The Road Trip



You cheated!”


“No, you cheated!”  Slap, pinch, push . . . and the fighting began.  Initially a game of Spades was a nice change from the daily sightseeing, but Donna and Pete could never play together peacefully for very long.  The door was snatched open and there, filling the small opening, was my dad standing six feet tall, bushy eyebrows scowling and eyes glaring, with belt in hand.  Of course I, the innocent spectator, would be included in whatever action was about to unfold.  Only two short weeks ago, we were looking forward to great experiences and new horizons, and now it looked as though our lives could come to an abrupt end.

The family takes a two-week vacation every August between the close of tobacco season and the beginning of school.  This year, we intended to explore the Grand Canyon and many of nature's other wonders in that area of the United States.  Very excitedly, we packed a few necessities in the slide-in pickup camper on Daddy’s new Chevrolet pickup truck.  After watching the Grand Canyon episode of the Brady Bunch, we all anticipated a wonderful trip.


The first few days went along as expected with few surprises.  We drove during the day and pulled into a campground, complete with swimming pools and recreation rooms, just before sundown.  As Mama and Daddy prepared supper, Pete, Donna, and I explored and sought the companionship of other teenaged campers.


However, trouble began, and attitudes began to change the first evening at the Grand Canyon.  Daddy was not the call-ahead-and-make-reservations type, so we spent our first night at the canyon sleeping in the camper on the side of the road.  Boy, did we ever complain!  Not only were there no swimming pools or recreation rooms, there was also no electricity, no running water, and worst of all—no bathrooms.  Daddy scowled and said, “Stop complaining.  There are several acres out there.  All you have to do is climb that fence.”  The three of us just looked at each other.  Although we weren’t happy, we didn’t get to be teenagers without knowing when to shut up.


Mama proceeded to get out the green, Coleman camp stove to prepare our supper from tin cans.  Following the meal, before it got dark, Mama grabbed the slop jar she kept in the camper for such emergencies (This was its first and probably only time used.) along with a roll of toilet paper and led us into the woods.  Fear welled up inside of us each time we heard a twig snap or leaves rustle.


Just before nightfall, we began to crawl into the camper.  (Remember, there were no lights because there was no electricity.)  The camper was the size of the bed of the pickup truck.  Sleeping a family of five comfortably in a plywood box wrapped in aluminum is no easy task in itself.  We had to bed down in a specific order.  Mama and Daddy climbed up first into their bed that lay over the cab of the truck.  Donna and I climbed next onto our bed that was a mattress across the collapsible table.  Pete was the really fortunate one.  He got to sleep on the floor with his legs under our bed and his head against the door.


Despite the cramped quarters, we all slept peacefully.  Early the next morning, we heard engines come to life.  Daddy jumped quickly out of bed, grabbed his trousers and shirt, and jumped over Donna, Pete, and me.  He commanded us to get up quickly and dress.  He was determined that we be among the first in the race to the nearest campground for that night’s lodging.  “Alright!” we yelled and quickly dressed to go.


We made it!  But the enthusiasm quickly dwindled to be replaced by the negative thoughts of the night before.  “How could Mama and Daddy possibly do this to us?”  There was no pool, and the showers were coin operated.  Donna and I (both of whom had very long hair) put $.75 in the shower and it still cut off with shampoo in our hair.  Donna began to cry.  She cried about everything since she broke up with Johnny Aycock.  (She never called him by his first name.  She always called him Johnny Aycock, like there was some significance to that.)  I looked at her like she was the fool she was and redressed to go to the camper to get more quarters.  Of course Daddy accused us of just standing there and watching the water run, but upon realizing the severity of the situation, he gave me more quarters.  Upon my return, Donna, who waited somewhat less than patiently, said, “What took you so long?” and grabbed the quarters from my hand.  They dropped and quickly rolled to the drain.  Thank goodness the holes were too small.  The quarters were retrieved, and thankfully, water flowed until our hair and bodies were rinsed clear.


The next day, I found that the people who lived out here take water conservation to great lengths.  Never had I been so thirsty in my life, nor do I suffer bravely or quietly.  While the Grand Canyon was a spectacular sight I’m sure, all I could think about was the absence of water and the heat.  Boy, was it hot!  We just thought the tobacco patches in South Georgia were hot and made us tired and thirsty.  On and off the bus at various scenic spots but not once was there a water fountain.  I can’t believe Mama and Daddy felt it imperative to bring us hundreds of miles in a plywood, aluminum box to die of thirst.  This method of torture was certainly becoming excessive.


