This place sounds interesting," my mother commented as she studied a much used road map.
"Wildcat Den State Park."
"When can we go?" my brother and I demanded.
"How about tomorrow?" my dad suggested. And our plans were complete for a one-day vacation.
Those spur-of-the-moment trips became the most fondly remembered experiences of my childhood. My father's salary as a small church minister couldn't stretch for the kind of vacations my friends took. Mountains were too far away, and the commercial extravaganzas close to home were too costly. However, my friends' traditional vacations could not have been more memory filled than our frequent one-day jaunts. And all our enjoyment cost only a fraction of their outlay.
With today's stressful living and economic uncertainty, maybe its time to revive something that worked so well for our family. The elements for success were few; most of them had to do with attitude.
Requirements for a fun day
Spontaneity was the first requirement. We never marked those "vacation days" on a calendar or worked them into a schedule. My mother knew the time had arrived to explore a new facet of our world when the doldrums set in or my brother and I could no longer stand each other. Without a word to us, she dug out road maps of northwestern Illinois and easternlowa. She poured over them until a name or a place caught her imagination. At her mention of an interesting sounding destination, our family was ready to travel.
The second requirement for our excursions was simplicity. We took no cooler or picnic basket. This was also to be a vacation from meal preparation. Close to lunch time we stopped at a small town store to buy a loaf of bread, a package of bologna, four bananas, and four bottles of pop. (Those were the best bologna sandwiches I've ever eaten.)
Occasionally we experienced delightful departures from our usual well-balanced meal. One was the purchase of a ring of bologna and a box of soda crackers. My dad used his pocket knife to cut the meat. We ate our bologna and cracker sandwiches while strolling down a cow lane.
Another time our meal was smoked fish and soda crackers purchased at a fishing village on the Mississippi River. The tiny settlement had no park, but a weedy spot at the Y in the road worked just as well.
The meal I liked best of all consisted of nothing but watermelon. That was a Labor Day trip down the Iowa side of the Mississippi to Muscatine's watermelon country. My mother did stick a salt shaker and four spoons in the glove compartment for that outing. Webought enough melons to fill the trunk of our 1940 Dodge. Stopping at a country school yard, we ate our fill, then cleaned up our mess before we left.
A third requirement for success was a sense of adventure. We mulled the names and histories of places around in conversation as we traveled to them. Echo Valley reminded me of a book by a favorite author, and I wondered if it were the location of her story.
We were awestruck at the method a tribe of Indians used to cut off another tribe from food and water at Starvation Rock. Might wildcats still live at Wildcat Den?
We believed fun and excitement awaited us at every destination, so of course it did. The part that attitude played in our enjoyment became apparent the day two younger children accompanied us. Our day's goal was to stand on the highest point in Illinois. The map showed the approximate location; the local inquires pinpointed the exact spot to be in a farmer's field a distance from the road. After securing permission, we traipsed through the barnyard, crawled through several fences, and were chased by dogs that were more friendly than vicious. We finally stood on the state's highest point, feeling like explorers claiming a new Land. The young guests with us, however, whined and fussed the whole time, never catching our enthusiasm and enjoyment.
We reaped several benefits from our one-day vacations. The most important was family fun.
On our first visit to the Mississippi Palisades State Park my brother and I wanted to stand on top of the limestone rock formation towering above the Mississippi River. My mother, who was klutzy even on level ground, didn't want to be left behind, so the fun began. With my dad pulling, my brother and me pushing, and all four of us laughing until we were weak, we made it to the top. The view was breathtaking, but ranked second in importance to the fun we had getting there.
A second benefit from our brief trips was becoming involved with history in a way that made it come alive. We went to Galena because the map identified it as the second oldest town in Illinois. The river community had changed little since the late 1800s. The butcher shop even sliced the bologna by hand-thick, meaty slices. As we visited the museum home of Ulysses S. Grant, my brother and I learned the part of this historical figure, previously unknown to us, played in shaping our country's history.
A third benefit gained from our trips was finding unforgettable places to take visiting friends and relatives. Iowa's Maquoketa Caves State Park ranked at the top of our list. The destination called for a flashlight for the person leading the way through the caves and a camera to get a group picture under the natural bridge.
Thinking back on those childhood experiences, I realize that some things change with time. Today's family would probably purchase fast-food picnic fare from a minimart. But the opportunities for family fun and stress reduction at a nominal fee still awaits those with an adventurous spirit.
Dig out that rumpled road map. Pump enthusiasm into your family members. Some places of intrigue in your area beg discovery on fun-filled one-day vacations that will be long remembered.