Reflections on family travels of the past
My younger sister, Chris, and I were very close growing up and for decades longer in adulthood. I’ve been thinking of her a lot since her death in June, 2020 at the age of 63. Many of those thoughts are fond memories of travels that we shared and enjoyed, including those with our parents along the highways and byways of North America. We felt lucky to be able to see so many places during our summer vacations and other short jaunts throughout the year.
Although I can’t remember many details from the trips we took when we were very young, I remember the feeling of excitement to be going places. I’d like to share some of my memories and old photos of traveling with Chris. I hope they bring to mind some of your favorite travel experiences with your siblings or other family members.
North American road trips
Mom, Dad, Chris, and I traveled all over the United States and parts of Canada by car and RV — sometimes camping, sometimes staying at roadside motels along the way. For summer vacation, our trips would be a few weeks to a month long traveling on interstate highways, country roads, and remote deserted roads which were not always paved. We saw famous landmarks and explored many areas off the main routes getting a look at everyday life in new places.
Chris and I were very eager travelers from the start. I can vividly remember sitting in the back seat with Chris by my side behind Mom and Dad, looking around and taking in the sights — our first views of the Rocky Mountains, the vast expanses of desert landscapes, the dense forests, the quiet towns we passed through, and surprises on the route. Of course, we also appreciated lunch stops and reaching our destination each day to swim in the motel pool or play board games in the trailer.
I remember the night before we left on our first trip to the West Coast (which would include Disneyland and Hollywood). I was seven, Chris was five. The night before we left Dad said, “We’re really going to do some mountain climbing on this trip!” I took that to mean that we’d be scaling sheer cliffs with ropes and tools as I’d seen in magazines or on TV! I was quite relieved when I later found out he meant driving on mountain roads to high elevations. I think Chris had that figured out way ahead of me.
In the photo above, we were all cozy and comfortable in our trailer camping for the night in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I remember that we could see a lot of sparkling city lights from the campsite. They were so bright and beautiful that Chris and I first thought that we had already reached Hollywood.
It’s funny how often we were dressed alike when we were little as we were in the photo above. I actually do have a memory of being on this ferry in Michigan. I can picture being in that spot and feeling the breeze as we sailed.
Our parents built this camping trailer themselves and they did a first-class job. It had everything we needed and was a comfortable home away from home while on the road. We traveled from coast to coast with that trailer behind various automobiles. A window was installed in the door after this photo was taken.
It wasn’t unusual for us to take back roads — often unpaved and quite deserted. When we took the dirt and gravel road from Cisco to Moab, Utah with our camper (shown below) there was no one in sight the entire way which was about 45 – 50 miles. We felt like pioneers! I don’t know if this road has been improved and is a more common route these days.
Camping at Lake Manistee in Michigan
I don’t recall how many years we spent time in Michigan at Lake Manistee in Kalkaska County, but they were very special. It was about a five hour drive from Chicago. I remember camping there in tents as well as in our trailer.
I can remember walking with Mom and Chris to a bakery not too far from the campground and getting a fresh blueberry pie for Chris’s birthday, the smells of the woods, the view of the lake from our campsite above the beach, campfires, and roasting marshmallows. I also recall the drive back home and Chris and I singing Gary, Indiana (or at least the refrain) from The Music Man when we passed through Gary on the way.
Weekend drives and short trips
On weekends, Mom and Dad would get us into the car to head off for a drive — sometimes to a predetermined place, other times just letting serendipity lead the way.
If it was a Sunday, the four of us would go to church, go out to breakfast, and then be out and about the rest of the day. A few favorite family spots were Starved Rock State Park in Illinois; Turkey Run State Park in Indiana (where we used to camp, too), and Door County, Wisconsin (photo above).
The photo above was taken at Lincoln’s New Salem State Historic Site in Petersburg, Illinois, 20 miles northwest of Springfield and about a three hour drive from our home. The site is a reconstruction of the village where Abraham Lincoln spent his early adulthood. We visited several times both with family as well as on school field trips.
Northern California in our hearts
We spent a lot of time in northern California, visiting my brother and his wife in Santa Rosa and exploring Sonoma, Napa, and Mendocino counties. We always spent some time in San Francisco when we visited, too. There was always a feeling of anticipation as we came in sight of the Golden Gate Bridge and the spectacular views of the city and the bay. We were thrilled to drive up and down the steep streets and join the parade of tourist navigating their cars down Lombard Street (the “Crookedest Street in the World“), walking around Chinatown and Fisherman’s Wharf and enjoying the spectacular views We were there during the late sixties and the 1967’s “Summer of Love” and eagerly took in the vibe and sights of Haight-Ashbury and Sausalito with wide-eyed wonder as young girls.
