Early Roadside Memories

Warm spring days bring bare feet, ice cream, sunshine, frisbees, open windows, good moods, bustling downtowns coming back to life, patio tables, sidewalk cafes, festivals and the desire for adventure. The best and easiest way to get somewhere in the USA tends to be via automobile. Road trips, maps, coffee, cameras, new roads, backroads, music, intrigue – whether a trip lasts one day, one week or one month, the open roads continues to be a metaphor for American freedom. Filled with the pioneer spirit, many of us are always wanting to go somewhere. Unlike pioneers, 20th and 21st century travelers are not sleeping in covered wagons. This age of lodging options has a fascinating history that speaks to the changing American culture.

The Motel in America

Maybe the burst of spring weather and a constant dream of another road trip are reasons why I finally chose this book from my bookshelf: The Motel in America by John A. Jakle, Keith A. Sculle, and Jefferson S. Rogers. While I have more to read, I managed to devour quite a few chapters in the Sunday sunshine. The beginning will capture a roadside lover’s interest right away:

A drive of more than 450 miles in a single day was an accomplishment in 1948. Up before dawn, we drove until dark, crossing northern Ohio and then dropping south to Pittsburgh and the new Pennsylvania Turnpike. In the early days of the automobile, auto touring was championed as a way of traveling leisurely through landscapes beyond the control of railroad timetables and the corporate powers that those timetables represented. Motoring was promoted as a means of getting to know the country through the slow, firsthand encounter. As highways improved, however, touring became increasingly a matter of “making time” between big attractions more distantly spaced. How quickly Americans came to trade landscapes glimpsed rapidly through train windows for landscapes glimpsed rapidly through windshields. Our family was no exception. {The Motel in America, page 3}

The authors begin with their earliest memories and associations with motels, as part of giving readers their own context and background, and in turn it invites readers to ask of their own recollections.

I grew up in a family of four sisters; with so many of us, we didn’t vacation every year. However, road trips are well worn into my memory. Aside from playing cards with my sister Sarah in the backseat of the Dodge Grand Caravan or playing stuffed animal games with sisters Annie & Erin, too, our family had travel traditions. We packed a cooler of food – sandwiches, drinks, snacks, and some candy(!) – and at lunchtime we’d stop at one of the interstate rest areas. Mom set out a table cloth, we’d gather around the picnic table and eat our sandwiches. Then we’d stretch our legs before getting back into the car. The picnic areas were budget savers to a big family.

Mom always loved the AAA guide books and the TripTiks for directions to our destinations. We never made reservations ahead of time, but when we were getting close to being done for the day (that probably means that we four girls were getting restless and hungry), Mom would browse through the guide book to see which hotel might suit our needs. The four of us always pleaded for a pool. We needed something to do after being stuck in the car all day, and we did not have a pool at home, so it seemed like a real vacation luxury to us. One time we pulled up to Howard Johnson’s and the pool was green. As we always checked out the pool status first, we did not stay there!

Mom & Dad preferred a hotel that included breakfast, and rooms that would somehow sleep six people. (Relatively unknown family fact: on one occasion or two, the youngest sister slept on chairs pushed together so we could all fit in the room. She was little!) On some occasions we were able to negotiate a good deal for two adjoining rooms; this is when we were older and actually needed more than two beds.

The motels we choose were often the type with outside entrances. They were easier for loading and unloading and usually cheaper than the interior corridor entrance style. The chain hotel names that stick in my childhood memory are Days Inn, Comfort Inn, Econo Lodge, and Howard Johnson.

Over the years, we’ve stayed in many lodging types. My mom, Sarah and I have pitched a tent in the dark in a campground field (reminiscent of auto tourists who simply stopped on the side of the road). I’ve stayed in motor courts with the preservation girls. I’ve camped in state parks, at KOAs, and independent campgrounds. Bed & breakfasts, chain hotels, mom-and-pop motels, I think I have most of them crossed off the lodging list. And each type has a good example and a bad example, but all make for good memories (even if they’re only good after-the-fact).

