Great American Road Trip: Travel books for the road-4 of 4: Are We There Yet?

When on a road trip with family–i.e., spouse, kids and possibly in-laws or parents, a travel book that delves into similar situations is a welcome companion. There is an uplifting quality to being able to recognize aspects of the life you are living to what you are reading.

If any of you with children wonder if your best traveling days are over, pick up the 4th travel book I read on my road trip to Montana from Ohio and back. According to this one, your best days are at hand, but only if you grab your family and head out to points beyond the familiar.

#4 Are We There Yet? Perfect Family Vacations and Other Fantasies–Scott Haas

Laura and I knew if we got out and saw the countryside, everything would be fine. The mountains are filled with sanitariums and spas where for at least two centuries the wealthiest, most miserable, worried, and confused people in the world have come to look at the snow-capped Alps and listen to doctors and therapists tell them everything will be fine. Everything will be just fine. I would have liked to hear a doctor say those words to me. But how could we get into the mountains? We couldn’t even see them through the rain and fog.
Scott Haas, the author of this book is a writer commentator for NPR, public radio who I have heard on “The Splendid Table.” He also covers food and restaurants in “Here and Now.” Besides knowing great food and the people who make it, Haas knows how to capture the essence of family vacations in a way that makes you think you are with him where he is, like the Swiss Alps as described in the excerpt.

Of the four books I read, his is one that fits an any one person’s experience. I don’t mean that the book is mundane, but what Haas does is show how people can incorporate lovely travel experiences into their lives with a family. It’s the having a family in the experiences that actually make them grand.

The book starts off with his first vacation with his wife right after their daughter was born. The goal was to head off to Switzerland to stay in a cottage in order to enjoy their new family group. It ends with the children at ages 15 and 12 and the knowledge that life is shifting. The 12-year-old is a son.

Throughout the book, Haas makes observations about himself and his wife, children and the people who periodically join them –and of course the food they eat. This is not a how-to book, but more of a memoir that is engaging and funny. There are travel successes and travel nightmares, such as the time the fog set in in the alps and they had to crawl.

Instead of trotting between many places, the Haas family tends to go to one country and stay put. They stay several nights at once place in order to soak up the scene and blend in. Although, they take in sites, the notion is to not be tourists.

They also repeat places that they’ve been before–not all the time, but the places they like the best. Italy and Switzerland are the most favorite. Greece was not a hit because the food was so bad.

One aspect I really liked about this book is that squabbles are part of the deal when traveling with family, but the Haas family doesn’t let that stop them from heading out. Haas shares his experiences so it feels as if you’re sitting in the room watching and thinking, yep–I’ve been there.

He also illustrates how everyone does not have to be on the same page going at the same speed. One advantage of staying in a place for a length of time is that people can go at their own pace according to their own pattern.

Because Haas also is a psychologist, he has a certain way of making observations that are engaging. As I mentioned, he puts himself into the mix. As a person with a six-year-old son and a 15-year-old daughter, I could relate to much of this book, although spending more than $400 at The French Laundry, is not in my realm of travel jaunts. That’s where being a writer for “The Splendid Table” comes in handy.

I read this one through Iowa and Indiana.

David Sedaris’s Travel Stories

Friday night on a whim, I headed to the Palace Theatre in Columbus to see David Sedaris. Since he was here last year, I hadn’t planned to go, but changed my mind. This year, as I laughed those kind of laughs that start to hurt after awhile, huge chortles and the gawfaws–along with everyone else in the audience, I thought about how much his stories capture the aspects of travel that I love. The absurdities one finds oneself in, either because of a lack of understanding of culture or getting the language wrong. When humor shows up, that’s the best.

Last year, he read an essay about his experience in a doctor’s waiting room in France where he ended up in his underwear while everyone else was clothed. Last night, he read an essay that wove together details about pretension, ineptness and fluency when it comes to speaking a foreign language and trying to capture or butcher accents. The story moved back and forth between talking about a college professor who said Nicaragua in an overly accenty way and a friend who visited him in Paris and insisted on speaking in French even though the friend, Sedaris and the friend’s wife were all American and the wife didn’t speak French. As Sedaris read this story, it was with such gusto and flair I wanted to share it with everyone. Alas, he said that it’s not going to be on This American Life, the NPR show that he wrote it for after all. Since Sedaris is on a several city tour, perhaps if you live near one of them, you’ll have a chance to catch him.

