Mystery Trips

Mystery Trips–A Story of Family Road Trips in the 1960s

I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s in a small lakeside town in the Midwest.  My father, fresh out of medical school on the GI bill, set up his first practice and became the only pediatrician in the area at that time.  My mother, a young bride and seven years his junior, became first and foremost a mom, the norm in those days.  She gave birth to my two sisters, my brother and me in five years flat, start to finish.

A couple of times a year, to our surprise and delight, my parents would pull us all out of school for a long weekend, and the family would embark upon what my parents  called “mystery trips.” Our folks would load us into the family station wagon with maps and secretly packed suitcases, and then stage contests to see who would be first to figure out our destination.  With all the bags stashed and lashed on the roof rack well out of reach of little spying eyes and prying fingers, we four kids were piled into the car, literally.  The two back seats were  folded down, and the four points of the open play-pen like area of the cab were outfitted with each of our most beloved toys and games – one kid to a corner.

Off we’d go, Dad at the wheel chomping on his cigar, Mom next to him buried in her latest romance novel, us giddy imps bouncing about that vast, cavernous expanse of soggy, threadbare matting in the back of the car as if it were a wild ride at the county fair.  Air conditioning was as yet a novel concept, as were seatbelts.  Sometimes the sun would beat down and the wind would whip in through open windows, blowing all our precious belongings helter-skelter.  Other times the windows of our magic carpet would become drawing boards for games of hang-man and tic-tac-toe as the frosted-over glass blurred frozen landscapes of endless snowdrifts.

We younger kids would give up on the map quest pretty quickly, leaving the car sickness-inducing point of the excursion to our eldest sister who was the only one who cared, and who proudly held the title of undefeated Destination Discoverer Champion.  She holds the title to this day! She would win a Clark Bar which she always shared four ways.

The Author in Front of the Family's Faithful 1955 Chevy Wagon

One time we drove north to the only mountain in the state, to learn how to snow-ski. My little sister, trying in vain to keep up with us older maniacs, snow-plowed through an entire Snow Bunny Ski-School group, and several terrified beginners had to be carried off the slope by the ski-patrol.  We made a hasty escape early the next morning.

Another time we went all the way to New York City, saw the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall, Oliver on Broadway, and all four of us kids fell asleep with our heads in our spaghetti and meatballs at Mama Leones.

But it is the trip to Tennessee to visit my uncle’s rock shop that stands stellar in my memory.  The rocks were cool enough – real fossils and geodes and crystals!  But they’re not what I recall best.  It was our unscheduled detour that was the highlight.

En route to Knoxville on a pretty tight schedule, my dad, giving into our “Oh, Daddy please stop or we’ll just die!” insistence, grudgingly pulled into the “Amazing One and Only Hillbilly Village.”  We had passed no fewer than two dozen garishly obnoxious billboards advertising what turned out to be a rundown jumble of decrepit shacks, staffed by a gaggle of even more decrepit “hillbillies.”  The whole operation was a sham, a shabbily made-up set with bad actors, worse food, and an even more deplorable, if possible, gift shop from which we each of course “needed” some ridiculously overpriced and wholly useless memento.  Oh, and those restrooms! My father was bitterly disgusted, and could not muster his troops into a fast enough retreat, wishing to put behind him forever the notion that he could have ever been tricked into falling for such a pitiful charade.

As we exited the dusty perimeter of the even dustier fake town and made our way back to our trusty automobile, we all froze in our tracks and stared dumbstruck at the horrible sight before us.  Sometime during our unfortunate tour of “hillbillyville,” some miscreant, delinquent little “‘billies” had scampered out to the parking lot and plastered bumper-sticker advertisements  all over our magnificent chariot.  Even the windows were wallpapered with the evidence of our shame.  I remember my father hunching down miserably in the driver’s seat as car after car passed us, the occupants pointing and jeering.  That night, all of us kids were allowed to stay up  outside with Mom and Dad well after the street lights came on, as we sloshed and scrubbed and sprayed and played and wrestled and cuddled and laughed and cleaned that old wagon of ours until every last shred of evidence of my fathers indiscretion had disappeared from sight.

It was one of the best times of my whole life.  A time of simple joys and easy comings together. An innocent time when separate and singular people grew to know one another, and became a family.

by Pam Bitterman

Editor’s Note

Pamela Bitterman is the author of three books, including the critically-acclaimed Sailing to the Far Horizon, a story of her three-year voyage on the Tall Ship Sophia during its ill-fated attempt to circumnavigate the globe.  (Sailing to the Far Horizon, University of Wisconsin Press, 2004)

Muzungu  picks up on that journey a couple of decades later and is the story of her travels and adventures in Kenya.  (Muzungu, Kindle E-Books, 2011)

She has also written a children’s book entitled When This Is Over, I Will Go To School, And I Will Learn To Read; A Story of Hope and Friendship for One Young Kenyan Orphan.  (eBookIt, Kindle E-Book edition, 2011)

Finally, the author has penned a homily entitled, Child, You Are Miracle.  Links to these, plus trailers to her three published books can be found on her website:


In December of 2003 my husband and I went to Florida for a vacation.I grew up on the east coast and my family had taken frequent trips to Florida during my childhood, but my husband was from the South Central United States and had never visited Florida.I was thrilled to be sharing such a special part of my childhood with him, and was especially excited to act as his personal Disney World tour guide.We arrived in Orlando a few days after Christmas, and spent several days visiting the different attractions and enjoying the holiday festivities.

Neither my husband nor I like crowds, but we decided that crowds were simply a part of Disney World, and resigned ourselves to going with the flow.We did fairly well meandering through the crowds of people in the park for the first couple of days, but on our third day the crowdswere enormous even by Disney World standards.At one point the sheer magnitude of the throng really hit me so I went to the crest of a hill and climbed up on a bench to take a quick picture.The picture shows a sea of people all over the park.People were standing shoulder to shoulder everywhere; not one area was less crowded than another.We were so packed in that I had a difficult time maneuvering my way onto the bench just to take the picture.The whole experience was a little surreal.

Amazingly, everyone was friendly and jovial about the whole situation.The happy spell of the Magic Kingdom held, despite the waits and delays.Complete strangers joked with one another about the crowds, speculated about Disney’s profits for the day, and agreed they were lucky to be there in December and not July.Eventually everyone was able to get to the attraction they wanted to see.The park remained crowded, and everyone remained courteous the entire day.We had a wonderful day, but I left amazed at the high attendance rate.

Later that evening in our hotel room, we turned on the news just in time to hear that the attendance at Disney World that day had been the highest in park history.Even though I normally dislike crowds, I am glad that we were there on a record-breaking day.It was a special experience to see that many strangers coming together and enjoying themselves.We also have a great story and photo to share with family and friends about how we unknowingly made history at Disney World.