Apodaca: Life's journey isn't complete without travel

"Are we there yet?"

The common whine of children traveling with their parents goes into full, high-pitched throttle this time of year with the long-honored tradition of the family vacation.

And this summer, a whole lot of us are venturing forth. The travel website orbitz.com estimates that 88% of Americans will take a summer vacation this year, despite high gas prices and rising hotel and air fares. Most will stay domestic — good news for the tourism industry, which provides one out of every nine jobs in the United States and trillions of dollars in economic output.

Smithsonian Magazine traces the origins of the American summer vacation to 1869, when Boston preacher William H.H. Murray wrote a wilderness guidebook that became a surprise bestseller. Murray's radical notion that sojourns into nature were pleasurable and healthy was seen as a wake-up call for a country recovering from the ravages of the Civil War and grappling with its rapid industrialization.

A century and a half later we are a nation of travelers, and I count myself among those with a healthy case of wanderlust. Indeed, I was bitten early by the travel bug, a trait I inherited from my father.

When I was a kid, long before rewards points and mobile travel apps, my parents would pile my three older siblings and me into Dad's Ford Falcon station wagon for our annual summer road trip. Together we explored the national parks, battlefield monuments, state capitols and museums of America, led only by Dad's highlighter-marked itinerary on paper maps that were unfolded and refolded many times over, and by his indecipherable chicken scratches in the always-present spiral notebook that he called his "travel journal." A frustrated writer, my dad.

When my siblings and I grew weary of the endless car games, license plate counting and comic book reading, the grousing would commence. "I'm tired of driving. Are we almost there?" Dad would unfailingly reply that our destination was a half-hour away.

"That's what you said a half-hour ago!" we'd object, but he always had a quick comeback. One of his favorites: "Yes, but now I say it with authority." He'd write those in his journal too.

We never booked reservations. Dad would drive until dark, or until Mom's squeals over his distracted driving or our childish pleas reached a crescendo, and then we'd launch our search for motel vacancy signs. A cheap price was paramount to my penny-pinching dad, but he'd always inspect rooms for cleanliness.

Still, we bunked in a fair share of cockroach-infested establishments when other options were exhausted. Mom would heat canned beans or beef stew on a hot plate for dinner most nights, but Dad would sometimes treat us to a fast-food joint for burgers. Every now and then, we'd stay at a place with a pool, and we were in heaven.

As far as I knew, this was how everyone traveled, and I loved it. Somehow my parents managed to impart history lessons, cultural appreciation and a deep respect for this big, diverse country we live in.

Today Dad's wandering soul lives on in me and my sons. I am well aware that I am fortunate beyond words that I am able to travel the world in a style that Dad would never have imagined. I don't for a minute take it for granted, and I owe my loving husband much for his indulgence of my travel addiction. Early in our marriage, even when money was tight, he learned that keeping me happy meant always having a trip to look forward to.

Our family vacations have given us so many priceless moments. Of course, there's the guidebook stuff — the glorious cathedrals, historical sites and breathtaking scenery. We've skied, snorkeled, inner-tubed, biked, jet-skied, surfed, luged and land-yachted. If a baseball game was playing, we'd be there.

But it's also the little unscripted and unexpected bits that stay with us: my son's reluctance to leave a Boston art museum because, he said, the stories on the plaques that described each painting were "really good." The time in Australia when a kindly orthodontist fixed my son's broken braces for no charge, then offered to have her mother drive us back to our hotel. Running and laughing on a rain-soaked European street while we tried to protect the chocolates we'd just purchased from getting drenched.

Even the bad stuff — the broken bones, sprained ankles, intestinal viruses, pinched nerves, missing luggage and cancelled flights — are now family lore. We chuckle about the imperious porter who wouldn't let us put our feet up on the opposite bench on an otherwise empty train. And there was that time in Brugge, Belgium, when we got lost and, well, suffice it to say it wasn't my husband's and my finest moment in parenting.

They're all part of us, our shared recollections of time together. Now that my sons are older and opportunities for family trips grow scarcer, I hold onto them tighter than ever.

I'm also grateful that my travels come with a happy ending when I return home to beautiful Newport Beach, where every day feels a little like a holiday. If I could speak to my father, I'd tell him that I finally learned to stop worrying about when I'd get to the next destination and to simply enjoy the ride.

PATRICE APODACA is a former Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She lives in Newport Beach.

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