The day was a disaster.  Did I mention that I don’t tolerate discomfort very well?  Well I’m a trooper compared to Pete and Donna.  Pete constantly mourned for his voluptuous girlfriend, Ditzy Mitzi.  Donna wondered whom Johnny Aycock might be pairing with.  I, on the other hand, had left no one back home.  At the ripe age of twelve, I was simply concerned with myself and the amenities that were definitely lacking on this road trip.  I wondered aloud, “Why can’t we ride donkeys and camp at the bottom like the Brady Bunch did?  They had fun.  All we get to do is ride the trolley and thirst to death.”


Again Daddy gave us the bushy-eyebrow scowl and reminded us how fortunate we were to be on this vacation.  “Yeah, right,” we three chimed.


We survived the Grand Canyon and headed south to Mexico.  Daddy decided that we should cross the border in a taxi.  His truck came equipped with the standard pistol behind the seat.  This experience was actually tolerable, if you forget about the fact that there were six of us in a small sedan.  If you’ve seen me, you know that I walk around on thirty-four inch stilts called legs.  Well, I inherited them from Daddy’s gene pool, and Pete’s legs stretched even longer.  Neither Daddy nor Pete could ever consider closing their legs together while riding in a car.  Each of them took up over half a seat. 


Rags to riches was the scene in Mexico.  We saw great mansions.  We also saw street vendors who appeared to be very poor.  The saddest sight, I guess, was along the Rio Grande.  There were houses that appeared much less extravagant than our truck bed-sized camper. 


The memories of the modest Mexican houses beside the river reminded me of the fate of the American Indians.  As we traveled through Monument Valley and rode through the Indian Reservation, it became apparent even to me that our American Government had shafted those Indians.  On several occasions, we have visited Cherokee, North Carolina and watched the drama, Unto These Hills.  Yet, I never quite understood that fate—not until visiting the reservations that they moved to in the west.  We also saw The Trail of Tears.  (The outdoor drama in Oklahoma.)  I found it rather despicable that the leaders of our country could commit such an unforgivable crime against our Native Americans.  These poor Indians had very few natural resources.  They lived in adobe shacks (in the late ‘70s) and children herded sheep on horseback.  The elderly sat and created authentic crafts, which they hoped to sell at visitor centers, gas stations, and campgrounds.  Most roads were still of dirt and very rugged.  The North Carolina Reservation is a slice of heaven compared to the Reservation land in the West.  We visited the Mesa Verdes and walked through early civilizations of the American Indians.  While we were in the midst of the Indians, we must have become empathetic.  For a period of a couple of days, we forgot to complain that there were no swimming pools at the campgrounds or frequent water fountains along our journey.

By the time we reached Petrified Forest I was tired of all this togetherness.  My mood was echoed and enhanced by the contrariness of Pete and Donna.  I was tired, and the last thing I really wanted to do was walk through a fallen forest that had lain there and become rock.  Every limb, every stump, every fallen tree all looked the same.  Mama tried her best to interest me and extinguish my complaining.  Mama is a teacher.  She thinks everything in life is either of scientific or historical significance.  She even asked me to select a broach for my grandmother made from the petrified wood.  Whoop-de-do!  Looking back now, it was probably the behavior on this leg of the trip that resulted in Daddy’s finalizing decision.


Pike’s Peak didn’t seem like it would be so bad.  There was snow in August!  Daddy didn’t often give in to the commercialism of tourism and was adamant that we would drive to the top ourselves.  Keep in mind now that we were a pickup truck loaded with five people and a camper riding piggyback.  It was Donna’s and my turn to ride in the back.  As we s-l-o-w-l-y climbed the mountain, it became colder and colder.  Soon we changed into long pants and sweatshirts.  Upon reaching the top, we bounded out of the camper.  Boy, was it cold!  Duh, there was snow up there.  Not only was it cold, it made me dizzy.  I really thought I was going to be sick.  I heard people say the air was too thin or something.  Afraid to go near the edge, I stayed close to the truck.  I did, however, wander close enough to the edge when I heard Pete say, “Wow, there’s Denver over there.”


