Road trip horror stories

The ultimate family road trip movie, National Lampoon's Vacation, celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. To celebrate the Griswold family's ill-fated odyssey to Walley World, USA TODAY travel staffers — as well as some of our readers — share their favorite tales of road trips gone awry.

From the readers

An unscheduled pit stop

Our family vacation for the summer of 1983 called for a low-cost, 15-hour nonstop road trip from Louisville to Jacksonville. The four of us were packed in the new AMC Concord sans air conditioning. (This was a defect the dealer promised to correct but failed to deliver before we left.)

As we traveled through Georgia, we came upon a summer storm. The rain poured so hard and the wind whipped with such force that it seemed the fingers of God were shaking the Concord.

Papa decided to pull over, although this would sacrifice his radar-detector-assisted time. As another precaution, he drove on down the ramp but had to move a barricade first.

Suddenly, we had a split-second free fall, followed by an intense impact, and then a final drop. Snacks, drinks, books flew everywhere, as we froze in silence, trying to comprehend what had happened. Papa pressed the gas, but we didn't budge. He opened the door, and a rush of water swept in.

The car was tilted upward, as though we were looking at the heavens. When the weather broke after 45 minutes, Papa again tried to open the door. I stepped out and found myself standing in 3 feet of water. Papa and I walked down the interstate for 3 miles, looking for a station with a tow truck.

"Oh, my gawd!" exclaimed the local tow-truck driver as he came upon the marooned car.

It turned out we had pulled over into an abandoned weigh station, and the barricades were in place because the scales had just been removed — and the pits had not been filled. While our front wheels cleared the pit, the rear fell into the 4-foot hole.

Two tow trucks and three hours later, the car was removed, but both axles were bent — and not under warranty.

— Joe Hinkle, Louisville

Flying luggage, fond memories

The summer of 1970, we set off from New York to California with eight people — five kids (ages 8 to 16), my parents and grandmother — piled into in a 1968 Ford station wagon.

The three-week journey was painfully long and hot, without any leg room to spare. There were countless times that Dad had to retrieve luggage from a highway because he never did perfect the art of rooftop luggage tie-down. A leather bag purchased from an Indian reservation had to be tied to the outside of our car because it smelled like dead cow. Finally, we lost the last piece of luggage into the Hudson River while crossing the George Washington Bridge, only 10 minutes from home (of course it was mine!).

The real treasure of this trip, however, came 30 years later when we found notes from my grandmother, who passed away in 1987. She wrote detailed journal entries, capturing every gas stop, hotel layover and conversation of the trip. We were convinced that she was overwhelmed by our cramped mode of transportation. Her writings said otherwise. She claimed this trip to be among her happiest and most treasured days, a journey that she wouldn't have traded for anything. Today, at 54 years old, I wouldn't trade one bit of it either.

— Roberta Borsella Farnum,


'Sexy' accommodations

During the summer of the Atlanta Olympics, Mom and Dad permitted Kirk to plan an international trip for the family as he graduated from college. He chose England.

When the family connected at the airport, Dad started calling the owner of the bed and breakfast he had arranged for us. We (Mom, Dad, their three adult children), and all of our luggage for a week, piled into a micro mini car. Eager to explore, we drove toward the B&B, hoping to catch the owner, who had not answered the phone.

After arriving, we found an empty flat. For the rest of the day we meandered around town, simply desperate to shower and nap. As the hours passed, Dad continued to call the B&B — to no avail. Lunch came and went. We circled Big Ben and Parliament seven or eight times as Dad tried to figure out the roundabout. We entered the wrong way on a one-way street a few times.

Dinner passed. The sun fell, the moon rose, and still we had no contact from the owner of the B&B in which we had already paid to stay. Frantically we began to look for another hotel with an empty room. No vacancy. Anywhere.

Nearing midnight and around 36 hours since anyone had slept, Dad found a room that was available. There was one minor glitch — this establishment also rented rooms by the hour. So our family spent their first night in London in a bordello (Kirk and Dad tried to protect Mom from realizing what was going on in the adjoining rooms).

— Jill Sims, Conyers, Ga.

Is that Huck Finn's Pap?

We knew the motor home was old. Its last owner had warned us its geriatric engine was unlikely to survive a cross-county expedition. But my father had only scoffed in derision.