And as for my continued fascination with roadside America? What could be more exciting than traveling the country and seeing our evolving culture manifested itself in the built environment? What are your earliest recollections of roadside travel? Where did you and your family stay? How did it change as you grew older?

And My Heart Broke

Do you know what it feels like to watch history fade away before your own eyes and not be able to do a thing to save it? Do you know how it feels to know that within a short period of time, certain invaluable memories will be erased?  It pulls at my heart in a way similar to an abandoned house doomed for demolition does or the way lonesome washed-up towns look in photographs. This is partially a result of knowing that no one else has bothered to save this history and partially because I can’t do anything about it.

If you have ever worked in the oral history field or conducted research using oral history, there is a good chance that you know exactly what I mean.  Oral history has its positives and negatives, just like any form of research. It captures stories that would have never been heard or found otherwise, but your research is often at the mercy and kindness of your interviewees.  Ethically, you cannot interview someone and use that information without their permission. Interviewees must sign (what I call) a Deed of Gift form, which grants permission for the transcript and recording in the current project and sometimes, future use. The majority of interviewees are happy to sign the form and aid the project, but some people will refuse.

I have had a few people refuse to sign a deed of gift in my oral history experience. And no matter how much you explain to them the benefits of the particular project or show them exactly how their transcript and recordings will be used, no matter how much you reason with them, they will not concede. And there are only so many rounds of discussions you can have before it’s just too much and too exhausting (mentally and emotionally) and there is no more you can do.

Why would someone refuse? The reasons vary, but in my experience it has been because he or she did not like how the interview transcript read. Most people are shocked by their spoken words being directly translated on to paper. We all speak differently than we write, so reading oral history transcripts can be quite the trip. I assume only the most eloquent public speakers have near perfect transcripts.  This shock turns into vanity, which can be easily erased with the explanation of the transcript use.

Except for one case that I know: One interviewee could not fathom sharing this transcript (or even a few paragraphs of excerpts) with the public because she felt that she sounded less than educated, whereas she had indeed attended higher education to earn her M.A. After over one year of discussing and trying to convince her by demonstrating uses of the transcripts and explaining its value, she finally decided once and for all that she would not participate.

And my heart broke. Her memories are so important and rare and would complement the rest of the project. I should mention that her transcript read just fine, on par with the best interviews. It’s so sad to me that people could let vanity get in the way of sharing history, especially when they might be of the few who still know that information. Now, I cannot pass on this interview, not even to the archives. Nor can I tell this story because I’d have to cite the interview.  And so the memories will disappear.


Readers, am I missing anything? Is there a solution I haven’t found? Please help if you can.

Project 365

Have you heard of Project 365? It seems to have various permutations around the internet but on that site, the story begins with a guy named Taylor McKnight who started taking one photograph per day on January 1, 2004. The purpose is multifold: 1) by always using your camera, you will become a better photographer, 2) you will have a year long photo album of your life, 3) you will be able to recall exact days and moments that you have may have forgotten otherwise.

It’s an interesting twist on recording memories and active preservation, huh? I thought so anyway. We all know that life is made up of many little moments, things that we wish we could remember but somehow they get lost along the way. Think of it this way: if we are actively recording our lives and what is significant to that particular year, then won’t we have a more complete story to tell at the end of the year?  Many of us chronicle our lives in written words, whether by a diary, a blog, letters, etc. But what about photographs? Do we try to document with just photographs? And one specific photograph each day will have more of an impact than albums of hundreds of digital photographs for certain occasions. Captions are allowed and encouraged.

I had heard about Project 365 many times before, but wanted to wait until a new year began to start (unlike other resolutions I make).  So I began my own Project 365 for 2009, knowing that this will be a year of change and many locations and exciting adventures. I still record most of my life in words, but photographs seem like fun, too. And yes, I’m keeping another blog for it. If you’re interested in the link, I’ll send it to you.  And if you decided to start Project 365, let me know! I’d like to see. It doesn’t have to start on January 1, so you can still begin.  Happy photographing and documenting!

