In the style of a Griswold Family Vacation, I remember traveling with my parents and sister on three occasions. Of course, we were only 100 miles from Chicago, so we would occasionally take day trips to go to the museums or ballparks. I can’t recall ever staying overnight. We visited other nearby attractions like the Brookfield Zoo, Deer Forest, and the Warren Dunes as a family. We also often drove to Elwood, Indiana or Corey Lake in Michigan to visit my Grandparents Hancher. They had a mobile home at the lake and another in Englewood, Florida on Lemon Bay, with their “permanent” home in Elwood on North E Street that they jokingly referred to as a “pit stop on the way back and forth from Michigan in the summer to Florida in the winter.”

I refer to the Griswold’s because the Johnston’s were similarly a family of four with a station wagon, a Ford Country Squire sporting “wood” paneled sides. I distinctly remember driving that car to Florida and out West to South Dakota but can’t recall the car we took on the very first true vacation, as we looped Lake Michigan up through the Wisconsin Locks and across the Mackinac Bridge. The exact route we took is a blur, but I do have memories of staying in a tiny cottage underneath the bridge. My wife and I crossed it together this past year when we stayed at the posh Grand Hotel on the island, and I thought of the vast contrast in lodging accommodations between $1000/night and what was probably about $10 sixty years ago. My dad was very conservative in his spending.

The biggest family vacation of all was to Mount Rushmore. We all piled in the station wagon, and I vividly recall a stop in Rapid City, Iowa at a tourist trap called Reptile Gardens, that may still exist today. My sister and I got to hold a giant snake, the highlight of the trip. We then started to see mileage signs wherever we looked for a place called Wall Drugs in Wall, S.D. “You’re just 878 miles to World Famous Wall Drugs.” Similar postings were everywhere, including billboards, barn sides, gas stations, fence posts, rooftops – handmade and professionally made. It became our desired destination, just outside of the Black Hills and Mount Rushmore. I had saved just about every dime I made that summer, determined to buy a TV for my room, so I had yet to spend a cent on souvenirs or snacks. However, I did break down and buy a 10-cent postcard at the infamous store that seemingly went on and on. 

We stayed at a Holiday Inn, once again much like the Griswold’s, and my sister rebroke her previously damaged front teeth in the pool, ruining the entire trip. It brought back memories of when I was blamed for cracking them on the living room tile floor while we were wrestling a few years before. My dad was no longer in a good mood, worried again about dental bills, even after seeing the carved Presidents, spending the night in Yellowstone Park, watching Old Faithful erupt, and taking a side-trip into Montana. It was my idea to go slightly out of the way so I could claim another state, a 50-state quest that is nowadays officially down to only one.

From that point on, our family vacations were limited to Florida. On the first of those drives, my dad failed to make a motel reservation and I remember being stuck in the mountains with nothing but “No Vacancy” signs. He had insisted to my mom that there would be plenty of rooms, and once again his bad temper got the best of the trip. We stopped at a roadside dive-restaurant, the only thing open for miles, and I apparently wanted lobster for dinner. The waitress quickly admitted, “Honey, you don’t want the lobster here.” Sometime in the middle of the night we found a room that had a painting of Lover’s Leap over the bed. I feared my mom just might take the leap that night. Learning a lesson, I believe we flew on an airplane for the first time on the next few visits, relieving some of the stress on my dad.

Regardless of how we traveled, our family spent the week crammed like sardines in my grandparent’s mobile home. My sister and I slept on cots wedged between the fold-out couch and the bedroom. My grandfather claimed that I had to get out of bed just to turn over. We also took side trips to Busch Gardens, The Shell Factory, and the Edison/Ford Estate, places you need to visit every fifty years or so. It was also our first experience at Disney World, still a favorite Johnston family vacation in modern times just as the fictional Wally World was to the Griswold’s.