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The Middle Ages: Nothing like a road trip with two teenage boys

PHOENIX – I hate hotels. There are no dogs to greet you, and there’s no place to throw the ball around. On vacation, I tend to underspend on lodging, which means we often find ourselves at some budget inn along the freeway.

Want a quick test of how much they love you? Check into a Red Roof Inn in Phoenix, the one next to the McDonald’s and across from the kind of scruffy lot where truckers wouldn’t park. If your family will love you then, they’ll love you always.

In my defense, this isn’t just any Red Roof Inn, this is a Red Roof Inn Plus, vending machines on every floor.

I am standing in front of one now, and when I hit the Coke button, the giant plastic bottle KA-booms and ka-THUDS for what seems like five minutes, before angrily crashing down into the dark bat cave at the bottom of the machine. I reach in cautiously.

I call this the vending machine luge, and there is no discernible reason why a bottle of Coke needs to roller-coaster for 11 miles, around corners and over waterfalls, before arriving like it does. You twist open the top, and the carbonation nearly bazookas your head off. Which might be the best thing that could happen to you at a budget motel by the freeway.

Yet, we have fun, because that’s the sort of tribe we are. And we treat every vacation – big or small – like our first trip to the moon.

In theory, there’s nothing so inconsequential as a spring training visit to watch the preseason Dodgers, till you take your son and his buddy along.

Then it becomes a pilgrimage, a trip down the Mississippi on a raft. There are themes: Discovery. Danger. Father-son snappishness. How to make the most of tricky surrounding – in this case a $90-a-night motel (free Wi-Fi).

I find that road trips are always great till the first kid removes his shoes in the back seat. From then on, a road trip becomes a funky survival test.

When I look back, they’re all asleep.

The best way to quiet a family car – just talk to the kids till they pass out. Talk to them about history, or government, or how your mother met your father. Their young minds almost immediately shut down. Mission accomplished. Fifty miles of open highway, where nothing’s on the radio, and you can hear yourself think a little. Or start to focus on the one valve lifter in the engine that isn’t lifting. Or is that my heart valve? Same clicking sound. Same result.

“Hey, look, you guys! A truck fire!”

The little guy and his buddy, Chase, stirred awake. They love fires. They love trucks. When a truck is on fire, it is a royal wedding of the two things they cherish.

A mere hour and a half later, we were moving again, the truck fire having shut down the interstate. Like the perfect sentence, the perfect vacation eludes me. Something always goes a little wrong.

Still, is there anything better than a road trip? I think not. Sure, I like wandering around London, and once had a very nice bowl of soup in Paris, which I found a little full of itself.

In the end, give me an American road trip, where I can turn the boys loose on a baseball field to chase dragonflies and home run balls, and $6 hot dogs at a concession stand staffed by twinkle-eyed grandparents.

Give me three baseball parks in three days, and for dinner, a plate of prime rib. Give me a frosted glass and the kindness of strangers, whom I mostly overtip. I may skimp on hotels but I overspend on wait staff. I’ve really got to get over that.

As per tradition, we leave spring training when we run out of money and clean T-shirts. We must look like art school dropouts as we load up the minivan.

Except for the sunburns and the boyish smiles – on everyone.

Email Chris Erskine at chris.erskine@latimes .com, or follow him on Twitter at @erskinetimes.