Every year, as long as I can remember, we take the same trip to Bullfrog Marina at Lake Powell — a reservoir straddling the Utah and Arizona border. It’s a place you have to see to believe, with red rock buttes surrounding ocean-blue water. It’s hot and dry and when I think about it I immediately can smell the sunscreen, hear the motor of the boat churning, feel that first victory of getting up on the slalom ski just in time for sunrise.
Ask anyone what their traditions were as a kid growing up and they might first tell you about Christmas mornings and Thanksgiving dinners. But ask them what they did each summer and you’ll be told about camping trips, favorite ice cream parlors, and visits to grandparents for weeks at a time.
Something about our childhood summers sparks joy in us. According to a survey by Lonely Planet, 2/3rds of those interviewed said they would take their kids on vacation where they went as a child. Those cherished childhood memories and the act of returning to the same place or eating the same foods play a big role in our travel as we get older. And if you didn’t have those summer travel traditions as a kid, rest assured — it’s not too late to create them.
I recently read the book How to Celebrate Everything. In it, beloved food author and blogger Jenny Rosenstrach details her family’s traditions and how they celebrate (mainly with food) but also, with rituals. In its opening pages, she describes how her pediatrician told her shortly after the birth of her daughter that babies crave routines. She goes on to say that 13 years later, she finds the advice as true as ever. “Babies crave routines,” she writes. “Families crave rituals. If routines are about keeping our family from going off the rails, rituals are about infusing those routine days with meaning.”
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I think what she says is true. There is meaning in routine. It’s comforting. The notion that things are always changing, and you are always changing, and life is hard, but there is this thing we do every year that doesn’t change and you better not miss it.
But traditions don’t happen overnight, and they do take effort. If you’re not sure where to start, here are five tips to making the summer travel traditions of your dreams a reality:
Return to the traditions of your childhood
For starters, take a look at your own childhood traditions. You don’t have to go to the same places, but reflect on what was meaningful to you. Chances are, the quality time with loved ones or laughing fits or campfire songs are what stand out. So try to replicate those, and don’t worry so much about a detailed itinerary. And if you don’t have a lot of happy childhood memories? Ask others what was meaningful to them. Imagine what you would have wanted in your own childhood. It’s never too late to create a new narrative.
Repeat the good memories, ditch the bad
We all remember the year we had to boat to the ER because my sister stepped on a broken glass bottle on the beach. And the time we ran out of gas in the middle of nowhere and had to wave down another boat to tow us in. There are the inevitable flat tires and fighting and ants in the cooler. There’s also the traditions that we outgrew. Feel free to discard the aspects of a tradition that no longer serves you or your family’s stage in life. But also keep in mind, that when it comes to memory — our brain actually turns stressful family vacations into pleasant memories.
Harvard psychiatrist Dr. Omar Sultan Haque told The New York Times, “We have two ‘selves. The experiencing self and the remembered self. In the midst of vacation stresses, we may be stressed and annoyed by family and children and the indignities of bureaucratic travel, but the remembered self easily turns nausea into nostalgia.”
So even if you worry that the memories aren’t great, rest assured you’re probably doing better than you think in the long run. The bad memories come out in the wash … and the good ones remain.
Document the events
No, not for the ‘Gram. Document for your family to reflect on later. You can do this by creating a highlights video at the end of each trip and viewing it as a family a week or so after. You can do this by taking the same picture in the same place every year and comparing them to see how much everyone has changed. You can do this by giving everyone a notebook at the beginning of the trip and asking them to record their favorite memories or jokes or conversations to compile later. My sister always makes a playlist of the songs we blasted from the boat speakers and sends it out to everyone. However you choose to document, do it in a way that feels organic and natural to your family. Don’t force it, and don’t plan to show it to anyone but the people who came unless you want to.
I think the only time my dad really unplugs from work is once a year on our vacation to Lake Powell. Because he has to. Because there is no Wi-Fi or cell service. And part of me wonders if that’s why we keep going back. When you unplug, REALLY unplug during your summer travel ritual, more than just mental release occurs. Studies show you have more meaningful conversations with loved ones (even the presence of a phone can lower the quality of in-person conversations!). It can make you more creative once you return to your job. And it might just save your life. My mom has what she calls “phone jail.” While our vacation is a forced unplug experience, she makes us all put our phones “in jail” (a basket she keeps on top of the fridge) when we go over for Sunday dinner. Consider unplugging and inviting everyone else to also unplug to make this family ritual truly meaningful.
Create mini rituals within larger traditions
Every year we stop at the same gas station on the way to the lake and get milkshakes. We also were only allowed to buy Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal for this trip, and I swear I still can feel the red sand on my bare feet when I eat a bowl as an adult. My dad, who is usually pretty conservative, has this purple cut-off tank he reserves only for Lake Powell. It’s embarrassing and hilarious and that thing is a national treasure that I will some day pass down to my children and my children’s children. Mini rituals, including clothing, games, pit stops, music, stories, lip-sync contests, poker tournaments, movies, gifts, etc. are the details. And to quote Charles Eames, (way out of context), “The details are not the details. They make the product.” Don’t stress the details, but don’t skip out on them either.
We need summer travel traditions, not only because they’re fun, and different, and a break from the norm — but because they infuse our days with meaning. There’s something about returning to the same place, or a different place even, but returning with the same people is what turns a regular trip into a ritual, and thus, a memory. And, if you don’t think happy memories are important — a recent study found that happy childhood memories are linked to better health later in life. I’m not saying that creating summer travel traditions makes you a healthier adult, but I’m not not saying that either.
Creating summer travel traditions isn’t rocket science. But it’s important. It matters — even when we think it doesn’t. Make this year the year you either continue the old ones, or create something new that you can carry on for years to come.