Batman and Starbucks

With so much to do and so little time, the classic family road trip has drastically changed –which might seem like a good thing until you have a burning question about Batman.

It is a cloudless summer day, and the hot wind that sends my hair swirling around my head carries the scent of sun-scorched pines and hard-packed southern soil. Staring down the endless ribbon of road stretching ahead, I imagine that the wavy lines of heat rising from the asphalt are an ocean that is always just out of reach. I think about asking, “Are we there yet?” or inquiring how much longer until we reach our destination, but I know the words will simply blow back in my face.

Once, on a trip through the mountains, near Bat Cave, NC, I yelled from the far reaches of the third-row back seat, “Dad! Why did Batman go to the Bat Room?” His answer, “Honey, I can’t look at anything while I’m driving,” told me no one but my brother on the second-row seat could hear me above the roar of the wind through the open windows. Arthur and I fell into fits of laughter at his reply, and Dad eyed us in the rear-view mirror as we shouted, “No, Dad!” We began to sing the theme to the Batman show at the top of our lungs, “DooDooDooDooDooDooDooDoo,” which struck us as simply hilarious in this particular context. Years later, it still cracks us up.

I’ve always loved family road trips. Whether long and arduous or a short zip down the highway, they are as different from a drive to church or a trip to the grocery store as asteroids are to light bulbs. They evoke a sense of anticipation that gives the landscape a different look, a heightened awareness that makes us restless in our seats, and in some of us, an inexplicably ravenous hunger that kicks in before we reach the city limits.

Before we’d leave for a trip, Dad would get out the highlighter to mark the route we’d travel, and appoint a navigator—a position of great importance. I was seldom appointed, due mostly to the fact that the concepts of north and south eluded me until much later in my life. Things were different, back in the day, when there were no fast food restaurants or convenience stores for what seemed like hundreds of miles. We’ve come a long way in terms of convenience, but there are things that I miss about the way traveling used to be an “event.”

Drivers picked service stations with the same loyalty they chose NFL teams, and an actual human attendant came out to greet you, pump the gas, check the oil, and wash the windshield. Our car was a hearse-sized, aqua-and-black International Travel-All. It was a beauty, if you admired box-shaped behemoths on wheels. It was also equipped with two gas tanks, so we didn’t stop often—and this was the reason we seldom got refreshments along the way.

If the stations offered refreshments at all, they came in the form of canned or bottled drinks obtainable only by vending machine, for those with correct change. There were few options, usually just Coca-Cola or a carbonated fruit-flavored drink that was certain to trigger colorful car sickness within 15 miles. We found out early on that my system did not tolerate grape sodas.

Access to the restroom required asking for a key, which was usually tied to something about the size of a brick. I have no idea why, but I surmise that restroom door keys must have been highly sought-after by bathroom bandits during this period in our history. There is no other reasonable explanation for the extraordinary security measures required for entry into facilities offering a level of luxury better suited for a maximum security prison.

There weren’t hotels at every turn. The few we saw always seemed a little skanky, and they were distastefully referred to as “motels” by my mother.  I remember only once staying in a hotel during the first decade or so of my life, on a trip to the zoo, where a giraffe named Jane slimed one entire side of my brother’s head with her long, purple tongue, and a co-traveler came down with measles. Instead of staying in hotels, we pulled a pop-up camper all across the country behind our odd-looking SUV. We camped year-round, despite hurricanes, ice storms, and swarms of quarter-sized mosquitos.

We rarely had a set itinerary, but no matter how far we traveled, my grandparents could always find us and come rolling up in the Oldsmobile; Grandad in his white dress shirt and hat, and Granny in a shirtwaist dress, stockings, and pearl earrings. Their arrival made my mother crazy. Sometimes, they stayed. With six people in a pop-up camper, things get shaky in every respect. One night, while I slept on the dining table that converted to a bed, and my brother on a lounge chair in the narrow aisle, my grandmother mistook the movement of the camper for my grandfather having a chill. It was June, and the poor man awoke sweating, with three blankets and all of our jackets piled on him.

These days, family road trips just aren’t the same. We rarely ever leave the house without insulated cups of ice and our favorite beverages, which are easily refilled at any stop. The bathrooms are mostly clean and don’t require a key, and we can get gas, pizza, ice cream, a CD to learn to speak French, and a bag of Cheetos the size of our head at almost every convenience store. I don’t see many pop-up campers anymore, and we’re so busy watching the movie screens in the back seat, searching for the golden arches at every exit, or frantically Googling Starbucks locations, that we miss some good moments.

I remember well the velvet-soft nose of a black cow, poking through the barbed-wire fence near a pine-shaded picnic table off of a two-lane road in South Georgia. Another time, I shivered at the exotic feel of the Florida Welcome Center, with its free orange juice and pamphlets that made me dream of being a mermaid at Weeki Wachee Water World. I still get the willies at the stomach-churning knowledge of how close we came to the guardrail on the hair-pin turns in the mountains, and I’ll never forget the anticipation of biting into the tomato sandwiches wrapped in waxed paper that awaited us in the green Coleman cooler—if we could ever get Dad to stop.

Today, we travel in air-conditioned cars down interstates that all look the same, where cows are dots in far-off pastures, and mermaids swim by on blurry billboards. I cannot deny that I am the first to take advantage of the conveniences of modern-day road trips. I love that I can get those big cups of crushed ice and some M&Ms almost any time I feel like it. Recently, reflecting on the thousands of miles I traveled with my family and all the fun we had, my curiosity got the best of me, so I picked up my phone.

“Siri, why did Batman go to the Bat Room?”

“That’s an interesting question,” she replied. Evidently, she can’t look at anything while she’s driving either.

“Siri, can you sing the theme to Batman?”

“You know I can’t sing,” she told me, in what seemed a snippy tone.

“Then give me directions to Starbucks,” I commanded. Then I laughed out loud and sang the answer to what remains one of my favorite riddles…“DooDooDooDooDooDooDooDoo.” Yep. It still cracks me up.

By Susan Frampton