Every summer when I was growing up, my Dad would load us into the car for a cross-country vacation from Iowa to California. The 1970s was the age of big cars, and ours was no exception. We had a sky blue Mercury that was roughly the length of a semi trailer. In an effort to customize it for three children going on a long trip, my dad rigged up a strip of plywood that stretched from the back seat to the front in order to provide an extra place to sleep. Given the enormity of the car, this was the size of a standard twin bed.
Each day began with a wake up call before sun-up. For reasons unknown, my Dad felt that the only way to pull off this trip was to start each day at around 5:00 a.m. “Have to get a lotta mileage in today,” he would say, glasses on the end of his nose, wrestling with the map and highlighting our route. So at the crack of dawn, we’d stumble into the car for another day of driving and sightseeing. The image of the back of my dad’s head, his hands planted firmly on the enormous steering wheel, is forever imprinted on my brain.
We had the traditional agenda: Mt. Rushmore, Yellowstone Park, the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, the Black Hills. We all looked forward to this trip every year, and I especially couldn’t wait for the freedom of the open road. We would stay in motels every night – only ones with pools – and eat at diners and family restaurants all along the way. Heaven.
One summer I adopted a little turtle, predictably named Myrtle. I loved Myrtle and could not imagine abandoning her when it came time for our trek across the West. So she came along. I brought her entire plastic home, partially filled with water just the way she liked it, with a little plastic palm tree inserted atop her plastic “island”. She sloshed along with us to all of the major landmarks in that part of the country. She saw Mt. Rushmore, the geyser at Yellowstone Park and many other points of interest. It was hard to tell, but I think she enjoyed the trip. We did leave her behind at one motel and didn’t miss her until we were about 10 miles on our way. When I realized we had deserted her, there was quite a scene, and my dad immediately turned the car around (which was no small feat) so we could retrieve her. He knew there would be no peace until he did. Myrtle seemed relieved when she saw us – I don’t think Wyoming was the place for her.
At Yellowstone National Park we had the usual encounters with bears that were so tame and so accustomed to being around people that they came right up to the car. And I do mean right up to the car. Myrtle’s little eyes bugged out at the sight of the enormous stature of these creatures. (Of course, Myrtle’s eyes were permanently bugged out, so it was sometimes difficult to gauge her reactions.) At one point, one of the bears got on his hind legs and pressed his paws on the hood, placing most of his weight on the car, much to my dad’s consternation: “That damn bear is going to scratch the paint!” Myrtle seemed relieved when we left the park, happy to be among only humans again.
The Grand Canyon never ceased to amaze me. The gorgeous colors are extraordinary and its size is overwhelming. I don’t think anyone ever forgets their first sight of the Grand Canyon. Even at that young age I was fascinated by the light and shadows that shifted as the sun moved across the sky. Of course, being typical kids, the only thing my brother, sister and I really cared about at the time was getting as close to the edge as possible. Could there be a way to get beyond the guardrails? we asked each other. We would stop the car at various overlooks to get a better view and read more facts about the canyon itself. Learning that it was a mile deep was even more reason to creep closer to the rim, much to my mother’s horror.
There were many sights to see, and as long as we were occupied, we three kids were fine. But on some legs of our journey, there were long stretches of highway with nothing at all of interest — just desert and open road. That was when the arguing began.
My brother and sister and I were typical siblings, in that fighting with each other was commonplace. Put three kids in the back seat of a car for hours at a time and you’re asking for trouble. Usually it involved someone trespassing on the other one’s “space” (although God knows there was plenty of it in that cavernous back seat), or the pulling of hair by my brother or some other antic spurred on by the boredom that comes with endless driving.
At one point, my brother stooped to an all-time low when he grabbed Myrtle and waved her in the air, holding her hostage until I agreed to give him my Milk Duds. Her little legs flailing frantically, she looked at me beseechingly for help. At least I think she looked at me beseechingly – Myrtle had an exceptional poker-face. I screamed at my brother to let her go. My parents threatened to let him out of the car. Then I tried to appeal to his sense of humanity. Total waste of time. After a stressful standoff, I gave him my Milk Duds and he released Myrtle into my care. She was under special surveillance for the rest of the trip.
In looking back, those were some of the most fun times I can remember in my childhood. Freedom, no responsibility, travel, companionship. I remember at one point we were driving in the desert during one of those endlessly long, empty stretches of road. I saw a man driving behind us by himself, and my first thought was, “Oh, he looks so lonely.” I felt lucky to be with my family, my turtle-kidnapping brother notwithstanding.
I feel the same today.