During the summer vacations of 1969 and 1970, Chris and I got to spend a few extra weeks with my brother and his wife in Santa Rosa, California after my parents returned home. Some highlights that I treasure are swimming and sunbathing on beaches of the Russian River; taking drives along Highway One (the Pacific Coast Highway) and through the vineyards of Napa and Sonoma; riding bikes around the neighborhood and around the nearby Coddingtown Shopping Center; ice skating at Charles Schulz’s Redwood Empire Ice Arena when it was brand new (now known as Snoopy’s Home Ice); special dinners at Los Robles Lodge, Frediani’s, and Negri’s in Occidental; trying to learn how to drive a stick shift in my brother’s Volkswagen; and so much more. Those were special times of excitement, adventure, and contentment that we both cherished. We felt like California girls! We had our whole lives ahead of us and the world was filled with endless possibilities.
For several years, our brother, John, was a flight instructor at Sonoma County Airport (now Charles M. Schulz–Sonoma County Airport). We were thrilled to get chances to fly with him in his free time in a Piper Cherokee all over Sonoma and Napa Counties, up to Mount Shasta, and even up above San Francisco.
First commercial flights
Chris and I took our first commercial airline flight in 1969 from Oakland, California to Chicago on United Airlines. Of course, people dressed up to fly back then and we got new clothes and our hair done for the big occasion (below). The following year, we returned home on an American Airlines 747 jumbo jet from San Francisco to Chicago — what a thrill to fly on this new aircraft that had only been in the airline’s fleet for a couple of months.
Our road trip in 1974
It seems kind of brave to me now that at 19 and 17 years old (just about to turn 20 and 18), Chris and I headed out from home on a road trip to the West Coast by ourselves. We weren’t the least bit afraid and our parents knew that we were already seasoned travelers with a lot of common sense.
Working on this blog post, it became painfully apparent to me that Chris did most of the picture taking on this trip, because I couldn’t find any photos from this trip with her in them. What a shame! But I’m still hoping that I find some. Chris took the photo below of my mom and me as we hugged good-bye on the morning we left. Our transportation was my 1974 Chevy Laguna which we thought was a pretty cool car at the time and our destination was Santa Rosa to spend time with my brother and his family.
We drove to California from Chicago primarily on Interstate 80 and returned via southern routes, enjoying all the miles in between and visits with family in Phoenix. We mostly stayed on the main route, but in keeping with the Sweeney traveling spirit would make sure to see some sights along the way. We also spent some time in Salt Lake City where I had attended college for a year at the University of Utah. Each day on the road, we checked in to a motel before dark and called Mom and Dad to let them know our whereabouts. We would spend time in the pool and then have a nice dinner together before calling it a night at a reasonable hour so that we could get an early start in the morning.
Leaving Santa Rosa, we drove south to Los Angeles and then east to Phoenix for more family visits before heading home. Whenever I think about driving on the freeways of Los Angeles on that trip, I remember having the windows open, hair blowing, and the radio turned up. I particularly associate America’s Ventura Highway and Gino Vannelli’s People Gotta Move with that experience.
Day trips to the coast
While I still lived in the Midwest, I would visit California often to visit Mom, Dad, and Chris. We loved taking day trips and would spend hours at the beaches on the Sonoma coast and getting chased by the ice-cold water of the waves as they crashed upon the shore.
On one memorable occasion when I was visiting from Chicago, Chris and I went with her daughter (who was four at the time) on a one-night camping excursion at Bodega Bay, one of our favorite spots along the coast. We took the family RV to a campground close to the bay. It was a beautiful, clear night. We had a small campfire on our site and walked around under the stars breathing in the scent of the sea. Back in the camper after my niece had fallen asleep, Chris and I stayed up late — just talking.
Remembering the California girl
Chris did become a California girl moving to Santa Rosa with our parents after high school in the mid-1970s and attending Santa Rosa Junior College. I stayed behind in Chicago much longer to live and work in the big city. I sometimes wonder how our lives would have turned out if we had moved to Santa Rosa as a family when Chris and I were both still in high school. That was an option that was seriously being considered by our parents. Of course, I wouldn’t have met Mr. TWS, so that worked out as it was meant to!
As I’ve been reflecting on these shared travel experiences with Chris, I don’t know where the time has gone — not an uncommon feeling as we get older, I know. I hope Chris knew how special those experiences were to me even though we hadn’t talked about them in quite a few years. How nice it would have been to become traveling sisters again someday. But these and many other memories will have to do — and I will embrace them.