Young girl sticking her head out of a car window with text "Are we there yet?"

Are We There Yet?

By Brooke Burt

There is a reason they say that the journey is more important than the destination. You have to show your work on a math problem to get credit for your answer. The way a business runs can tell you as much about the company as its products. And the uncertainties of a family road trip in the ’80s could draw out one’s sense of adventure and deepen one’s character in a way the destination never would on its own.

For me, as an adult planning a trip, locale is always important. But just as important is knowing exactly where I’ll lay my head at night. There are definite qualities I search for when looking at a hotel. How many beds are in a room? Is there an indoor pool? What about free breakfast (bonus points for a waffle maker)? With just a click on my phone, I can find out what is closest to my current location, how much it costs per night and if there is any available room, and then I just hit “directions,” and magically end up in a pretty comfortable spot for the evening. Little is left to the imagination, and there is no element of surprise.

Road trips aren’t what they used to be.

Growing up, we would mail out requests to receive brochures from hotels and towns we wanted to visit. I never knew if what we saw in the travel brochures were what we would get when we actually arrived. There weren’t 18,000 TripAdvisor reviews letting me know every person’s detailed experience—from the comfort of the linens to the water pressure in the shower. There definitely weren’t 472 traveler’s pictures you could nosily peruse to be sure the aesthetic of the room was exactly what you had in mind in an overnight stay. And a “vacancy” sign was the only guarantee of sleep for a tired driver after hours on the road. The only thing you had to go on was just blind faith, trust, and hope. And maybe a little luck.

On a serendipitous road trip to Florida from Mississippi, I was your typical ’80s 10-year-old, which means I didn’t have a clue how to dress, and I am pretty sure this trip included the extensive wearing of a sailor’s cap. Instagram and Pinterest didn’t exist and because of these facts, there wasn’t a directive on what was cool or what “hot” places you just had to visit upon arriving in your exotic locale in order to get that perfect shot for the ‘Gram. Food trucks weren’t a thing yet. And neither was Yelp. That roadside diner’s food could totally kill you. But part of the fun was taking your life in your hands.

Our family of three was on its own journey during this summer. My mom had recently been diagnosed at 38 with stage 4 cancer. She knew the odds were stacked against her, but as a nurse, she rarely had the time to consider those odds. She was too busy caring for her own patients to be consumed with being one. Our trip was scheduled when she had a break in her cancer treatment, and those sunny shores of the Florida gulf coast were about as far away from doctors and chemo and the uncertainty of what lay ahead as we could get. While it was never mentioned, I think my mom may have wondered if this would be her last trip to the beach.

So we went a little farther down the Florida road to Sarasota, and made the most of our time there. My mom has always said that there are two types of people in the world–mountain people or beach people–and I don’t think you have to guess what type we were. We spent time on the powder soft sands, watching that iridescent aquamarine water lap the shores every day, and I’m sure there was seafood consumed and tanning lotion applied and sunburns acquired.

We also spent plenty of time at the area’s attractions, of which the most important to me was the Ringling Brothers mansion. To see this gorgeous palatial home, with all its marble and columns and know that all that came from running a circus helped me believe anything may be possible. On the backside of the house, I stood close to the water, where there was nothing barring a visitor from stepping off the marble steps right into the bay. And in the gift shop, I purchased a soft cover journal with circus elephants drawn on the front, the pages of which would be filled over the next year with a tween girl’s insecurities, fears, and big life questions, a circus all its own, with me as the ringleader. The days of the trip are hazy in my memory, and too many years have passed to allow me the clarity of details. But I do remember being relieved of the thoughts of hospitals, medicine and clinic visits. I recall thinking how pretty my mom looked when we stopped near some pink tropical-looking flowers to take her picture.

And I remember our journey home.

I think the drive home was something like 723 hours. At least it felt that way to my pre-adolescent mind. There are only so many books you can read on the bench of the backseat before you get bored. We started out the ride home as we typically did then on long road trips. When we got tired, we would find a roadside motel, and we would stop for the night. We had a plan.

The problem was, when we started getting tired, the signs of “No Vacancy” passed like dominoes. The palm trees of the gulf coast gave way to the flat land of the bays, and soon pine trees took over the landscape, reaching their arms to the sky, extending like the road that stretched out before us. As the sun dipped lower, and the clouds overhead went from the color of pieces of cotton-candy to the darkness of a horror film, we started to wonder if there would be anywhere with any room or if we were stuck in some cycle of bad luck with only junk food to sustain us. We made it to the top of Florida, across the bottom of Alabama, and thought that surely, we would find something in southern Mississippi. It was a time long before the casinos were built up along the coastline, and fifteen years before Katrina would flatten everything and change the landscape of the Mississippi Gulf Coast forever. Even so, we thought that there was surely space for a weary traveling family. But there was nothing—no rest and no hope to distract from the boredom of the back seat—and we were forced to keep trudging ahead, without any relief in sight. .

I really thought this was how I was going to live my life forever, just driving in a car, never reaching a destination, never finding a place to sleep, until I just turned old and died, only sustained by Sweet Valley Twins paperbacks, with the chalky texture of SweetTarts as my last meal.

At that point, we were only about three hours from home, but it was almost three in the morning, and my dad had driven all day and most of the night. He physically could not keep his eyes open. And my mom, never complaining, trying to make every bad turn an exciting adventure, was tired. Too much had already been taken out of our hands in the last year–circumstances given to us that we couldn’t control–and this drive seemed to be the analogy to sum it up.

And then we saw it.

On Highway 49, in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, there was the blinking red light of a “Vacancy” sign. It was like an appearance of a heavenly vision. A mirage in the desert. Excitement replaced exhaustion as we pulled into the parking lot and went into the office to reserve a room.

It was a one-level building, with a green roof on top of red brick, like the houses on a Monopoly board. There was a pool out front and a diner to the side of the parking lot. There must have been thousands of places just like this one scattered across the country at that time. But the warm glow of its welcome sign felt like it was created just for us, for a night just like this. A spot to rest on what had just shortly before seemed an interminable journey.

I don’t remember if I slept well that night. I didn’t care about the thread count of the sheets or the lumbar support from the mattresses. I don’t know whether the room was non-smoking or what kind of experience previous travelers had had there. But I remember the relief—of knowing we had a place to land. And of knowing that I was with the people who had gotten me there safely.

The next morning, we enjoyed breakfast at the parking lot café and tackled the remaining few hours’ drive home. I don’t recall making it to my actual house, although we obviously did. The comfort of home had already been felt on that little pitstop we took at 3 AM.

That summer, not a lot was certain for us. We didn’t know where we would be three years from then, much less three months from then, or who would still be along for the ride. But we knew where we were in that moment, after taking a journey across a desert and through the parted waters of a sea, leading us right to the spot we were intended to be all along.

I’ve stayed in much nicer places since then, in much more exciting towns and cities. But, as I got older, every time I’d take that stretch of Mississippi highway down to the coast and see that little motel on my way, I’d nod and remember that night and think that no five-star hotel could have provided us what we needed exactly when we needed it as much as that place did. I’m not sure if it still survives the era of TripAdvisor and Hotels.com, but in my heart it is there, a beacon for tired travelers, a much-needed place to lay their heads, if only for a few hours.

Retro 'Holiday Motel' neon sign