|I Should Own Stock in Dramamine|
|October 1, 2002|
First it was a green woody station wagon. Next it was a silver station wagon. Then it was a woody Grand Caravan mini-van, and another one after that. Now it's an RV. Thankfully, I've never gone cross-country in the RV, but I have in all the others. My parents' idea of vacation was to pile all of us in whatever family car we owned that year and take off for parts known. Every summer we drove from Minnesota to the state of Washington -- that's about two thousand miles, for those of you who are counting -- to see one set of grandparents, and after a breather of about three weeks between times, we drove from Minnesota to Michigan -- which is only about 400 miles, but there's an overnight ferry ride across Lake Michigan in there somewhere -- to visit with the other set of grandparents.
In fourteen years of car trips, I've seen a lot of purple mountain majesty. I've also see more than my share of amber waves of grain. Consider the northwestern passage we took: Minnesota to South and North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, and Washington. At times, my parents varied the path and threw Wyoming, Oregon, British Columbia, and parts of rockier Canada in there for kicks. Looking back on it, I can appreciate how little I appreciated the amazing beauty we drove through. At the time, however, I was more concerned with the arriving rather than the traveling hopefully.
We were always roused at some ungodly hour, and then, because the car had been fully packed the night before, we were made to sit around, half-awake, while my mother went over her last-minute checklist and my father stayed in his bathroom for over an hour. It is a truth universally acknowledged in my family that whenever we had plans to go anywhere, my father had to spend at least an hour in the bathroom. We never knew what he did in there and we didn't ask. As we were a family of mostly women, my mother wrote it off to the three of us as a "male thing." After my mother's checklist was exhausted and went into the corner to take a nap, we were hustled into the car and sat there. In the driveway. For a long time. My mother laid on the horn until my father came out of the house and took his position behind the wheel. In fourteen years of family car trips, I think my mother drove three times. Apparently, driving for twelve hours a day relaxed my father. Finally, we were on the road. We kids were usually asleep before we even left the state, and as there wasn't much to see in South Dakota, my parents usually left us that way for a while.
Because of my mother's checklist, we didn't usually stop for food along the road. Instead, we had this red Igloo Playmate cooler that was so huge, it had several levels of removable trays and took serious muscles to press the button on the side and slide the top open. The typical goodies it contained were blocks of cheddar cheese, fruit, tubes of summer sausage, soggy sandwiches we refused to eat, and occasionally, Hershey bars. In addition to that, there were grocery bags full of Skippy, Doritos, Stoned Wheat Thins, those marshmallow-stuffed, chocolate-covered Pin Wheel cookies, napkins, and paper plates. My mother always kept her thirty-year-old Swiss Army knife in her purse and she used it and a portable cutting board, which usually hung over the kitchen sink, to administer the snacks. First, if we whined about being hungry, she would try to convince us that we really wanted wedges of apple. We didn't. Next, she tried to push the pre-made sandwiches at us.
Mom: "This one has bologna."
Us: "Did you put lettuce on it?"
Mom: "A little."
Us: "Ick. No."
Mom: "Here's one with no mayonnaise."
Us: "Does it have lettuce?"
Us: "Ick. No."
Repeat this with all the other sandwiches. Finally, she would just start throwing back pieces of cheese and summer sausage on crackers and allow us a handful of chips each.
What irritated my mother was that what was good enough for us at home, somehow didn't cut it on the road. We knew that if we accepted the sandwiches, there was no way out, nowhere to get rid of them. Only once did we try carefully shoving pieces of sandwiches out a crack in our rolled-down windows, but my father spied the pieces blowing down the Interstate through his rear-view mirror and threatened to pull the car over. I have never understood why this was such a threat. Every parent uses this, and every kid remembers their parents using it, but in my opinion, pulling over by the side of the road meant we were no longer going to see the Important Historical Site.
That was the real reason for our excessively long trips in the car -- not to see grandparents, not to relax and get through the Minneapolis Public Library Summer Reading List, but to accumulate Important Historical Sites. From Minneapolis, Minnesota to Friday Harbor, Washington, we stopped at every rock that anyone had bothered to nail a plaque to. As kids, we just wanted to get there. We didn't want to stop and learn things along the way. We didn't want to answer my father's pop quizzes in U.S. Geography about rivers, dams, and Continental Divides. And we certainly didn't want to get out of the car in order to pose next to Important Historical Sites for my mother's Polaroid in 101-degree heat. One of the worst things about being made to get out of the car to take in this View or that Point of Interest was getting back in the car. The car seemed smaller, dirtier, and smelled of travel after fidgeting next to Lake Jasper, the Badlands, or hanging moss in the Hoh National Rain forest. The only time it was worthwhile to get out of the car was to pee, to eat at McDonald's once we were sick of cooler food and my mother was even sicker of forcing it on us, and to buy junk at Wall Drug in South Dakota.
