Editor's note: What you are about to read is not a dramatization. The author did indeed attempt a road trip from Rhode Island to North Carolina with three teenagers. Alone.
Rule No. 1: When you were a teenager, you didn't want to hang out with your parents. Your teenagers don't want to hang out with you now.
Side note: One of the many things I love about the 2010 movie, "Easy A," is that the heroine has two of the coolest parental units ever, Stanley Tucci (sigh) and Patricia Clarkson, and she still would rather die than have a conversation with either of them. Art imitates life.
Reality: With a quick side trip to Hershey World in Pennsylvania, and a two-hour delay for a crash on I-81 in northern Virginia, it takes 14 hours to get to our first stop, Greensboro, N.C., where I went to college. Emily, who is 16, spent at least eight of those hours playing games on her iPod Touch. She pretended to sleep the other six.
Andy, who is 13, was probably sad he got an electric guitar for Christmas, instead of an iPod Touch. He alternated between listening to classic rock on his Mp3, and trying to find classic rock on my car's FM dial. Abba. He taps the search button. Mozart. Tap the search button. Queen. Stop, listen, share some trivia about Brian May. Tap the search button.
Rinse and repeat for the ride home.
Rule No. 2: No vacation is complete without a battlefield. And I don't mean that metaphorically.
Side note: This tradition comes from both sides of the family. My former husband – a military officer – loves nothing more than looking at every statue at Gettysburg. I'm not that hardcore. But as a child, my family tramped around Yorktown, Gettysburg, Appomattox. When my twin sister and I – the last of six – turned 13, my parents were ready for a different kind of enrichment, and began to take us to wineries instead. This was the 1980s, and we barely-teens were encouraged, by big-name winery owners, to sample freely. But that's a story for another time.
The reality: I can see where my parents were coming from. Years of tramping around in search of military statuary have apparently taken their toll on my children. When I announced we were going to take a walk at the Guilford Courthouse National Military Park — on our first 60-degree day since October — after a 14-hour day in the car, the kids act like I'd suggested reenacting the Bataan Death March.
But I insisted. I've been fond of this park since my college days. It looks like the South — red clay earth, Virginia Pine, rolling fields. As is so often the way, my affection is also wrapped up in memories of a boy my college-aged self was too stupid to realize I loved.
Plus, there's a New England tie, I tell them. Rhode Island's Major General Nathanael Greene, George Washington's second-in-command, led the militia's tactical loss at Guilford Courthouse. The British won the battle, but weakened by the loss of 25 percent of its army here, they lost the war. Greensboro was named for him.
The kids come around — they usually do. Though they're most likely to remember the exuberant black lab that accosted us, carrying a dead turtle in his mouth. For the rest of the day, we were trying to figure out which one of us was wearing Eau de Rotting Turtle.
Rule No. 3: Travel is broadening, so we will eat where the locals eat.
Side note: This isn't as simple as it sounds in the land of barbecue, when our third teenager, Emily's friend, Morgan, is a vegetarian.
The reality: On orders from David Pugh, my foodie blogger friend from college, our first food stop is Beef Burger on West Lee Street, around the corner from University of North Carolina at Greensboro. This is David's favorite burger joint in the world.
It began life as Biff Burgers, an acronym for "Best in Fast Food," a Southern chain, most of which were bought out by Burger King in the 1970s. People still call it that, though Ralph Havis, the owner since 1971, slightly changed the name out of fear of franchise fees or lawsuits if the original chain reformulated.
Since that time, nothing else has changed. The yellow vinyl booths. The beefy male mascot in his rolled up jeans. To be precise, the original Ms. Pac-Man arcade game wasn't introduced until 1981, so it came later. But it's still there, too.
Beef Burger is known for two things: the grilling process, and the secret barbecue-ish sauce the burgers are dipped in before they are placed on the bun.
"The Roto-Grille™ consists of two circular grills, one atop the other, that turn like a turntable under broiler units," David explains, before our visit. "Burgers go on the top grill to cook, while buns go underneath to toast. But more often than not, the fat from the burgers drip down unto the buns. The result is cholesterol and bliss served in waxed paper."
Nom, nom, nom? Not exactly — especially to the vegetarian — but this place is legendary. Travel will be broadening, especially to our back ends.
We order burger baskets — two dipped burgers with a handful of freezer-bag fries and a scoop of coleslaw. (Morgan had a salmon sandwich. She removed the bun, since it spent time under the Roto-Grille.)
The burgers — while admittedly an experience — did not bliss us out. They were a sickly gray, and a tad rubbery, and not so much dipped as smothered in sauce. The buns were, as advertised, embedded with beef fat. We are disappointed — Em labels them "nasty." I am chagrined to have to face David later that afternoon. He is incredulous that we didn't love it.
"I fantasize about winning the lottery and going to Ralph and offering him $10 million to franchise it around the country," he tells me.
David's food blog:
Guilford Courthouse National Military Park
2332 New Garden Road
1040 West Lee Street