One of the things I adore about David Sedaris, besides his writing and how he reads his work, is his generosity of spirit. The Palace Theatre was packed and he stayed after to sign books and take time to visit with each person who handed one over for a signature. What I noticed during last year’s and this year’s book signing is his knack for making each person feel like a friend, and it seems like he means it. This year, like last year, we talked about TJs Restaurant, an establishment known for dishes like the Barnyard Blaster. When I reminded him of this, he said that he always asks people where they’d go to eat after a night on the town. He also said he’d been trying to remember the name of the restaurant all day.

For your reading pleasure, here is the essay about the French waiting room. It was published in The New Yorker, September 2006. And here’s David Sedaris on NPR’s Morning Edition in 1998 reading his essay, “A New Yorker in France.”

The Largest Metal Sculpture in the World

In my post on the The Benini Foundation Galleries and Sculpture Ranch, I mentioned its scuptures as something I thought worth the drive to see. I wasn’t kidding. Two years ago we drove to Regent, North Dakota specifically to see The Enchanted Highway. I heard about this place and Gary Greff, the guy who created it, on a NPR radio segment and thought, “I’ve got to go there.” Never mind that I live in Columbus, Ohio and, according to Map Quest, Regent is 1,312.05 miles away. So what if we were traveling with two kids, a 3 year-old and an 11 year-old, and were without a DVD player or any electronics except for our car cassette player.

Okay, it is true that we were driving to Montana anyway, but still, we weren’t driving past Regent. It took a substantial detour off the highway to get there which is exactly what Gary Greff counts on. A few years back he looked at the rapidly shrinking population of his hometown that used to have a thriving economy in ranching and wondered what he could do to keep it from dipping below 200 people. He decided that if he built fantasically large metal sculptures that lead into Regent people would head there and businesses would open. It worked with us. Plus, we ran into a whole bunch of bikers on some major bike tour at an ice-cream stand in town. Regent was their overnight stop.

The scuptures were more than I anticipated. They are magnificantly creative, interesting and quite different from each other. Instead of one gigantic pheasant, for example, there is an entire pheasant family. The pheasants are made in such a way that you can see through them to the others. The most whimisical of the seven sculptures is The Tin Family. It’s billed as being “The World’s Largest Tin Family.” I didn’t know there are other tin families. The scupture that has the distinction of being the World’s Largest Scrap Metal Sculpture is Geese in Flight. This one is at The Enchanted Highway exit off U.S. 94 to entice visitors to make the jaunt to Regent.

In order to entice travelers further along The Enchanted Highway, a 32 mile expanse of road into town, the scuptures are spaced far enough from the others so that you have to keep driving to see them all. When we were there, Gary just happened to be giving a talk at the town’s school. I had the chance to talk to him in person. He is quite the affable guy and totally into his mission. He also gives much kudos to folks who have helped him make his visions reality. Read each sculpture’s description on the Web site to find out who helped make it and its specifications.

On our way out of town, we ran into Gary at The Tin Family. He was collecting trash from the trash cans– just another hat he wears to keep the town ready for company and hopefully, more and more action.

When Patrons get Pooped On

With waterfront property at Long Beach, California, one might think the restaurant Schooner or Later had it made in the shade. It’s the shade that actually was causing problems. Blue herons loved the palm trees that used to shade Schooner or Later’s patio. As birds are known to do, they relieve themselves and that was the problem. Folks eating out on the patio were getting pooped on. There was a article about this back in September on MSN. The story wasn’t just about the restaurant, but about the blue heron population that is finding a hard place to live since development has encroached on so much of its habitat. Therefore, the palm trees that line the beach are perfect if you happen to be a heron.

Today, the story was a Day to Day segment. For awhile, the owner of the restaurant had been trying to get permission to move the four trees that shaded his patio. He didn’t get permission, but someone cut back the trees anyway. Even though it was the landlord who cut the trees, the owner’s pleased. I’m sure the people getting pooped on are pleased as well. According to some, however, this is an example of nature conservancy and tourism being at cross purposes. The blue heron used to be considered endangered and there is worry blue herons may become endangered again if their nesting places keep disappearing. If you want to see a heron habitat that’s protected, head to Morro Bay State Park that includes the Heron Rookery Natural Preserve.