Every neon "vacancy" sign holds the promise of a page for your memory book.
Vintage Thunderbird Motel
Credit: Car Culture, Inc./Getty Images

I won't leave my front yard without a hotel reservation. I think I'm scarred for life by vacations with my let's-just-wing-it parents. One summer, they were still debating our destination as we left the driveway. They pulled over at the only intersection in our tiny hometown and whipped out a map to pick a direction. When a good Samaritan stopped to ask if they were lost, they confessed, "No, we live here."

Actually, choosing where to go was the easy part. Sure, we made the requisite trip to the Smokies, but my mother loves the beach and so do I, which meant Daddy was outnumbered. And since we could afford only one vacation a year, we almost always headed for the Gulf, with my cousin Kathy and me sharing the backseat while my parents navigated. On one trip, Daddy had gotten hold of a used Volvo station wagon and decided that if we folded down the seats, put a mattress in back, and left really early in the morning, Kathy and I would sleep like babies all the way to the beach. By 6 a.m., we were just north of Montgomery and wide awake. We were also tired of lying down. So the mattress had to be doubled up and shoved against the back window of the station wagon, pretty much eliminating visibility. My mother spent the rest of the drive with her head hanging out the passenger window, yelling commands like "Okay, get over!" or "Look out for that truck coming up on your right!"

Every year, once we finally landed on the coast—which, for us, meant Panama City, Florida, or Gulf Shores, Alabama—the great motel hunt would begin. That's motel, with an "m": kitchenette (we traveled with a skillet), two double beds, linoleum floors, and a rectangular swimming pool surrounded by a chain-link fence. Up and down the beach we would cruise, with Daddy slowing down to a crawl at every neon "vacancy" sign, only to change his mind at the last minute and hit the gas in search of "something better down the road."

I should probably mention here that my parents are utterly incompatible when it comes to lodging. Daddy would rather stay one night in the best place he can afford, while my mother always preferred to stretch her vacation dollar over the greatest number of nights at the cheapest place she could find, provided it was reasonably sanitary and didn't smell funny. Getting those two to agree on a room could take forever, or so it seemed to road-weary kids who were dying to blow up their floats and ride those waves.

Nowadays, I'll actually whine to my husband if our hotel room doesn't have enough walking space between the king-size bed and the sitting area. But when I was a kid, if we checked into a beach motel and discovered a fold-out couch (these were way too primitive and way too vinyl to be called "sofa beds"), we'd call relatives back home and tell them to come on down. And they would! Before I got married, I took my folks to Seaside for a few days, and when we walked into that beautiful four-bedroom beach house, Daddy looked around and said, "When are the other families getting here?"

I don't miss the hard beds or the close quarters of my childhood vacations. And I'm glad that when we all head to the beach, my mother no longer has to pack her skillet. But I do miss the sense of communal adventure we enjoyed when travel was a rare treat. I miss rushing my cousins to "hurry up and get your bathing suit on!" so we could race down to that white sand and salt water. Sometimes, I even miss that sleeper Volvo. I think I'll give Kathy a call.