I started thinking today why it is that I’m so intrigued by stories from the road. Part of the reason is the fact that I spent a large part of the last decade living Monday through Friday out of a suitcase, and I no doubt saw plenty of stranger-than-fiction reality. But my love of the highway and the all-American road trip goes way back to some of my most distant memories. Only recently did I start adding my own perceptions to the realities I’ve seen while counting the white center-line dashes.
As a kid, road trips were just a part of my life and I didn’t spend much time analyzing what I saw – it just was. We had five kids in our family, but that didn’t dissuade my parents from loading up the family truckster with sleeping bags and food and games and take off down the pre-limited-access-and-thus-more-leisurely-driven highways to faraway places. Random parts of those trips are remembered both vividly and dreamlike at the same time: Visiting grandma in Tennessee when I was about 7 and the wonder of catching fireflies – a marvel I’d never seen growing up in Colorado; traveling down the backroads of Georgia – where we got gas for 13¢ a gallon – and having to stop for a herd of turtles crossing the road and each of us siblings abducting the one of our choice and taking it home to enjoy a pampered, yet probably shortened, life; as a pre-pubescent lad thinking that there was nothing cooler than the Mermaids of Weeki Wachee Florida, until we saw the cigarette-smoking chimpanzee on the jungle cruise who snatched my swim goggles right out of my hand as our boat went by and then posed for everyone on the cruise, taking drags off the Marlboro while peeking coquettishly through the mask at the boatload of Kodak Brownie-snapping tourists. That last memory may be more vivid because we had a 16mm movie of it that I probably watched a hundred times.
When I was 10, Dad bought a new ’64 Chevy Corvair van. He turned the second seat around and installed a fold-down table that would, in a transformer-like click and fold, fit between the two facing seats and, with a cushion my Mom made from the matching curtain material, turned the “dining room” into a bed where the girls and baby brother Roger would sleep. Dad would sleep in the front seats while my brother and I slept on the shoulder of the road in sleeping bags. Roughing it? Nah – that’s just what we did. It was an adventurous and MacGiver-like method of travel that helped me adopt the zen-journey attitude I now benefit from while on the road.
That same year we headed East to where Dad’s family was from. We got to Boston and left the younger siblings with my Aunt and Uncle and took my cousin Artie with us to the World’s Fair in NYC. Did I mention that Dad is one of the most frugal (read: cheap) people in the whole world? You say you’re your dad was cheap too? Well, top this: All five of us – Mom, Dad, Artie, my brother Stan & me – slept in that van in the parking lot of an abandoned corner gas station just a couple of blocks away from the entrance to the NY World’s Fair. This was long before Rudy G cleaned up the streets of New York, but as it turned out, the most dangerous thing we saw on that trip was the It’s a Small World exhibit.
A few years later, we went to Yellowstone, then Glacier National Park, then into Canada to Banff, then across the Rockies to British Columbia, then down to Mt. Hood, then on to San Francisco, and finally back east to Colorado. We played card games on the table between the seats in the Corvair and never once worried that we would all die from carbon monoxide poisoning. (Those of you old enough to remember will recall that the Chevy Corvair was recalled for its disturbing and inconvenient tendency to leak CO into the passenger compartment of the car.)
I came home from college for Christmas '71 with a bad attitude and a broken leg (look for that story some day on a future post) and my Dad packed up the four kids left at home and drove to visit my older brother in Los Angeles. We went to Disneyland where I got to get pushed around in a wheelchair, and visited the San Diego Zoo on crutches. While we were in the neighborhood, my Dad drove across the border into Tijuana where I bought a serape through the car window at a stop sign and then a block later took the Mystery Meat Taco Challenge from a street vendor. We drank the water and I ate the taco and none of us got sick – probably because with 5 kids my Mom didn’t spend a lot of time worrying about keeping us away from germs so we had built up some pretty hefty natural defenses. Let this be a lesson, new Mothers: Stop freaking out when your kid eats dirt or licks the shopping cart!
Then, there were the road trips when I was old enough to get around on my own…
I was 18 when I bought my first car with my own money. A real POS that I bought from my girlfriend’s mother for $200 cash, it was a pre-Buick Opal that broke down 2 weeks later 2 miles out of town on July 2 as I was heading to Denver to party with friends for the holiday weekend. Logic would dictate that I call someone, tow the Opal and go back to my apartment to cook a holiday hot dog on my hotplate. But I was 17, so I stuck out my thumb and hitched a ride with a dope-smoking, older couple in a camper van. They were on their way to Creede, Colorado for the 4th of July celebration that was the 70’s version of Lollapalooza and invited me to join them. I remember that I accepted their offer, but don’t remember much else about that trip. Too bad. I’ve been to Creede since and it’s a really nice place.
