooly Willy. We’d have those Yes and No invisible ink games, where you’d have these invisible ink pens to play games of hangman or reveal mines in a minefield as you tried to navigate your ship safely through this minefield.
One of my favorite activities was one of first handheld electronic games, that was Mattel Electronic Football, which became an enormously popular game. It was really like the first of the handheld electronic games. Today, if you look at it, it’s an absolutely primitive device. The game screen was about the size of a stick of gum. You were a running back that was represented by a bright red dash. I think you had one other blocker that was a red dash in front of you. You would try to elude tacklers as you made your way towards the end zone. These tacklers were simply slightly dimmer red dashes. The only thing to distinguish the offensive player and the defensive player was how bright the dash was. You’d try to elude these tacklers and get to the end zone. As primitive as it was, it was incredibly fun, incredibly addictive. In fact, it was named one of Time Magazine’s all time 100 devices. I spent many hours passing time just doing that.
Most of these activities that you played in the car were very much shared experiences. That was really the thing about road travel is you had to deal with your fellow family members for those long hours on the road. You could have fun with them, you could fight with them. Lord knows we had plenty of fights in my family. But in the end, all that interaction, and all those experiences, all those discoveries that you made together, all the challenges and adversity that you faced out on the highways together, those brought you closer together as a family.
Brett McKay: Right, yeah, passing gas, that was …
Rich Ratay: Yeah, right. Yeah. Whoever smelt it, dealt it.
Brett McKay: Whoever smelt it, dealt it. Right. The invisible ink thing, that brought back some memories. I remember buying those at Stuckey’s along with some sort of … they always sold, in New Mexico, it always like some sort of chintzy fake Native American stuff, like Indian drums that I thought were pretty cool.
Rich Ratay: Dream catchers.
Brett McKay: Yeah, dream catchers …
Rich Ratay: Indian drums that you would bang on with the little sticks.
Brett McKay: Your dad would go crazy and tell you to stop it or he’s going to turn around.
So, it was very interactive at the time. You’d have to talk and interact with your siblings. You would get in fights sometimes. Your mom would turn and put some sort of barrier between you so you wouldn’t mess with each other.
Rich Ratay: Or you’d take some tape to draw the line between siblings when one was touching the other too much, or somebody had their foot too far on the other guy’s side. Especially for me, I was in the backseat with two much older teenage brothers. I finally gave up trying to fight for my space on the backseat entirely. I’d either retreat to the floorboard, where I’d have to deal with that big transmission housing, the big hump on the floor. It always made it impossible to get into a comfortable position to sleep. Or my favorite position would be up on the rear window shelf, where I could spread out underneath the slanted rear window and just kind of enjoy the sunshine coming in. Of course, through the antenna that was built right into the glass.
Brett McKay: Yeah, that wouldn’t fly today. Your parents would be ticketed.
Rich Ratay: No, yeah, the times have definitely changed. But back then, I mean, I can vividly remember being up on that rear window shelf and there’d be a highway patrol officer pulling up alongside of us, and I’d wave over at him, and he’s just tip his hat in return. Either that, or I’d be in back in the rear facing popup seat of our Ford Country Squire station wagon, that I think was mandatory that every family own at least at some point during the 1970s.
I’d be back there and I had my own little private fort kind of set up. I’d have my stash of candy, with my candy cigarettes. You should have seen some of the looks that I would get from people passing us by on the highway as they’re looking over at this eight or ten year old kid with what looked to be a Lucky Strike sticking out of his mouth, when it was just my little candy cigarette back there.
Brett McKay: At the end of your book, you make the case that the sort of, “the golden age of the road trip,” of the great American road trip, was the 1970s, and then after that, it started fading. What changed?
Rich Ratay: Well, it was really deregulation of the airlines in 1978 under the Carter administration. That was really the beginning of the end of, “the golden era of family road trips.” Until then, air travel had just been prohibitively expensive, especially for families with lots of kids. Airfares were three to eight times the price that we would pay today. Once the airlines were deregulated, it created a much more competitive environment between the national carriers. You saw airfares come way down in price.
Pretty soon, families started parking their cars and wanted to take advantage of the convenience, and of course the quick way to get to their family vacation destinations by getting on airplanes. Within ten years of deregulation of the airlines, the number of flyers in America doubled. Today, it’s triple what it was in the 1970s, before deregulation.
Of course, soon after deregulation, there was just far more flights to far more destinations. Families wanted to take advantage of that. That really spelled the end of, “the golden era of the family road trip.”
Brett McKay: What do you think we’re missing out by taking the plane instead of the car to get to wherever we’re going for vacation?
