The Best Part of Weird Family Road Trips
And why groups of strangers are kinder to each other than you think.
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When it comes to road trips, there are two kinds of people: thermos people and stop-for-fries people. My sister is the former. She and her daughter don’t leave the house with fewer than four thermoses. Alas, I am the latter. So you definitely want to be riding in her car during the apocalypse.
She and I and our collective offspring drove from Brooklyn to central Massachusetts over the winter break to see our Mom’s best friend Pinky and her family. We’ve done this often in the decade since our Mom died.
This year, we decided to stay in a legendarily strange place that I call the Inside-Outside Hotel. It’s where local people used to go for Mother’s Day brunches and the like. And this week, it had something for all the Schrobs-Dorks, a hot tub, a pool, and cheap ye olde 90s prices to go with the 90s bathrooms.
The first thing you need to know about the Inside-Outside Hotel is that the lobby smells simultaneously of a wood-burning fire and chlorine. It’s disorienting, yet perfect preparation for the utter weirdness to come.
Imagine a 30-thousand-foot atrium with a skylight, a towering stone colonial fireplace at one end, and a meandering swimming pool and hot tub on the other. The pool is bordered by live trees and islands of scrawny plants. And of that is enclosed by a white picket fence with ye olde New England street lamps and a series of tiny bridges with white gazebos.
Now declining with few guests and lots of peeling paint, this place has the vibe of an abandoned town square or a 20th-century mall. The guest rooms have sliding patio doors opening to the center of the atrium. There are small Adirondack chairs on brick flooring by each door where one can sit and watch the happenings of the atrium community. There’s even a restaurant with glassed-in “patio” seating facing the trees as if it were outside, but it, like everything else, is actually inside. (The restaurant was also closed for lack of staff.)
There were at least two extended families staying at the Inside-Outside Hotel. Parents and aunts and grandparents would gather at the gazebo tables eating take-out pizza as their kids skittered over the bridges with their wheeled toys, howling with liberation and delight. They were like a fleet Eloises at the Plaza Hotel, but with vending machines instead of room service.
One family set up poker games on the restaurant’s high-top tables, and you could hear undulating roars of laughter and protestation. There didn’t seem to be staff around to say anything about that, or anything else. You could smell someone smoking somewhere. And dogs were allowed everywhere. We were making up the rules. I thought: this is how a post-apocalyptic community might actually work.
When I was in high school, there were epic overnight field trips at the Inside-Outside Hotel, which was weird because it was only a half-hour from our town. I suppose our teachers figured we’d be contained since going outside was actually still inside. But still, who thought this was a good idea? Two dozen rural teenagers occupied the atrium like locusts, fueled by hormones and Michelob Light. The sliding glass doors opened and closed, intermittently releasing blasts of WAAF, 107.3.
Several times a night, you’d hear the explosive pop of a beer bottle hitting the patio floor from a balcony room, followed by hooting and scurrying as kids tried to evade chaperones. If we heard a noise like that now, everyone would throw themselves to the ground assuming it was a lunatic with an assault rifle. My kids, now in college had active shooter drills for years in school. You have to wonder how learning to take cover like soldiers has shaped what American kids expect from other humans. Maybe my sister and I chose this retro bubble of a hotel because it feels a world apart from those 21st-century worries, even if we know no place is immune.
Part of our holiday mission this year was to have wine by the pool in December, and we would not be thwarted by the lack of a functioning hotel restaurant. Like a pioneer, my sister trekked on foot across the vast tundra of interconnected parking lots to get wine at the local Yankee Spirits, a massive liquor warehouse store on the corner. (2,600 kinds of beer!)
She returned triumphant with red Solo cups, Cheetos, and wine. On the other side of the white picket pool fence, guests trundled to their rooms wearing wooly hats and winter coats, like a fancy Colorado ski resort where snow and hot tubs meet. And she had us cackling when she described walking into the first door she came to at Yankee Spirits expecting wine, and instead was confronted with a huge saying: REDEMPTION CENTER. In New York, that usually means someone is trying to save your soul. Here it was about bottle deposits, and maybe a little new year’s redemption too.
We got into the not-so-hot tub despite the giant sign saying it was closed due to a chemical imbalance. Two tiny kids were already in there, so what the hell. The children explained that everyone in their family had a name beginning with J. So we cheered the three-year-old as she swam from one end of the tub to the other wearing floaties with shark faces as her grandmother looked on.
Early the next morning, I went to the actual outside of the hotel to walk the dog, and there was an ambulance by the front entrance. EMTs were slowly wheeling a stretcher into the building. It was a shocking hit of reality. They were here for someone in the atrium…our atrium! A fellow guest came out with his dog, and he thought they were there for the grandmother of the J. family with the little kids. We both got teary standing there in the cold. I remembered her wrapping those grandchildren in towels when they got out of the not-so-hot tub. She said she was helping her daughter who had just given birth to a new baby J.
A few minutes later, I saw someone who looked like the grandmother come out with the EMTs, but not a stretcher. The woman climbed into the side door of the ambulance on her own, so I guessed (and hoped) she was just being taken in as a precaution. My fellow atrium dwellers who’d gathered near reception agreed.
It’s startling how quickly communities form, and how much generosity there is amongst people thrown together by circumstance. We assume everyone will go all “Lord of the Flies” without the usual social structures. But people tend to be more cooperative, more “Gilligan’s Island” than the boys on the fictional island in “Lord of the Flies.”
In fact, there was an actual case of shipwrecked boys in 1966, and they didn’t turn to barbarism, according to Dutch historian, Rutger Bregman. In ordinary times, they might have dropped beer bottles from a balcony as we did, but the real lost boys set up a functioning democracy with a communal garden and water-gathering system. They kept a signal fire burning for more than a year by working in shifts. In his book, “Humankind,” Bregman presents lots of evidence that we’re hardwired for empathy in times of crisis, pointing out that:
“We are the product of survival of the friendliest, which means that for millennia, it was actually the friendliest among us who had the most kids and had the biggest chance of passing on their genes to the next generation.”
Before we headed out of town, we met Mom’s friend Pinky for breakfast at a coffee shop with 19th-century farm tools on the wall. She was our next-door neighbor in the tiny community where we grew up. But neighbors can become family, and so it is with us after decades of shouldering troubles and joys. She gives us Andes mints on holidays because those were our Mom’s favorite, she knew my sisters and me at our most unfinished, and she can tell us what our parents were like when they were young and lovely and overwhelmed.
Of course, Pinky brought us a huge bag of fruit for the road. And of course, my carload of Schrobs-Dorks still stopped for a burger and fries anyway. And when we got back to my apartment in Brooklyn, we found a thermos that my sister had left by mistake. After five days, the tea was still warm.
Why humans are kinder than you think a conversation with Rutger Bregman
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Paris in winter, 2023.
(Photos: Susanna Schrobsdorff)
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