Will the American family trip survive?

June 11, 2008|By Arthur J. Magida

In the worst-case scenario, soon no one will be going to the mountains or the shore, and cross country family odysseys will be fuzzy memories from a distant, Norman Rockwell past. Thanks to America's energy mess, the family vacation of the future could evolve into a stay-at-home enterprise, an interval of togetherness without endless days cooped up in station wagons and vans as Mom and Dad bicker while trying to keep Junior and Sis from pounding each other into smithereens in the back seat.

In recent years, the American vacation has been on the decline. A few years ago, the Family and Work Institute reported that only 14 percent of Americans take two weeks or more vacation at a time. This means that each year, the average American spends more time in the bathroom than on vacation. Americans also work about eight weeks longer each year than in 1969, although for about the same income after adjusting for inflation. Compared with Europeans, Americans are vacation-phobes. Every year, Italians go on vacation for 42 days, French for 37, Germans for 35 and British for 28. We Americans average 13 days, a full 50 percent less than our slacker neighbors to the north - those sloths, the Canadians.

Now, with gas prices hovering around $4 a gallon, the shrinking vacation could well take another substantial hit. And yet, I could be all wrong. University of Virginia historian Cindy S. Aron writes in Working at Play, her account of how vacations evolved in America, during the Depression, the number of vacations barely budged. In the worst years, 1929 to 1935, writes Ms. Aaron, "People did reduce the amount they paid for hotels, meals, gifts and entertainment during their trips, but continued to take their vacations nonetheless. In 1929, Americans spent approximately $2.7 billion on vacation travel. The number dropped to $1.7 billion in 1933, but by 1935 had rebounded to $2.3 billion."

In those hard times, people vacationed where and how they could: The well-to-do still went to Newport, R.I., on the East Coast or California's Bohemian Grove on the West Coast. The middle-class could still get relative bargains, such as renting a remodeled farmhouse in Connecticut - with swimming pool - for $50 a month. And the young and the brave could camp out, stay at tourist cabins or crash with relatives and barely suffer a dent in their wallet. In 1933, a brother and sister in their 20s traveled through North Dakota for five days with a friend - and spent less than $10. Heading home at a top speed of 35 miles an hour, the sister confided in her diary regrets common to many of us returning from vacation: "I can't feel any enthusiasm as I think of all the washing, ironing and baking to be done at home. Haying is starting, too."

Most of us won't be worrying about haying this year. But we will be fearing the soaring price of gasoline, and that almost certainly will have an effect on how far we travel and how long we stay. The potential social and cultural implications of vacationing at home are significant: We'll have to learn how to put up with each other better - those fights in the back seats of the car can't transfer to the dinner table. In some ways, the auto was the peacemaker, a common ground for negotiating. And choral arts are sure to suffer. For hours, sometimes days, the vacation car was the rehearsal hall for such ditties as "The Wheels on the Bus." Without the shared discipline of being trapped in the car, the harmony is likely to disintegrate and entire songbooks may disappear.

There are alternatives, of course. Biking. Long hikes. Kayaking. Extended picnics. Reading. Naps in the hammock. Jigsaw puzzles and charades, just for starters. Indeed, it's probably fair to predict that the family vacation won't entirely wither away.

Gas crisis or not, we do not want to end up like Japan, which documents about 10,000 cases of karoosh, or death by overwork, every year. Happy summer!

Arthur J. Magida is a Baltimore writer. His most recent book is "Opening the Doors of Wonder."

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