Rich Ratay: Well, I mean, I think we’ve kind of lost the idea that the journey is, in a way, its own destination. We’ve kind of lost some of that great opportunity that we once had to spend time together as families to interact with each other, to share discoveries, even by stopping off at roadside attractions, or discovering great scenery, or historic landmarks along the way that we may not have anticipated.
Even some of those occasions of overcoming adversity together, because if you suffered a mechanical breakdown on the highways of the 1970s, I mean families were kind of on their own. Help wasn’t just a simple phone call on a cell phone away. You either had to find a way to repair the car yourself, or to hitch a ride to the next exit, or find help in some way. I think there was definitely a feeling back then that families were in it together. All of those things, I think, kind of brought us closer.
When we started getting on airplanes, we kind of eliminated that journey. It all became about instant gratification and getting to that final destination as quickly as possible. I lament the idea that we’ve kind of left the journey behind.
Brett McKay: Do you still try to take road trips, or is your family an airplane family?
Rich Ratay: No, absolutely we still take road trips. We may not take the lengthy trips that we took when I was growing up. I think we’ve stayed a little bit closer to home, for the most part. But I live in the Milwaukee area, we’ll make long weekend trips, maybe four or five days, to go to St. Louis. One of our favorite recent discoveries has been the Henry Ford museum in Detroit. We’ve gone there multiple times.
But I’ve also made up for some lost time. When I was growing up, my dad was an avid golfer, so the point of many of our family road trips was to get my father out of the Wisconsin winter and down to a warm, sunny golf course in the south as fast as humanly possible. We would particularly travel during the winter months, over Christmas break and spring break. We would travel to the destinations predominantly along the gulf coast, maybe in the New Orleans area, the Florida panhandle, but almost always east of the Mississippi River.
So when my wife and kids and I do take road trips these days, it’s predominantly to the west. We’ve been out to Yellowstone Park, to Mount Rushmore. We’ve just had some fantastic road trip experiences. I think it is possible to keep those road trips alive. We do very much make those road trips shared experiences, and spend lots of quality time talking to each other, and dealing with each other, and just recreating those magical experiences that I so fondly remember from when I traveled the highways of the 1970s with my own parents and siblings.
Brett McKay: One thing I’ve noticed, I actually enjoy … There was a time where I preferred flying, but since I guess 9/11, and sort of the uptick in security. It’s just driving, it feels so nice. I feel like I’m in charge. When you go to the airport, as soon as you enter the airport, you feel like, “I no longer have any autonomy. I’m just going to do whatever I have to do to get on this plane.”
But when you get in the car, no one knows where you’re at. You can pull off at convenience store and take your time, get out, wander around, get back in. There’s no … it feels so good. Something about the freedom of the open road, it feels amazing.
Rich Ratay: There is significant evidence that millennials, and especially young millennial parents, are coming back to road trips in vast numbers. I saw a recent study that said in 2016 that 39% of all family vacations were taken by road trip. That was up 16% over just the previous year. I think it’s a sign.
Millennials in particular, and people as a whole, are getting fed up with air travel. Obviously, air fares have gone up in price, there’s many more unexpected delays and cancellations. You’re shoehorned into these impossibly small seats. You can’t bring your own drinks with you into the airport. I think people are becoming disenchanted with air travel. They’re looking for alternatives.
They’re turning back to road travel for the specific reasons that you mentioned, that you can leave when you want. You can stop when and where you want, and for how long you want. It’s my hope that as people are rediscovering the practical benefits of road travel, we’re also coming back to the idea of the road trip as a shared experience that can bring us all closer and can really be the source for creating many wonderful memories together as a family.
Brett McKay: Rich, is there someplace people can go to learn more about the book?
Rich Ratay: Yeah, absolutely. You can pick up the book on amazon.com, Barnes and Noble. Of course it’s always a great idea that we go out and support those independent book sellers. You can come and visit me on my website at richardrataywrites.com, or we also have lots of interesting posts and discussions going on over at my Facebook page, which is Richard Ratay, King of the Road Trip.
Brett McKay: Well, Rich Ratay, thanks so much. This has been really interesting and a lot of fun, too.
Rich Ratay: Thank you so much for having me on, Brett. I had fun. I hope your listeners did, too.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Rich Ratay, he’s the author of the book, “Don’t Make Me Pull Over!” It’s available on amazon.com. Pick it up, it’s a great vacation read. If you want to find out more information about the book, check out our show notes at aom.is/dontmakemepullover where you can find links to resources, where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out The Art of Manliness website at artofmanliness.com. If you enjoyed the joy and you got something out of it, I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher, that helps out a lot. If you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member that you think would get something out of it. As always, thank you for your continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.