Which led to four New York suburbanites stuck at the side of an abandoned New Mexico highway, our engine overheated, cellphone service patchy and red sediment swirling around our vehicle. The last car had passed hours ago, and the towing company had laughed when my dad told them where we were.

The telltale rumble of a large engine reached our ears, and a lumbering pickup rolled into view. I caught my parents' glance of apprehension as its driver wrestled the vehicle to the side of the road. He told us, in an accent thicker than the tobacco that coated his back teeth, that we could all ride in his truck as he towed us to civilization.

The driver drove with his denim-covered knees as he smoked a cigarette with one hand and rooted in his pocket with the other. He handed me a rock covered in what felt like axle grease and smelled like manure.

"That's a real crusta-shun," he spat through the side of his mouth. "Therr usta be water here, tho ya wouldna knowed it, lookin' round herr nay-ow."

I hastily passed it to my brother, who searched in vain for any hint of a fossil, any impressions long since smoothed by years of riding the route with its owner.

In the mechanic's parking lot, the driver unhooked our Winnebago and winked. "Ya kin keep that'un, girlie," he said, gesturing at the boulder. " 'Sa souvenee-yur. I gots me plenty."

Years later, I still have that fossil. Its surface is still grimy with age, still devoid of any evidence of prehistoric activity. But today I chuckle when I see it, remembering the vacation that left me with a greater impression than any crustacean ever could.

— Lizz Schumer, Hamburg, N.Y.

Slovak sidewalk slalom

We were driving through the city of Kosice in Slovakia during our summer 2005 trip, trying to navigate our way through one-way streets and roundabouts. My mother ordered Dad to turn down what looked like an ordinary street. What we didn't know was that this street also shared its path with a city train — which was barreling up behind us. With the train gaining on us and nowhere to turn, my father drove the car up onto the curb. As the train zoomed past us, we noticed two police officers across the street — laughing at us.

— Kimberly Weihrauch,

Merrimack, N.H.

Please bear with us …

Back in 1961, our family of six piled into a Mercury Comet station wagon and headed from Grand Rapids, Mich., all the way to Portland, Ore.

While in Yellowstone, a bear ripped the mirror off the side of our car while my dad tried to feed it out the window. With a screaming wife and a car full of frightened kids, my father stopped the car, got out and retreived the mirror, leaving the door wide open. My sister is still deathly frightened of bears.

— Lee H. Scott, Grand Rapids, Mich.

From the travel staff

The capricious brother

In 1966, my parents, usually upright, responsible people, temporarily lost their minds and bought a Chevrolet Caprice. It was burgundy with a sporty red pinstripe and a black vinyl roof, and it was gorgeous.

Trouble was, my parents had nine children — too many to fit comfortably inside a midsize sedan.

Shortly after the ill-advised purchase, we made our annual journey from our home near Washington, D.C., out West to visit relatives. Fortunately, the three oldest offspring elected to stay behind, which left the six youngest to vie for space in the cramped Caprice.

The three-day drive was a Darwinian epic played out in the back seat of a Chevy — survival of the fittest at 65 mph.

Before we'd even exited the Capital Beltway, Jon, the oldest among us, stretched out prone and announced his intention to remain there, forcing us younger siblings to jockey for space at the edge of the seat or in the floor's foot wells. To this day, my brother Doug swears he rode most of the 2,000 miles tucked up under the rear window.

Not all of us were so acquiescent. Bitterness and bickering ensued. Finally, somewhere in the flat nothingness of eastern Wyoming, my normally mild-mannered father had had enough. He stopped the car, opened the door and ordered Jon to get out.

"You know," my mother said with a sigh, "you're just going to have to let him back in."

That was our last cross-country trip in the Caprice. The next year my parents bought a four-seater Ford station wagon.

— Jayne Clark

And to top it all off …

As a kid growing up in suburban Minnesota, I would pore over National Geographic, marvel at the exotic locales — and pester my father to fund a foreign family expedition. Egypt. Bhutan. Paraguay. Anywhere but here.

Dad would have none of it. "You've got to see your own country first," he said. And so I did, mostly from the pulled-down backseat of a 1977 Oldsmobile station wagon, lounging with my sister on a frayed carpet permeated with the smell of cigarette smoke.