Inside the gift shop there were T-shirts that boasted, “We made it up Pikes Peak.”  I thought, “So what?  It was a piece of cake.”  That was before I heard Daddy talking with the ranger about our descent down the mountain. 


Daddy asked, “Has anyone ever gone over the mountain?”


“’Fraid so,” replied the ranger, “we had to drag a family out last night.


“What?!  Oh, no!” I thought.  “I’d rather walk down this mountain than be part of today’s family-to-be-dragged-out.


My daddy is not arrogant, nor does he lack confidence.  He laughed at my concern as he placed Donna and me back into the back of the camper and locked us in.  Now, riding down from that driver’s seat may have seemed like a not-so-huge ordeal.  But picture me lying on the bed over the cab looking out.  When Donna and I looked down, we couldn’t even see the truck.  We could see in front of the truck.  We prayed.  We just knew for sure that we were goners. 


“Good-bye, Ditzy Mitzi.”


“So long, Johnny Aycock.”


And “Help me God.  I promise to never whine again.”


We made it!  Several minutes later with anyone hardly breathing, we were again on level ground.  We pulled into the campground and to our amazement, there was a swimming pool.  Until now, we were oblivious to the fact that once again beautiful grass, shrubs, and trees surrounded us.  The desert was behind us now.


It was getting late and there was still supper to do.  We grilled hamburgers and enjoyed the feel of the soft green grass beneath our feet.  As the sun fell behind the trees the temperature dropped.  I’m not sure what the temperature was, but I was cold.  Daddy has a somewhat strange sense of humor.  Recollecting the importance of a swimming pool when there was not one, he insisted that we go for a swim.  No, not Mama and him, just the three of us.   Not only was the air around us cold, but also the water in the pool was like ice.  We nearly froze!


The Yellowstone National Park was our next planned destination.  We stopped at a laundry mat in a strip mall for Mama to wash our clothes.  Pete, Donna, and I stayed in the camper to play cards while Mama and Daddy took the mountain of dirty clothes inside.  What started out as a peaceful game of Spades turned into World War III.  No joke, it was Donna and Pete who always fought.  I just looked at them, amazed that they could be so cruel to each other.


Shortly after the fight began, Daddy snatched open the door of the camper.  “I could see this camper rocking all the way up there!” he shouted angrily.  “Turn around and line up,” he commanded.  “You too, Gwen,” he added when I didn’t join the line up.


“But, I . . . ” I began.


“Don’t 'but' me,” he snarled.  “I said line up!”


Remember that the camper was only as wide as the truck, and Daddy wouldn’t dare embarrass himself by spanking us outside in public, so I wedged in between Donna and the cabinet to Daddy’s far left.  Daddy spanked each of us an equal number of times; however, Lady Luck was with me.  Daddy struck the cabinet rather than my behind.  Similar luck was on Pete’s side as he was beside the refrigerator.  Donna on the other hand received the brunt of Daddy’s frustration.  She deserved it, though.  She was the one who cheated!  She placed the Ace of Spades on the bottom of the deck each time it was her deal.  And because she dealt herself last, bingo, it was hers.


Daddy went back into the laundry mat to help Mama finish up and left us to “think about our attitudes and behaviors.”  We sat silently swiping tears and looking at each other with blame.


The next morning, I actually had mixed emotions when Daddy announced that we were heading home rather than going to Yellowstone.  It always hurt my feelings to disappoint my parents, yet I had become very tired of the constant closeness we had been forced to share over the past two weeks.  I finally decided that I was glad to be going home.  Not until I became an adult myself did I realize the tragedy we all experienced by forcing Daddy to make the decision to turn home.  Mama and Daddy returned out West and visited Yellowstone and many other famous and beautiful places.  Pete, Donna, and I never have.  In fact we wonder if we ever will.  Daddy was right.  He offered us one of the greatest gifts parents can give their children, and we were too selfish to accept it.


The amazing thing is that Daddy and Mama didn’t give up.  Family vacations have become a family tradition.  Every spring, we begin to plan a trip guaranteed to expose my parent’s children and grandchildren to new and wonderful experiences.  No longer do we lodge in a plywood box built for five.  Rather each family travels in its own fifth-wheel camper.  We all plan together, tour together, and even eat together—but sleep in the comforts of our own quarters.  Daddy instilled in us the love for travel, and our most precious memories are created on road trips.