Travel Geography in the Fifties: Confessions of an I-Spy Ranger

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Mark Okrant, NH Travel Guru

Imagine yourself in the shoes of parents of young children during the 1950s. A weekend trip or family vacation is in the offing and everyone is anticipating spending hour upon hour traveling in a car together. If truth be told, everyone was terrified by the prospect.

After all, the goal of the adults occupying the front seat— rest and relaxation—was at total odds with the demands by denizens of the back seat, who were looking for non-stop action and adventure.

In my household, the precious cargo occupying the back seat consisted of two intelligent, energetic boys, forty months apart in age. Within minutes after the front tires hit the asphalt of the open road, the Two-Son Wars began.

Mark Okrant

My father was the sole chauffeur in those days. Because my mother was a non-driver, it became her task to serve as navigator, purveyor of food and drink, and cruise director. My older brother, who is one of my favorite people on this earth, was a practiced tyrant in those days.

Fortunately, for the sanity of all involved, some sainted, anonymous individual developed an activity called the I-Spy Rangers, in 1957. One year later, the Official Code and Rule Book of the I-Spy Rangers introduced the Okrant family to the club, with secret signs and very secret codes to learn. In my young mind, this made us akin to G-Men of the post-World War II era.

As I-Spy Rangers, my brother and I found ourselves challenged to observe things on the landscape (readers’ note: construction of the Interstate Highways had barely begun; so, travelers were directly immersed in the empirical world of farms, small towns, as well as real people crossing the road without warning). As an I-Spy Ranger family, we received a single lapel button (see photo) which, owing to my brother’s advancing age of thirteen, became my property.

The challenge to each I-Spy Ranger coterie was to ‘spy’ items and activities as we passed them along the road. Upon viewing each of these, I made it my business to shout, “I-Spy;” then my mother or brother placed a check mark in an appropriate box in the club’s booklet. My personal favorite activity was attempting to find the license plates for each of the forty-eight states . . . it was several years before any of us would see an Alaska or Hawaii plates traveling along New England roadways.

The designers of the I-Spy system did not disappoint its members. Our initial booklet, entitled, ‘I Spy on the Highway,’ was followed by ‘I Spy Animals,’ ‘I Spy Uniforms,’ ‘I Spy Dogs,’ ‘I Spy Railroads,’ ‘I Spy Sports,’ and a succession of others.

The concept was pure genius. For one or two hours at a time, the members of our family put aside the petty squabbles that accompany traveling hundreds of miles in a ten foot by five foot space. We became a team. Best of all, during those interludes, I was more than just a kid brother; I was an equal . . . a contributing ranger.

Years later, when my wife and I drove across the country with our daughters, the principal activity in the back seat of our car had changed dramatically. While our daughters argued less than my brother and I had done thirty years earlier, the cause was unfortunate.  Our girls were so immersed in their hand held video games that they missed much of the countryside we were passing. When I remind them of those days, they never miss the opportunity to point out their father’s total addiction to his omnipresent iPhone. Hmm . . . I wonder if there is an I-Spy Ranger app!

After forty years as an educator, researcher, and consultant, Mark Okrant joins to offer concise, informative insight into New Hampshire’s travel and tourism industry as a business, while showcasing the people and places you want to know. This guy’s really been around. And, he’s funny, too.

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NH Travel Guru Mark Okrant leads a double life as a murder mystery novelist.



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