Thursday, June 21, 2012

Travels With Children, Part I

Every year of my childhood, we took an extended family vacation. These much-anticipated events never involved airfare, and only on two occasions included the word "Disney." Mostly, we packed our earthly goods into a station wagon and took "the scenic route" to visit relatives in a nearby state, or sometimes, on another coast.

Having recently traveled with nineteen teenagers, I have developed a new respect for what my parents went through each summer to transport my three sisters and me around the country without losing any of us or, presumably, their minds.

Dad's job was twofold: to pack the car and to drive it. The packing may well have been the hardest part of the trip, but it was a task that appealed to Dad's meticulous personality. I remember him standing in our driveway, the four doors and the back hatch of the Caprice Classic station wagon flung open. For a long, long time, nothing seemed to be happening. But you would be a fool to really believe that. While he smoked one cigarette after another and circled the car, Dad was actually plotting the exact storage space for each item we were bringing, including small spaces like the glove box, door wells, back-of-seat flap pockets, and - for particularly long trips - the tortoise shell car top carrier.

He warned us each in advance of the rules: one pillow and one suitcase apiece, plus one small bag that must be carried on our laps, without complaint, for thousands of miles. He wasn't only planning how things would fit, but when we would need to access them - that night at the hotel or a week from now, when we arrived at our destination? Mom added to the mix a cooler with cold-cut sandwiches for the first day and fruit for a week or so, plus various bags of breads, muffins, cookies, trail mixes, and anything else that might serve the dual purpose of pacifying us and limiting our stops at the Golden Arches.

Mom's job, as far as I could see it, was to keep us from bothering Dad. Kicking or digging our knees into the back of the front seat was strictly prohibited, as was whining, arguing, elbowing, or insisting that someone had crossed the invisible boundary line into "my" space. Although our trips did not usually involve complicated directions ("Stay on I-80 for approximately 2,000 miles"), an unstated part of Mom's job was also to unfold the road map or open the atlas and produce our exact location on demand -- a human precursor to GPS. This was mainly necessary because one of my sisters or me always needed the bathroom, and also because my mom had a third eye for the tiny brown historical markers that announced an incredibly educational (aka, boring) experience was close at hand.

Mostly, the trips were long, the scenery across the Plains pleasant but unvaried. This was not before seatbelts, but before there was any sort of law about them, which really made the act of being a passenger far more pleasant. We could sit three or even four across in the back seat, or divide ourselves between the back seat and the way back seat, where we sprawled on opened sleeping bags.

We didn't have DVD players mounted at a convenient viewing height, or handheld video consoles, or iPods or cell phones, or for that matter, the ability to charge anything. We had Muzak and talk radio. My sister D, who had saved babysitting money for her entire life, had a Walkman and some Michael Jackson, Tiffany and Debbie Gibson tapes, none of which the rest of us were allowed to touch, on pain of death or serious nail-clawing. We had the License Plate Game, which we played faithfully for thousands of miles, and the Alphabet Game, and word searches, and decks of cards, and books, and random sing-a-longs led by Mom. I had a spiral-bound notebook, too, so I was able to record every thought in my head. Is it any wonder, with the lack of other stimulus and so much time to think, that I became a writer?

S and I, who generally occupied the Way Back, amused ourselves by writing notes on binder paper and holding them up to the window whenever a car passed us (which wasn't often, particularly on long stretches in Nevada and Wyoming). Help! We have been kidnapped! These are not our parents! We also had an all-purpose HONK! sign for trucks, which, accompanied by the universal pull-chain hand signal, produced positive results more than fifty percent of the time. If the people in these cars and trucks, who had the temerity to go faster than fifty-five miles per hour, ever expressed shock at the sudden appearance of our dirty-blonde heads against the rear window -- they hid it well. Fellow road warriors, they were generally unsurprised by our loaded-down station wagon and unmoved by our claims of kidnapping and abuse.

D was always the first person out of the car at rest stops and gas stations; we depended on her to return to the car and report to us on the design and general cleanliness of the public restrooms. "They have little individual slices of soap!" she might report excitedly, or else instruct us to move on, that it was better to get a kidney infection than risk this particular locale. B slept for nearly the entire drive each day, a full-on, zonked-out sleep, which due to chronic adenoidal problems, meant that she spent the entire day with her mouth gaping open -- a frequent target of tossed peanuts and sesame sticks. I was fine on the flat, tedious stretches of highway (like the 400+ miles across Nebraska), but developed a tendency to carsickness the minute we encountered any type of curve in the road, and therefore was ordered to ride with a plastic bag in my lap. S, on one particularly long journey, carved her name into the plastic molding in the Way Back, thereby eliciting Dad's wrath and reducing the car's no doubt promising resale value. Since this was the only time S misbehaved during her entire childhood, this fact simply could not be ignored, and had to somehow work its way into every conversation.

Dad and Mom liked to put in long days on the road, so the four of us girls figured it was our duty to negotiate for ourselves the best possible sleeping arrangements. These were never destined to be great, with six of us in a room designed for four and our rather tight budget, but there was always the possibility of a hotel with a POOL. My parents, otherwise law-abiding people, were intent on saving the surcharge for extra occupants, so we had to take turns appearing in the lobby for the continental breakfast and at the tiny, over-cholorinated pool. Still, it was a thrilling experience. What would the bedspreads look like? What color would the carpet be? Would the vanity and sink be outside the bathroom (ideal for five females and their various hair issues)? Would the remote control be bolted down? Would the pillows be fluffy or hard?

Along the way to wherever we were actually going, we managed to fit in quite a bit of sight-seeing.
We saw: Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse; the Pony Express station in Gothenburg, Nebraska; the Cracker Barrel in Tennessee; the birthplace of Ronald Reagan in Tampico, Illinois; Temple Square in Salt Lake City; the Wisconsin Dells; the musical fountain in Grand Haven, Michigan; a jewelry stand in Albuquerque, where B's entire life savings of $2 was lost (stolen?); Chapel of the Bells in Las Vegas; a carrot factory; an orange factory, from which we date our love of those heavenly Sunkist Gems; Yellowstone; Old Faithful, where S "accidentally" almost pushed me into a bubbling hot spring;  the Grand Canyon (Will insists that the GC story must be told in more detail, and I agree -- for a future post), which inspired a lovely crayon drawing by B; a train trestle in Green River, Wyoming; and, coming and going, dozens of signs for Winnemucca, Nevada and Little America, Wyoming.

Somehow, we always made it home, most of our belongings intact. The house always had a quiet, empty feeling at first, when we flopped ourselves down on the couch and tried to take it all in. This only lasted for a few minutes; there was a station wagon to be fully unpacked, a not small mountain of laundry to washed, and, much later, next year's vacation to be planned.