The Time Warp Effect of Home

There’s a lot to be said for coming home for the holidays, reconnecting with family and friends, and spending days in your old bedroom.  To me, this is a holiday routine – I always come home and I love coming home. My house becomes chaotic (a total of four girls will have that effect) and we tend to fall into our same old sister roles, with slight differences over the years. What I like most is the fact that any old routine is possible. Of course, we are somewhat improved every year.

When I am at home, I feel as though I’ve entered a time warp – one that offers familiarity at all turns, security, family and friends, memories, and traditions. Home seems like a bubble. When I’m home, it’s almost as if I could easily step back into time at any point during my life, at any age.

My sisters and I unknowingly tested this theory last Saturday when we all arrived home. It actually snowed! It hadn’t snowed with all four of us home in at least four years. When we were little kids, we’d bundle up and head out the door, sleds in tow, dog following along, and play in the snow for hours. We did this that Saturday, playing at the schoolyard, making snow angels, running and sliding, racing, and all the time laughing and shrieking like little girls without a care in the world, except for cold fingers. This night has its place as one of my favorites in our sister history.

The time-warp of home enables me to imagine what it’s like for someone to return to their rundown town years later and still see it in its glory, with people out and about, shops open, and everyday life all around. It is easy to overlook the disparities of an old, drafty window or a less than perfect backyard because it is my house and yard, filled with my family’s memories, in all of which I easily slip into my rightful place.

I can only hope that everyone has such a place that allows them to step back into time, whether for moments or a few weeks. Sometimes it is hard for outsiders to see what is so special about one place, because they are not capable of looking past the imperfections; however, someone who belongs to that place can easily pass along its history and significance, whatever that may mean to the storyteller. And details of that nature are irreplaceable.

September 11, 2008

Seven years ago, I was in 11th grade sitting in Mr. Posnanski’s 3rd period precalculus class when another teacher popped his head in the door to say that we should go to the library to watch TV because a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center.  For the rest of the day and week, in all of my classes, we spent a lot of time listening to the radio or watching the news, and talking about the attacks on the twin towers.  I spent a lot of time writing – not necessarily how I felt, but more so what I had been hearing on the news and what we were doing in school. 

Even though I grew up on Long Island, until September 11, 2001, I did not know much about the twin towers or the World Trade Center.  Due to my lack of knowledge, it seemed like the best thing I could do would be to record my surroundings.  It’s not a literary work of the century, but at least I’ll have decades from now. 

Personally, my life was not altered by September 11.  However, my extended family lost a member. My cousin’s cousin, Kristen Montanero, worked in one of the twin towers.  We never heard from her.  We attended her memorial service in the winter of 2002.  She remains among the missing.  I especially think of her today.

Every anniversary of September 11 has been different.  Sadly, it seems as though every anniversary places less and less emphasis on itself, the day, and the people lost.  Of course, I am also moving geographically further from New York every few years (by chance.)  I thought that working on an Army base, there would at least be a little ceremony, but no one mentioned anything all day.  Maybe the soldiers had something, but civilian contractors did not hear a word.  My sister who attends college in Pennsylvania emailed me to tell me that no one mentioned September 11th there either.  We both would up searching the internet to find that Point Lookout had a memorial service on the beach.  We wanted to go. 

Again, it’s not that September 11 changed my life forever, at least directly, but shouldn’t a day like this deserve some attention? What happened to the unified country and patriotism and never forget?  Just like we should remember soldiers on Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day and December 7th for Pearl Harbor, shouldn’t we give remembrance to today, a day marked “Patriot Day” on calendars? Granted, American society is fickle, but it seems to me that September 11th will be one of those days where you should remember where you were so someday you can tell your children and grandchildren of the day Americans were attacked on our own soil, but how we all came together to remember that we were indeed Americans. 