In addition to seeing all sorts of sights across the country, I've also stayed in all manner of hotels, motels, and hovels pretending to be hotels and motels. When we were little and didn't know any better, all we required of a night stop was that it had some sort of pool and that we stopped early enough to be allowed to swim in it before bed. As we got older, we got fussier. Not that it made much of a difference. We once stayed in this place in Libby, Montana that barely fit the definition of "clean," "safe," or "not-likely-that-you'll-be-stabbed-to-death-in-your-shower." The set-up was a bunch of detached two-roomed shacks, and ours had a single bare light bulb hanging in the middle of main room as the only light source. Stephen King was actually filming some movie in the town.
My parents never made reservations ahead of time because although we had a maximum of miles my father wanted covered in a day, we weren't always certain what Pop. 348 we'd be bedding down in. Sometimes we'd check out five or six places before we'd find one that met our requirements of having a pool, room service (another back seat stipulation), and, of course, a vacancy. Once we found one and pulled the car around to our room door, we badgered my father until he opened the back of the car, pulled out the suitcases, and found our swimsuits. We'd spend several hours in the pool saving bugs that had fallen in, showing off what strokes we were learning that summer in swimming lessons, and feeling sorry for kids whose parents didn't understand the vital importance of staying at motels with outside pools that could be smelled inside the rooms. Then we'd take turns in the shower with the special summer shampoo that got the chlorine out of our hair and smelled like grapefruit, while my mother ordered everything from French onion dip to Mississippi Mud Pie on the room service menu.
While stretching out in big beds with the clattering air conditioner was a welcome change from the hot cramped car, this was the time I was the least comfortable. Between my older sister poking me away from her side of the bed and "letting poops" under the covers, and my parents participating in a snoring contest all night, I probably got about two hours of shut-eye. And though you can argue I was young and resilient in those days, it certainly wasn't enough sleep when my father was standing at the foot of our bed at the butt-crack of dawn bellowing at us to get up. It did take several bellows from him and even more from my mother before we managed to slouch out of bed, sullen and irritable and in the perfect frame of mind to get back on the road.
It wasn't just the heat, the cramped conditions, and the perpetual (and literal) broadening of our horizons that got to me on these trips, it was the rank boredom. Show me a kid under the age of eighteen who enjoys being crammed in a car with her family to see the beauties of our great country for days at a time, and I'll show you a truly twisted mind. My mother doesn't believe in boredom. "Only boring people are boring," she would tell us. Meaning, of course, that we should find some way of amusing ourselves and stop bothering her. But trapped in a car, you have little to distract yourself with, and beyond looking out the window, there's nothing to do all day. Of course, we brought along piles of books and Archie comics, coloring books and other car games, but I was then and still am given to getting carsick. So, reading was out of the question, and playing car games meant getting along with my sister for more than five minutes, which made that a dead end as well. It wasn't until I was a teenager, had my own Walkman, and started popping Dramamine as soon as I got into the car that these trips became a little more tolerable. The Dramamine knocked me out faster than you can say "Hoover Dam," and U2's Joshua Tree was particularly conducive to riding through Our Great Nation. Especially "Red Hill Mining Town," and, of course, "In God's Country."
Of course, as a teenager, there were other reasons why I didn't want to go on car trips. There were my friends back in Minneapolis with sensible parents, who only took them to see grandparents at sensible times -- like over Spring Break -- and their grandparents were eminently sensible for living in places like Florida, Arizona, California, or Hawaii, which was so conducive to coming back in March with a nice tan after only a week. Getting a tan in the summer wasn't particularly remarkable. Everyone had a tan then. But having a tan when no one else had one, that was very important.
Before mini-vans provided a kind of comfort we had never experienced when state-trotting, we only had the back seat of a station wagon. But when we were shorter and less one baby sister, my older sister and I would unroll our brown flannel sleeping bags, with the green, yellow, and orange-striped insides, in the back-back. Some families called it the "way back," and some station wagons actually had another bench seat back there, complete with seatbelts, which could be folded flat again when the space was needed for storage purposes. We never had that folding bench seat in the back-back -- we just had the flat expanse, half of which lifted up to expose deep trunk space. On car trips, it was our space. We climbed back there with our teddy bears, pillows, and sleeping bags and made ourselves very comfortable for several days. The good thing about our brown flannel sleeping bags was that they provided a natural boundary between me and my sister so there was none of that pushing and poking. Well, not as much, anyway.
We always managed to arrive at our house in the middle of the night on the return. My sister and I would fall asleep during the last ninety or so miles, and at that age we slept so soundly that we didn't wake up as my parents carried us inside. That was the best thing about those long car trips -- falling asleep during the last leg, knowing that we'd wake up the next morning in our own beds.