In 1983, Dad decided to switch things up, arriving home with a 26-foot rented Winnebago. Typical squirrely siblings, my sister and I were happy for the space. And my parents were happy with the vehicle's self-containment, packing not only the interior but a rooftop storage bin with the food and soda we'd need for our three-week odyssey East.

But the camper's size proved our undoing in Boston. Driving down a highway through Cambridge, we gawked as my parents pointed out the majestic buildings of Harvard University. Then Dad looked ahead — and did a double take.

"Jean! We're not going to make it!" he sputtered, his knuckles clenched white against the steering wheel, as a low-lying underpass loomed into view. My mother must have answered, but I remember only the sickening crunch as our carefully packed storage bin smashed into the concrete, the impact ripping it from the top. It landed with a thud in the middle of the road.

We pulled over. My sister and I screamed from the camper window as our parents scampered into incoming traffic, gathering up our scattered belongings. They rescued the bin and most of the soda — so we spent the rest of the trip drinking from dented cans.

— Chris Gray

Cross-country calamity

In retrospect, it was a crazy thing to do: Drive across country in a 10-year-old Oldsmobile station wagon with more than 100,000 miles on it. With three kids, a big shaggy golden retriever and a few too many unexplained engine noises. In the dog days of summer. Without air conditioning.

As if the car's internal body heat wasn't high enough, we even picked up my hippie artist brother along the way.

We had been invited to visit friends in their Malibu, Calif., beach house from our home in Washington, D.C. The only affordable transportation for this California dreamin' family of five was driving. And camping along the way.

Very untypically, we somehow embraced our inner Charlie Brown. So it took us a while before we caught the kids gleefully pushing our belongings through the hole in the floor to watch them flutter down the highway. When a merciless rain poured into our leaky tent, we frantically lined the ground with our toddler's diapers to soak it up. And when the heat in Death Valley became unbearable, we had to hose ourselves down at gas stations — fully clothed — and crawl back into the car soaking wet.

All along, those mysterious car sounds grew more ominous. On the outskirts of Los Angeles, our overburdened jalopy simply died. Just like that we were stranded, our destination so close, yet heartbreakingly out of reach.

After a detour for car repairs, we finally limped into colony-of-the-stars Malibu — bedraggled, disheveled and cranky, and ever-so grateful for the road's end.

— Veronica Gould Stoddart

Sign of the times

Every summer, my family would shuffle off to Buffalo on the way to my grandmother's house on the Canadian side of Lake Erie.

Five kids sardined into a Ford station wagon with heat-sticky vinyl seats on a six-hour drive on the New York State Thruway grew bored counting cows or squabbling over who sat where. The best place to be was in the rear-facing backseat, away from our parents' watchful eyes.

I — the eldest and instigator of mischief — came up with what we thought was an amusing game. We pressed scrawled signs to the rear window. One read "We're being kidnapped."

Nowadays, that probably would prompt fellow travelers to check their BlackBerrys for AMBER Alerts or call state troopers. In more innocent times, those behind us merely laughed. Or they waved, to my parents' bemusement, as they flew past.

— Kitty Bean Yancey

Roped into it by Dad

My dad had wanted to visit Laramie, Wyo., ever since he came across a 1923 magazine ad for the Jordan Motor Car Co.'s "Playboy" roadster — a pitch whose lyrical tagline began, "Somewhere west of Laramie, there's a bronco-busting, steer-roping girl …"

Some four decades after that evocative come-on, our family made a special detour to Laramie during a midsummer driving trip from Wisconsin to the Grand Canyon. Alas, there were no sultry cowgirls in open convertibles, no bellowing broncs or steers: just the late-night drone of semis along a desolate stretch of U.S. 30.

A cowgirl-less Laramie wasn't the only disappointment on that foray across the American West. I remember soggy tuna sandwiches, over-chlorinated motel pools and the day my stressed-out, wheat-blinded mother was nabbed somewhere outside Lincoln, Neb., for driving what the poker-faced state trooper insisted was at least 20 miles over the speed limit.

And then there was the afternoon the air conditioner in our Pontiac station wagon wheezed into oblivion somewhere near Arizona's Painted Desert. In a desperate attempt to create some shade, my sister and I pasted a day-old copy of the Albuquerque Journal across the back window — only to discover the classified section was smoldering along with our tempers.

— Laura Bly

TELL US: What's your most Griswold-esque travel experience?