Once a summer, my children and I would pile into the car at dawn for a 13-hour road trip from Miami to Horse Cove, North Carolina, in the Appalachian Mountains.
For a week, we hiked trails, climbed mountains, explored waterfalls and swam in springs until the kids’ lips turned blue. At night, we curled up, spent, in the little house my father had built. We called it Camp Wittywood.
This summer, my husband and I are back again, among the hundred million Americans who, according to a recent survey by AAA, are taking family vacations in 2019. More than half of traveling families plan to take a road trip, just like we did all those years, fueled by long days and sunny skies and a desire for connection and adventure.
Yet more cars on the road and people outdoors also mean greater danger. Tragically, more people die in drunk driving crashes in July – the favored month for vacation – than any other month of the year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. These deaths remain statistically higher in August and September compared to the rest of the year.
In 2017, nearly 11,000 people died in drunk driving crashes. In each instance, one person made the selfish – and ultimately fatal – decision to drink and get behind the wheel. Each death was preventable. Each death had a ripple effect impossible to measure.
Whether you are taking a vacation this summer or staying close to home, my wish for you is that everyone makes it back safe. When you are out on the roads, use caution. Remember there are more people outdoors enjoying the summertime weather. Always wear your seatbelts. This is a great defense against drunk drivers.
And if your plans include alcohol, always plan ahead for a safe ride home. Designate a non-drinking driver. Take public transportation, call a taxi or use a rideshare app like Uber. The difference between a DUI and DUI death is chance. Don’t take that chance. It’s not worth the lives you could upend, the lifetime of pain you could inflict.
My daughter, Helen Marie, was rollerblading on a bike path on a sunny day in June in Miami when a drunk and drugged teen driver ran off the road and struck her. She died an instant, violent death, but not before she had time to look up and see the car headed toward her. Time enough to know that she could not get out of the way.
Helen Marie was 16. We had recently returned from what would be her last trip to Camp Wittywood, a place she deeply loved. We made the drive up the Florida Turnpike, over to Interstate 95 and north through Georgia, maneuvering around Atlanta and at last reaching North Carolina, where the only rule for the week was that there were no rules, except no TV.
Each morning, we’d head for one stream or another, a swimming hole or a sliding rock, always in search of a place called Secret Falls, a spectacularly beautiful place we found after four summers of looking. In the afternoons, we’d go uptown for ice cream. After dark, we sometimes headed to the nearby Nature Center, going out on the grounds with flashlights to listen for owls.
As the children grew and matured, we went deeper into the wilderness, on even grander adventures. I told them to be careful; if they got hurt, it would be a long, painful trek back to civilization. They always heeded the warnings.
Snow dusted the daffodils on that final visit. The four of us – my husband, John, and I, and our children, Helen Marie and John, went up to Whiteside Mountain, where we stopped for a photograph.
It is one of my favorite pictures, a fleeting moment frozen in time and warming me all these years later.