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'Don't Make Me Pull Over!" review: Richard Ratay navigates the history of the American family road trip

"Don't Make Me Pull Over!" by Richard Ratay. Photo Credit: Scribner

DON'T MAKE ME PULL OVER!: The Informal History of the Family Road Trip, by Richard Ratay. Scribner, 272 pp., $27.

Fun and informative, “Don’t Make Me Pull Over!: An Informal History of the Family Road Trip” is Richard Ratay’s tribute to a classic American mode of travel. Ratay grew up in the Milwaukee suburbs in the 1970s, when Watergate was unfolding and American confidence was ebbing. Like many Americans, the Ratay family took to the road in search of distraction and adventure. Airline tickets were prohibitively expensive, and the car was king, oil crisis or no.

“All things considered, it isn’t surprising that many people, including my parents, decided the best plan was simply to sit out as much of the seventies as possible at some distant beach, historic battlefield, or theme park, "Ratay writes. "Anywhere but home.”

During the '70s, Americans drove some 14 trillion miles. Two or three times a year, Ratay, his three siblings and his parents would pile into their Lincoln Continental Town Car and head south to the Gulf Coast, golf-crazy dad at the wheel. Ratay is especially funny about the quirks of his father, Chuck Ratay, whose hang-ups are recalled with loving affection. Obsessed with beating traffic and police speed traps, the senior Ratay would also fight “The Battle of E” with Mrs. Ratay over how much fuel, exactly, was left in the tank when the fuel gauge read "Empty."

Mixing family memoir with pop history, Ratay chronicles the development of modern highways, the evolution of rest areas, the origins of speed limits, debates over seat belts and the founding of once-familiar roadside stops like Howard Johnson’s. He evokes the fads of the ’70s, such as CB radio and Atari (Ratay always sought out the motel game room on stopovers). He considers the traditions of Knott’s Berry Farms and other roadside attractions.

Throughout, Ratay is an amiable guide. He explains that for most of its history, America had bad, unpaved roads. With the advent of the automobile, improvement efforts picked up. A lot of credit goes to Thomas MacDonald, head of the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads under FDR and Truman. Some 3.5 million miles of paved highways were built during his 32-year tenure; he also devised the numbering system for highways still in place (odd numbers for north-south; even for east-west). The Cold War gave us the superhighways of the interstate highway system, now aged but still sturdy.

America had a full-blown car culture by the time the Ratay family headed out on the highway. With the interstates, came all the amenities: motels, gas stations, places to eat. The enterprising Howard Deering Johnson secured the rights to build restaurants in service plazas in the mid 1930s; by the 1950s, hundreds of these operations, built in faux-colonial style and topped with distinctive orange-shingled roofs, dotted the East Coast.

But for the Midwestern Ratays, it was the golden arches of McDonald’s that played a key role in their travels. For Chuck Ratay, the drive-through window ranked as one of the greatest advances of the 20th century, “somewhere near the polio vaccine, well above personal computers, not quite as high as graphite-shafted golf clubs,” Ratay observes. At McDonald’s, the senior Ratay drilled his family to order food, take a bathroom break and get back on the road in the blink of an eye.

Ratay misses the family road trips of yesteryear and laments the decline of car-trip protocols, kids sprawled out in back, annoying one another. Children are now, of course, rigidly buckled in, lost in iPads and headphones. It’s safe, certainly, but it reduces contact. Time, too, is the enemy, notes Ratay: For many Americans, getting there fast, by plane, is the thing. But like the author, I’ll take the long, winding journey by car if I can.

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