Forget politics, opinions, and side agendas: September 11th is about remembering people, honoring the heroes.  At least offering a moment of silence like we do for the Oklahoma City bombing, would show respect and remembrance.  It’s a date in history that Americans should never forget.

On the note of remembrance, decades from now, oral history is probably going to play a role in recording the events to share with that generation what happened.  Fortunately, some institutions have already begun the efforts.  (See Columbia’s Oral History Program.)  But, traumatic experiences affect memories and different instances of oral history will recall various stories.  Oral history isn’t always about interviewing elders – it’s anyone who experienced an important part of history and has a story to tell.

September 11, 2008: I’m in the oral history field.  I suppose it’s the appropriate choice for me as I’m a proponent of the ideas: remember the fallen, bless the heroes. And never forget, because people and their history deserve to be remembered. 

American Flag in Point Lookout

American Flag in Point Lookout

Old Memories, New Memories: The Evolution of My Favorite Place

I grew up in a beach town.  My mother pulled me in the wagon to the beach and we played on any sunny day in any season.  My father held me under a crashing wave before I knew how to swim.  My uncle taught me how to ride the waves (body surf) and I have a beautiful scar on my shoulder from that incident, getting trashed by the waves.  My cousin taught me what little I know about actual surfing.  My sisters and I lived for the beach.  I have salt water in my veins and salty air in my lungs.


As children we spent hours on the beach digging holes, just digging. Hands, shovels, buckets, shells: anything could become a useful digging tool. Our efforts often attracted jealous attention of nearby children who marveled at a hole so wide and deep that four sisters could sit comfortably.  We guarded our hole with pride and asked our parents to not let anyone cave it in while we ran to the water to rinse off our sandy bodies.  Waves kept us in the chilly water for hours at a time.  We ran along the breaking waves and turned cartwheels.  We rode wave after wave after wave, perfecting our body surfing techniques.  Sometimes the waves tossed and turned us under water, pulled us from the surface, and dropped us from our place on top with no warning.  The waves never scared us; we thrived on the excitement.  Our father and his brother stayed with us after the lifeguards had gone home at six.  We’d occasionally use a boogie board, but that never seemed as true as body surfing.  The afternoon and evening brought warm water and an easy sunny sky.


Now, years later, I do not live near the beach.  Here, it is hours to any beach and people take vacations to the beach.  I never fathomed such a thing.  I miss the beach and try to take my vacations in the summer to go home and return to the beach with my sisters.


Playtime on the beach is different.  We dig fewer holes and tolerate the cold water just slightly less than our younger selves.  We love the beauty of the sand and the ocean, but some things changes.  Recently, I have felt guilty and suddenly too old.  How could I not want to play like that 10 year old girl I used to be?  This is when I realized that our favorite places can evolve with ourselves.  My memories never leave; I love everything about the beach and the games my sisters and I would play. 


As we’ve grown, I’ve adapted myself to the beach. Instead of running from the beach blanket to the waves and back, I run miles on the beach.  On these miles, barefoot and in the water, I show my love for the beach.  There is no place I’d rather run and no place that I’m happier to run.  When I run on the beach, it feels like I’m playing.  They are always my favorite runs with stops in the middle to jump in the waves.  I’ve never appreciated cold water more than during a sunny run. 


Now I have a melding of my childhood and myself.  We still ride the waves and turn cartwheels and jump off lifeguard stands. Digging holes may have to wait another generation.  But, I have added an older version of myself and my activities to the beach.  Without this, the beach (or any favorite place) risks fading memories.  Every time I run I remember.  Every time I run on the beach I’m adding to those memories. 


Memory and use are funny things: combining them makes the place stronger and more meaningful.  People and communities should consider what they love (buildings, landscapes, open space, etc) and when it’s out of date, find new ways to keep the past and the present connected, assuring life for the future.  It’s the basic foundation for human existence; our memories, our lives, are connected by the past, present, and future.  We wouldn’t want to let any of that go, so why should we forget our surroundings?