Summer brings up memories of driving and holiday excursions. Growing up, vacations normally meant visiting locations in Ontario, always involving a vehicle, and most of the time including relatives from the Netherlands.
My parents owned a car for their entire life in Canada. A vehicle was a necessity living outside the city limits with very little within walking distance and no access to public transportation. Dad had to learn to drive in order to work. I recall Mom explaining the process by which Dad obtained his license. There were no mandatory driving lessons or wait periods or graduated testing. He registered for a driving test and promptly failed on his first attempt. When the instructor informed my mother, she said simply, Dad was going to drive regardless because he needed to remain employed; the instructor reluctantly reversed his initial assessment and granted Dad his license.
My parents purchased a used Volkswagen Beetle, I expect on some form of credit since they arrived in the country with very little. It enabled them to get from A to B but little else. They would laugh explaining how driving skills included the ability to scrape simultaneously the frost from the interior side of the windshield because the fan produced insufficient heat in the winter. There would be bigger cars in the future as the family grew, all used until their last, a luxury they finally afforded themselves in the waning years. Mom also learned to drive early as she became the chauffer for the different Saturday activities when Dad was working. It was Mom who drove us to our swimming lessons, or bagpipe lessons for the 3M marching band, or to the London Gardens to watch 3M play in the industrial league or shopping. Everything required a vehicle. The car was our lifeline.
I can recall only two holiday excursions which did not involve driving or were outside of the province of Ontario. Both were trips back to the Netherlands in 1967 and in 1973. My first vague memory of a family vacation was of renting a cabin up north, on Manitoulin Island, which I know now because of the labels on some early photographs. I would have been four years old. The only incident imprinted in my brain was the presence of a large snake under the cottage which ventured onto the gravel road. The image still haunts me.
More clearly are memories of a week long camping trip to Sand Hills Park, a private campground on the shores of Lake Erie, near Port Dover. We vacationed with the Jansen family: Albert and Riet (Mr. and Mrs. Jansen as I always called them) and their two sons, Pete and Eddie. All the boys slept in the pop-trailer; our parents slept in the hard-top, borrowed from Gordon Appleby, the neighbour across the street who drove it to the site as a favour.
The days were spent on the beach and dunes, playing badminton and horseshoes, flipping knives and carving wood, as well as loud, robust games of cards, capped by a camp fire each night. I remember proudly spending the entire trip in my bare feet, never once donning a pair of shoes or sandals.
It seemed every other summer holiday time involved relatives from the Netherlands. Dad had to schedule a couple of weeks of his very limited vacation to host and escort a brother or sister, sometimes their children, around the province. There were the obligatory trips to Ottawa and Niagara Falls, sometimes to Toronto or Midland and always everyone packing into one vehicle, cramming bodies onto the bench seats, as many as four in the front and the remainder in the back. Cars were bigger, seatbelts were non-existent, and personal space was irrelevant. The trunk was spacious, easily holding the folding chairs, coolers, Coleman stove, luggage and tools, exactly as they said in the ads (a nod to fans of the Wonder Boys: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PHcwHxzDQDs).
I recall our first trip to Ottawa in the old green car. Given its dubious mechanical reliability, Dad decided to avoid Highway 401, the major four lane thoroughfare, and the heavy traffic of Toronto by following Highway 7 all the way from London, a six to eight hour drive depending on how many stops were required. We needed to have easy access to gas stations because that old green car needed frequent visits when we jokingly asked the attendant to check the gas and fill’er up with oil. The four of us would be on our knees staring out the big window and laughing as the car left a trail of heavy smoke for several miles after each stop, engulfing everything in its wake. You can imagine, as well, how four rambunctious boys could misbehave with all that time and the abundant space in the back seat. Mom would admonish us, demanding us to settle down; Dad would reach back to smack anyone within reach, threatening to pull over if we didn’t start behaving. It was the first of numerous trips to Canada’s capital city.
In the early years, we did not stop at roadside eateries or restaurants. Fast food enterprises were still in its infancy. My parents preferred the traditional picnic alternative which had the added bonus of saving money. The idea of stopping at McDonald’s for a burger was belittled especially when you could enjoy healthier, homemade sandwiches with smoked meats purchased from the Dutch Deli, packed in Styrofoam coolers along with fresh fruit and cut-up vegetables from the garden. Don’t even think about purchasing a coffee from Tim Hortons when a Coleman propane stove could quickly boil some water for a very hot taste of some Maxwell House Instant coffee.
Niagara Falls was another favourite site of my parents. The eighth natural wonder of the world is only an hour and a half drive from London, an easy one day trip, up and down, not costing the price of an overnight stay. No visit to Canada was complete without a trip to the Falls.
I lost any desire to view them again until Olga and I had our own children and we embarked on a driving family vacation around Lake Erie. The first stop? Niagara Falls. My Mom and Dad were so excited by the prospect they decided to meet us there, where we visited the major attractions and shared a picnic lunch. They wanted to relive those earlier experiences, this time with the grandchildren.
We eventually made stops in Cooperstown, New York and Kingston, Ontario mirroring the same kind of trip as in my childhood by driving somewhere. In retrospect, many of my own family holidays involved car travel. Olga and I drove back and forth to Quebec City for our honeymoon; the entire family drove from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan to Victoria, British Columbia by way of Swift Current, Drumheller, Banff and Jasper National Parks, Vernon, Vancouver, and Calgary, stopping frequently for a roadside picnic with our own prepared lunches.
Our first trip to Europe with the kids involved renting a car to trek from Tilburg to Paris and Normandy and back, visiting Brugge, Rouen, Antwerp and numerous small towns in between. Before we departed, Uncle Piet and Tante Franciene lent us a Styrofoam cooler so we could purchase food and eat along the road. We saved money by limiting meals at restaurants, acquiring groceries to eat on the road or in our rooms.
On another trip, Olga and I drove from Amsterdam to Barcelona via Provence and back through the Pyrenees. I still love a road trip and consider it one of the best modes of transportation to see any country.
Caribbean resorts have their place on a rare occasion to escape; ship cruises don’t have the same appeal. My preference would be to travel by car, stopping at small towns, eating along the roadside, checking out the world’s largest gavel, visiting the ball park, singing to tunes on the radio, getting lost along the way, embracing the journey and the destination.