When I was a boy, my father overworked himself in his job as a youth minister and music minister. He took some good advice and started taking two-week, and later three-week, family vacations. For years, we camped along the Blue Ridge Parkway, and then we started taking the mammoth driving vacations that were one of the hallmarks of my youth.
“Define ‘mammoth’,” I hear you saying.
- In 1982, starting from our home in a town east of Nashville, Tennessee, the four of us traveled Interstate 40 all the way to the Grand Canyon, then took a right and went up to Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons, then routed back through South Dakota so we could see Devil’s Tower and Mount Rushmore.
- 1985: starting from our home in West Texas, we hit four state capitals in four days (Santa Fe, Provo, Boise, and Olympia), visited the blast site of Mount St. Helens, drove through the temperate rain forest of the Olympic Peninsula, took the car ferry out to Vancouver Island for a few days, then routed back through Vancouver, B.C., Banff, Lake Louise, Calgary, and Glacier National Park. Plus, as I recall, we hit Yellowstone again.
- 1987: starting from West Texas, we went up the eastern seaboard through Virginia Beach, New York City, and Boston to Maine, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island (before the bridge), and Nova Scotia. Another big ferry ride later, we cut back through Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont to get to Quebec and Ontario. Then down through Detroit and cross-country via Missouri and Kansas home.
Now those were some driving vacations. Usually, we would front-load the driving, going 500+ miles each of the first few days to get most of the way to where we were going. Then we would downshift and spend longer in each place. Over the years, we camped less and stayed more in motels, which was easier on my dad since setting up the tent always fell primarily to him.
My father’s philosophy of vacationing was shaped in part by something he read, which suggested that the best vacation was the one that presented the most variation from your normal routine. If you normally get up early, sleep in. If you normally take things laid-back, amp up the intensity when you get on the road. And so on. It’s less about what a specific vacation should look like — whether active, lazy, or whatever — and more about the change it provides for your system. If you do something quite different from your normal routine, you’ll be more refreshed when you get back home.
Given the vacation I just took and the way I feel now, I can tell you that this concept works. Here’s the itinerary of the trip my little family of four just took.
- Wednesday: Fly from Austin to JFK in New York City. (Note: avoid JFK if possible — it’s a mess.) Drive to friends’ apartment in the far north end of Manhattan.
- Thursday: New York City tourist day. Take a long subway ride, then ride Staten Island Ferry, eat lunch in a non-tourist deli, go to the Top of the Rock (easier than the Empire State Building, plus you get to see the Empire State Building), wander around the Rockefeller Center shopping district (Saks Fifth Avenue, American Girl Place, etc.), and visit the Museum of Natural History.
- Friday: Take your time getting up, then drive via the Merritt Parkway to Northampton, Mass. Helps if you’re attending a Smith College class reunion, so you can catch up with old friends. Have ice cream at Herrell’s. Pre-arrange babysitting for the kids so you can have a pleasant grown-ups dinner with friends in one of Northampton’s many nice restaurants.
- Saturday: Get up early and run through the Smith athletic fields and forest trail. Attend reunion ceremonies. Take the kids to a playground and buy them drinks at a neighborhood grocery. Attend the class reunion dinner, eat like royalty, then wander through the campus when it’s lit by Japanese lanterns.
- Sunday: Take the kids through Smith’s greenhouses and botanic gardens. Drive to Manchester, Vermont for lunch in the Spiral Press Cafe at the amazing Northshire Bookstore. (It’s funny what sticks in your mind: having lunch at this place was one of my daughter’s favorite things from the whole week, even though she got carsick later.) Drive on to stay with friends outside Burlington, Vermont. Catch up on old times, drink beer, etc.
- Monday: Let the kids play while some of the grown-ups hike Mount Filo. Take the kids to the Shelburne Museum. Have a backyard cookout with the neighbors, including one of the folks from the Magic Hat brewery. (We’re talking about a smorgasbord of local Vermont brews over these couple of days — stuff you simply cannot get in Texas.)
- Tuesday: Breakfast at the Inn at Shelburne Farms. Drive via I-89 and I-91 down the east side of Vermont, have lunch in Brattleboro at The Backside Cafe (a happy coincidence that we found it), then retrace the earlier drive to end up at a nice hotel in a leafy part of Westchester County. Chill out with room service, a Mets game, and then a good book.
- Wednesday: Have a nice breakfast at the hotel, wander into the city mid-morning, navigate the atrocious signage around the Bronx Zoo to find a place to park. Take the kids through the Zoo and eat lunch there. Then give yourself several hours’ worth of extra time, just to be safe, to get back to JFK. Wait and wait and wait for your delayed flight, then fly home. Sleep in your own bed.
So, yes, thank you, a great time was had by all. This was one of those trips where there were separate highlights for each person on the trip, plus many shared moments of fun. It wasn’t perfect (delays in and out of JFK, some carsickness, a cranky ATM card, etc.), but the imperfections were trivial in the extreme compared to all the fun we had. We did some pure tourist things (Top of the Rock), and we did some things that tourists don’t get to (the backyard cookout). There was plenty of driving, but it was punctuation between two-day stretches of staying put. A nice balance overall.
One of the things that made it so nice for me was that I completely unplugged from the Internet, where I spend waaaaaay too much of my working time. My company does all of its business online, I blog, I blog more, and my overbooked life includes three very active e-mail addresses. A week away from all of this was ideal. I also resisted the temptation to bring a big stack of magazines, which I often do when I’m traveling; my logic was that I read magazines every day for work and pleasure, so this was a good time to unplug from that, too, even if only for variety. So I read Bit Literacy (more on that in a later post — it’s excellent) and a big chunk of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, and then when I had a few hours to spend in JFK, I read an entire issue of the New York Observer, which was a delightful experience very different from sampling the Observer’s wares online. (Oh, and a note to our own dear Austin Chronicle: why, oh why, can you not be laid out your paper version as well as the Observer?) Again, the point of all of this is the variation from the norm.
And it’s working. Already I’m taking a cannier look at my media diet — a project I’ve been working on for a while, but which can be difficult to navigate when you’re standing in the middle of the huge information stream. I ran and hiked and walked a bunch on this trip, but now I’m ready to get back into the weight room. I’m spending more time reading books and less time reading blogs, which given the lopsidedness of my reading diet lately is a good thing.
So, if you’re one to hesitate about taking a vacation: don’t put it off any longer. And don’t just take a long weekend. As soon as you can, schedule something that will take you away from your home, your work, and your regular cares for at least most of a week. It doesn’t have to be expensive — the vacation we just took was easily the most expensive one we’ve taken in years — but it does need to get you out of your normal groove in a way that gently expands your mind. I think you’ll find that you breathe easier when you’re done.