Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Pack to the Future

 “A good station wagon is one that can fit, at a minimum, a four by eight foot sheet of plywood, inside, flat. Anything else is just crap.”
These are wise words from my dad from the 1970s (maybe slightly paraphrased), owner of various station wagons and the exclusive family vehicle packer for years of family summer vacations.
It’s a funny thing, this statement always enters my mind this time of year. It’s the time of packing up the family car and traveling to the cottage, the beach, as well as taking extended road trips to the land of road side motels, waterslides, and of course, the great outdoors (with the occasional outlet mall thrown in).
Let’s go back to the 70s though first. As a kid, at the sound of the bell ringing on the last day of school in June (one of the greatest sounds on earth), my dad would be waiting in the parking lot across the street from our school, the car carefully and expertly packed to the fabric roofline with just enough room left for my mom, my brother and sister, and me to hop in, along with some pre-approved in-car entertainment - books, mad-libs, Archie comic books - nothing more.
Those were glorious carefree days, and I loved each and every one of them. That was what summer was all about – packing up and getting away.
Packing for any trip is an art, but when it comes to packing the family vehicle for a road trip, I’d have to say that no one was better skilled than my dad. Rumour had it within our family that rather than having a Master’s in Geography from Penn State, he actually had a Master’s Degree in Spatial Analysis and the Integration of Personal Belongings within Highly Limited Vehicular Spaces - but that was never actually confirmed.
Here’s the classic 70s red Ford station wagon we used to cruise down the highway in.

Just how skilled was he when it came to stuffing in the gear? When I pack our Subaru Forester SUV, I can barely get in the four of us and our gear, given two hours, an industrial-sized compressor, four Costco-sized jars of Vaseline, and a crowbar.
When my dad packed up our old station wagon for our family trips, this is how many people he could fit in with their gear:

He was so good that he could even get people to wear matching clothing. And that wasn’t easy in the 70s.
To be fair though, in our modern age, even with a Thule roof top carrier, the capacity of our car doesn’t even come close to what you used to be able to put in the classic woody. You certainly won’t be coming even close to fitting in a full sheet of plywood, even if you cut it in half. Packing space in modern vehicles has shrunk just as much as the quality of modern tv programming, our favourite childhood chocolate bars, or worst yet, the humour level of Jay Leno’s opening dialogues.

And they don’t even call them station wagons any more, that’s just too unsophisticated for today’s consumers. Now they’re called SUVs. Oooooo. They’ve raised them up slightly, made them more aerodynamic and added more dashboard gadgets (none will ever rival the 8 track player in my opinion), but even with advances of modern technology, I think the inside environment has not improved that significantly. For instance, you can no longer stick the smallest kid up front in the middle of the bench seat (also known as the ultimate ‘forward through-the-window launching seat'), thus exposing them directly to the continual abuse of their back-seated, sharp-elbowed, fidgety and slightly sweaty siblings. It’s a war zone that even the UN would have a hard time condoning.
I have to say though, with a big road trip coming up in 2 weeks, even with the challenge of a smaller interior, the spirit of the family car-loaded summer trip is not lost! In the end, it’s all about packing up and getting away from work or school, the household chores, the mail, the telephone and the daily routines.
If I had it my way, I’d be just like my dad, waiting outside our girls’ school every Friday of every weekend, packed to the roof rails, ready to explore a beautiful, summery world. 
In an age where we no longer have to sit on sticky vinyl seats in an un-air-conditioned car, or listen to the same radio station (before any kind of portable music listening devices were invented), we should remember that we’re still well off and living a luxurious life in the vehicles of the day.
And what is my motto that I hope that our girls remember when they’re older packing up their own families? Two come to mind – ‘grin and bare it,’ and maybe more importantly ‘you can’t take it with you.’