In ’71 & ’72, I hitch-hiked from Loveland to Lincoln a couple-3 times and one of those excursions sticks out in my mind. I caught my first ride from Loveland to Wiggins, Colorado, 50 miles towards the goal. The next ride was the jackpot: a ride with young lovers from Omaha who promised to take me all 450 miles to Lincoln. Good tunes, good conversation, good smokes till the dude got stopped for speeding outside of Kearney. Since their car was registered in Colorado, the State Trooper said they had the choice of going to jail for the weekend until they could see a judge on Monday, or paying a $75 fine on the spot. They didn’t have the money, but I did and I was in a hurry to get to Lincoln. They said they’d pay me back and gave me their address in Omaha so I could come down with friends the next weekend and get my money, so I paid “the Man.” The next weekend, a friend drove me to Omaha where we discovered that the address was just an empty lot. These days, $75 dollars would be a good buy for a 500-mile ride. In those days, that much gas would take you to New York and back and it was all the money I had. That was the week that I ate bean dip and Wonder Bread sandwiches cuz that was all there was in my friend’s refrigerator and he wasn't a good enough friend to loan me money for a Big Mac. After the bean dip was gone, I stuck out my thumb again and went home.
After getting married 5 days past my 20th birthday, my travels got decidedly tamer, though no less fun. I bought a ’51 Chevy pickup that the missus and I christened “Zonker” and used for camping trips up the Buckhorn & Poudre Canyons. I stuck four 2 x 2 posts in the holes in the corner of the truck bed and hung a day-glo orange tarp over them to turn that truck into our redneck Winnebago. That was some of the best camping we’ve ever done. Sitting on the tailgate roasting wieners in the fire by the river. Throw a cooler and a sleeping bag in the truck bed and we were gone. Just a coupla hippie kids in love, but we were free, man!
A memory that isn’t so pleasant and now only vaguely recalled was driving to California in 1990 while I fought the dry heaves and delirium tremens of my newly-sobered life and contemplated the pros and cons of dying. I don’t remember much about the trip as I was pretty sick for a couple weeks, but I do remember watching the vultures circling the desert while Marcia drove and wondering if (wishing even) they were coming for me.
A much more pleasant trip was with the girls a couple of years later, when our daughters were 13 & 16, and we recreated the Canada trip from our childhoods. (As it turns out, my Iowa wife’s father had taken HER on virtually the identical grand loop, so we were both anxious to relive our those halcyon days.) In 11 days, we hit eight national parks: Rocky Mountain, Glacier, Waterton, Jasper, Kootenay, Banff, Yellowstone & Grand Teton. The girls were far too cool and way too teen-aged to do anything but gripe that there was nothing to do, but they will tell you now that it was the best car trip ever. And we have the pictures to prove it.
So, you can see that I have a lot of fond memories of road trips. In fact, there is only one other car trip that I can ever remember that wasn’t a great ride.
Eight years ago this morning, I found myself on a plane to Dallas for a morning meeting. We landed without incident at about 8:30 AM and I jumped on the shuttle to get my rental car. The bus was packed and people were talking in hushed, but excited tones – “Did you get a car?” “No, they’re all taken.” “What are we going to do?” I thought it was a bit weird, but I was in my own little world and not too worried about it.
I got my car and took off towards my meeting while flipping through the channels to find some music. But there was no music – just news. News of two planes smashing into the twin towers that morning. News of people jumping a hundred stories to avoid the hellfires. Soon, there was news of the towers collapsing in on themselves.
It’s a wonder I didn’t smash my rental into an 18-wheeler on the Dallas 635 when I shakily realized that planes had been hijacked and crashed while I was in the air over Oklahoma. I went to my meeting with a Persian Muslim who was more shocked than I was and we talked in awkward hushed tones. We endured about an hour of the meeting before we decided we needed to be home with people who loved us and who we could trust. Being one of the lucky ones who got a car before the planes were grounded and the stranded travelers started fighting for them, I called up Hertz and told them I’d leave their car in Denver for them.
That was the loneliest drive I’ve ever taken, even though I shared the road with thousands of fellow Americans as shocked, saddened, angered and confused as I was. Talk radio was frantic and depressing, so after the first day of driving and my sleepover in Amarillo, I turned it off, the only sounds the whine of the tires and the whirr of the cicadas through the open windows. The droning of the road was punctuated from time to time by my half-stifled sobs or my barking of the special curse words that I had rarely used before, and almost never have used since as that particular 2-word phrase is now burned into my brain as being reserved only for Hitlers, Husseins, bin Ladens and their ilk. To use it in everyday language seems now be a sacrilege to those who fell that black day in September 2001. And besides, it’s not nice language and certainly not something I’d put in a blog that my Mom might read…
I remember stopping in a run-down city park in a small town just after I crossed the border into Colorado and sitting in a rusted swing overlooking the high desert of my native soil and crying until the tears wouldn’t come any more. It took quite a while, but they finally stopped falling. They just dried up. I don’t think I’ve cried about 9/11 since then – not in 8 years.
May we never forget.