In the summers before freeways crisscrossed the country from short to shore and border to border, when major highways remained unpaved, and before pollution grayed the skies of every major city, our family used to drive from Southern California to Granddad’s farm in South Dakota. Late on a Friday afternoon when Dad arrived home from work, he would load the footlocker into the trunk. Mom would add the little leather suitcase that held everything we would need overnight, if we stopped, although we seldom did. Then a thermos of coffee and a jug of ice water were added to the floor up front by Mother’s feet.
Dad liked to leave in the evening so that we could drive across the desert in the cool of the night. He would drive straight through to South Dakota, or at least until his eyelids could no longer remain open to navigate the curves and hills of the country roads; or until a nighttime summer-storm rendered the windshield wipers useless. When that happened he’d park the car in the gravel lot behind a market or tavern that was closed for the night. He would lean the car seat as far back as he could, without crunching a child, and close his eyes until the sun once again appeared on the horizon, or the early sounds of daybreak disturbed his sleep. Then he’d drive some more.
Sometimes, while Dad slept we would wake up in the dead of night and hear phantom creatures crunching the gravel around the car and be afraid to open our eyes for fear some flaccid being would be outside staring in.
During the early morning hours we would stop at a diner or café where one pancake filled the plate and milk was drawn from a machine. But soon we’d be on the road again.
There were times when we would arrive at the farm in the wee hours of the third day. Our bodies no longer agile, Mom would lead us from the car, into the house and up the stairs to the comfort of a bed. Other times we would wait in the car until Granddad headed to the barn for early morning chores.
Week one was Mother’s vacation. There would be one day each for each of Mother’s four sisters. And Sunday always meant church and family dinner. If we were there for the Fourth of July we’d have a massive family reunion at the farm, with fireworks and homemade ice cream. It was a busy time.
Week two was when Dad’s vacation began. There was a little gypsy in Dad. He liked traveling from place to place and exploring parts unknown to him. We visited National Parks and explored underground caves and other oddities along the way. But the year I remember most is the year we drove through Colorado. We had never been in Colorado before, I don’t know why we’d gone that way on this particular trip, but that is where we were when the car broke down.
We had traveled along just outside Denver. We had driven through trees, up and down grades; and stopped for a soda. When we got back on the road I could hear a strained conversation between my parents. I wasn’t sure what it was about, but it was clear that something was wrong with the car. The car whirred when Dad tried to change gears. The engine sounded like it was overloaded. It became more and more difficult to maneuver the hills and curves. Finally we arrived on the outskirts of Denver. Dad stopped at a garage near a small motel.
Dad went to the garage and Mom checked into the motel. We had one room with one bed and a tiny kitchenette. At night we would stretch out the big bulky quilt we carried for a mattress and add two sheets and our pillows. For the next two or three nights that was where my two sisters and I slept.
When Dad returned he was upset. It was going to cost more to repair the car than it was worth. My parents decided to have the garage owner take Dad into town to look for a replacement car. Dad found a car that afternoon but we had to wait for three days for the bank to approve the loan. There was absolutely nothing the folks could do but wait. I don’t know what happened to the Rambler the folks had been driving, but all of our travel gear was removed from the car and squeezed into the tiny motel room.
I am sure that my mother was frantic about how she was going to keep us entertained for several days in a 12 x 12 foot space. The motel clerk told Mom of the park just a block away. I remember the walk to the park. . We had peanut butter sandwiches, cookies and apples in a bag. Dad was busy making phone calls when Mom led us to the park.
It was the most beautiful place I had ever seen. We inhaled the clear clean air and ran from tree to tree wrapping our arms around the massive trunks of large cottonwoods that were spread out on grassy mounds; their large crowns created canopies that shaded us from the sun and provided the perfect picnic spot. Later Dad joined us and spread a blanket on the ground and napped in the afternoon shade. We played make-believe roller derby around the trees, the cool grass gently caressing our feet as we raced around each other.
A little creek danced along, the water doing pirouettes over the rocks and singing a bubbly little song as it went by. We removed our sandals. Slowly we slid our dusty feet into the babbling brook. The shiny rocks made us slip and slide as we tried to walk across. I loved the cool feeling as the water cleaned the dust from between our toes and splashed upon our legs. Back on the bank, we tried to catch the leaves as they floated along, but the current was too fast. To grab them would have caused us to fall in; and we knew that mother would not be happy if we got our shorts and sun tops wet . We remained content to watch the leaves float along. Someone picked up a stick and tossed it in. When Dad joined us he picked up a rock, gave it a low toss and we watched it skip across the creek. We all tried it. My younger sister was pretty good at it, but my older sister and I were dismal. It didn’t matter. We tried and tried again, just enjoying the moment.
When the sun hid behind the trees and the air-cooled we walked back to the motel. Mom and Dad went inside while the three of us sat on the step and played count the out-of-state license plates until the sun was gone. Inside Mom had placed our bedding on the floor beside the bed. We snuggled in, tired from a day of sunny play and ready for a night of pleasant dreams.
Mom and Dad left the room once we were tucked in and walked to the tavern to have a well-earned cold beer. I heard them when they returned. In the dark they quietly navigated the detour around our feet to enter the bathroom to brush their teeth. And soon I heard their soft breathing that told me they were sound asleep.
I always thought I’d go back, not to visit but to live in Colorado. But now I believe it was the serenity of the time and place that I was seeking.
Written for Three Word Wednesday: agile; phantom; flaccid
And for Soup Night…Topic : Where I would live.