Memories from a childhood spent on the road

"As torturous as these trips often were at the time, I have fond memories of them now."
"As torturous as these trips often were at the time, I have fond memories of them now." Photo: Getty Images

“The road is life” ― Jack Kerouac 

When I was a kid, our summer holiday was an annual road trip from Melbourne to Queensland. My Mum would gently place us in the car at some horribly early hour, hoping we’d sleep at least for the first part of the journey. Of course we never did, and I remember breakfasts eaten at roadside cafes as the dawn sun came up.

For some reason my Dad had this fascination with driving straight through. This meant sitting for hours in the car. No stops at motels for a swim in the pool and a night’s sleep in crisp white sheets. No DVD players to distract us. No roomy SUV to stop us piling on top of each other. Instead my brother and I were cramped in the back of a two-door sports car, our feet sticking up through the sunroof, on a twenty-hour battle for space.

Mum always packed heaps of games, activity books and snacks, and I remember looking forward to the bag of surprises she’d hand over when we began our holiday. Each of us bought along our favourite tape to listen to. It was an eclectic mix; Supertramp, Wild Colonial Boy, Looney Tunes and Rickie Lee Jones. Even though I’m sure we hated each other’s taste in music, nobody complained. We just stared out the window at the endless fields flicking past and listened.

As torturous as these trips often were at the time, I have fond memories of them now. I remember us united. A family of four squashed into a small space and forced to get along. I would invariably fall asleep on my younger brother’s shoulder and wake up knowing I’d dribbled on his top, but he didn’t really seem to care. I remember Mum nagging Dad to slow down, worried he’d get yet another speeding ticket as we drove into a small town. I remember the huge trucks speeding past making our car shudder on the road.

And I remember how long the nights were. Hours of darkness on an empty highway as Dad crept the car faster and faster, knowing Mum was asleep. One night I was sitting in the front, awake, while Mum and my brother took turns sleeping in the back. We stopped at a roadside cafe, and Dad let me buy any chocolate bar I wanted. I thought I was the luckiest kid alive as I nibbled off the outside of my Crunchie, staring out into the Australian blackness while the world around us slept.

Last year my partner and I drove up to Sydney from Melbourne with our kids. We took the coast road. We left at midday because we’re disorganised. We had no real plan. But Mum’s bags of delights must have rubbed off on me because I packed lots of special little things for the kids. As we drove away there was a real sense of escaping, a genuine flutter of excitement that we were going on the road. Maybe the pleasure comes from being able to stop wherever you like and not having anything locked in. How often do we do that in our everyday lives?

What amazed me was how happy the kids were driving a seven-hour stretch without stopping, listening to a Roald Dahl talking book, and playing hundreds of games of Eye Spy. They loved having their parents both where they could see them. We couldn’t be busy doing other things. We were all in it together.

Occasionally they complained, but mostly they experienced that incredible fascination with distance. The shock at discovering Australia is really that big. My kids had been to Sydney before on a plane, but they didn’t know how long it took if you drove the beach road, winding along the coast, stopping and seeing blowholes, and cliffs, and perfect beaches.

When we were kids, it was what you did. Flying was so expensive and perhaps still a bit too novel for the average Joe. But driving, well that made sense. And it meant we understood how far places were from each other, and how different Australian landscapes really were. 

Stuck in the car for hours also meant my kids were drawn together in the great adventure of it all. They weren’t plugged into a DVD player on a plane, using it only to get them somewhere; they were staring out windows, seeing things, showing each other things, and being part of their surroundings. The amazing thing was they didn’t really care about our destination. It was all about the journey - the little places along the way. The fossil beach at Ulladulla. The stretch of sand at Lakes Entrance. The op shops. And the drive. Maybe Jack Kerouac had it right. Maybe the road is life after all.