Your Summer Travel Plans Are Turning You Into Your Parents

Drive-in movies, RV road trips, old-school car hops… are we becoming boomers?

Maitane Romagosa/Thrillist
Maitane Romagosa/Thrillist

It’s the summer of camping. The summer of drive-in movies and drive-up dining. The summer of RV rentals and takeout picnics, of visiting national parks and exploring small towns

Shutdown-induced boredom renewed our appreciation for scenic drives; now, we’re going full-on day trip, complete with roadside attractions and oldies on the radio and a cooler in the back -- wait. 

Holy shit. We’re turning into our parents, aren’t we?

We started this year using "OK Boomer" as a pejorative. Now, taking a cue from the Boomer playbook, Gen X and Y are going full Clark Griswold on the roadways of America. Rethinking what it means to “take time off” during a global pandemic, our generation is turning to throwback escapism as both a comfort and a solution in the COVID era.

Oh yes, there will be glamping. | Blake Wisz/Unsplash

On a recent drive through LA's Silver Lake, an old-school diner advertised "car hop service," converting its parking lot into a de facto greasy spoon. Not far away, Mel's -- which appears as the go-to hangout in the seminal Boomer opus American Graffiti -- was leaning HARD into its most famous role, blaring oldies as medical-masked waitresses delivered cheeseburgers by rollerskate. 

Call it a clever workaround to the persisting ban on inside dining. But it's also a nod to the kind of roller-skates-and-poodle-skirt nostalgia that still thrives in the American heartland, where carside service of the Sonic tradition pairs beautifully with a root beer and an ambling drive to nowhere.

It’s ironic that, at the same moment our nation is reckoning with systemic racism and the self-serving failures of prior generations, many of us are Marty McFlying back into the '50s as a means of escapism. The reclamation of these long-dormant spaces has resulted in some unexpectedly wholesome zeitgeist shifts. 

Drive-in movie theaters across the country are firing up their projectors for those who want to watch Russell Crowe punch people without fear of being coughed on. These locally owned and operated treasures serve as the last line of actually affordable entertainment in many communities, but in the depths of the pandemic, they’re also literally the only thing keeping the box office alive. Suddenly, seeing a b-movie like The Wretched on the big screen is a great excuse for a road trip.

Weekenders, meanwhile, are back in love with RVs and camper vans. According to industry predictions, 46 million people plan to hit the road in an RV this summer. And it's not just retirees getting in on the wonderful world of sewage drains and s'mores; millenials who used to roll their eyes at their parents' hokey traditionalism are largely behind the wheel. 

MORE:  Traveling by RV? Here’s what to know before you hit the road.

Those RVs, camper vans, and Sprinters are bottlenecking the national parks, which are reopening across the country to renewed enthusiasm. For carside campers -- those whose idea of roughing it includes being able to keep all your shit 10 feet away -- campsite reservations are among the hottest tickets in the nation. Want to camp in Yosemite? Check back in October, when some spots might open up.

With the more popular parks full up, people are gamefully discovering our country’s beautiful B-sides: National forests, state parks, and the lesser-loved national parks are now as valid a destination as Disney World, reminding us that our sprawling protected lands should never be taken for granted. 

And for those who prefer their roadside destinations equipped with coffeemakers and free HBO, the old-school motel is also poised for a comeback. These off-highway oases, long hobbled by the interstate system and its near-endless chain hotels, are suddenly looking extra welcoming in the age of social distancing -- especially where forward-thinking hipsters have bought in and upped the amenities while keeping retro charms like gaudy lighting and misshapen pools.

MORE: Tips for people who don’t really camp but kinda want to camp

These nostalgic throwbacks have always been available to us. But a funny thing happened this spring when we all started to hunker down, faced with unprecedented anxiety about the still-uncertain future: Collectively, people yearned not just for fresh air, but for the familiar.

The past is telling us that the best way to experience the present is to hop in an oversized vehicle and hit the road. To take a three-hour detour to see a gigantic ball of twine in some cute little town that somebody said has good pie. To struggle with a cheap popup tent and tell ghost stories with our friends. Our desire to get out this summer is turning us all into prototypical dorky parents, barreling off the highway to rediscover places from our youth, hyping the destination to a soundtrack of decades-old music like the dad from Us.

For now, those simple pleasures of discovery and cross-generational comfort are our escape from an increasingly fraught world -- and sometimes, that's enough.

Thrillst senior editor Andy Kryza's first job was as a grill cook at a small-town car-hop. He has never worn a poodle skirt. Follow him to fish frys and drive-ins @apkryza