The writer Richard Ratay was on the beach in the Dominican Republic several years ago, watching his kids play in the surf, when he started thinking about just how different vacations were for his kids than they had been for him when he was their age.* Why? Chiefly because, unlike the vacations he’d taken as a kid growing up in Wisconsin, this vacation hadn’t required its participants to spend multiple days squeezed into a car. Instead, they’d flown.
In his new book, Don’t Make Me Pull Over!: An Informal History of the Family Road Trip, Ratay writes that throughout the 1960s and ’70s, America was at Peak Family Road Trip. The interstate-highway system was materializing from coast to coast at the same time automobiles were becoming a fixture parked in front of family homes; add a generation of dads who’d returned home from war bitten by the travel bug and a new, still-unreliable, prohibitively expensive air-travel industry, and you suddenly had a country full of families packing up their station wagons to go on vacation.
Among them was Ratay’s own family, and in Don’t Make Me Pull Over!, Ratay weaves in the history of American vacation culture with memories of the childhood years he spent traveling with his efficiency-minded dad, his beleaguered mom, his two teenage brothers, and a sister perpetually on the brink of puking all over the car. Ratay spoke to The Atlantic about the origins of the road trip, parenting on the interstate, and why the golden age of family road-tripping was a distinctly American phenomenon. An edited and condensed transcript of our conversation is below.