Monday, May 10

Road Trip

When the weather gets nice in the spring, I always get a hankering to pop the Allman Brothers into the CD player in my car and hit the road for a long road trip. Not a 500 mile a day, find your reserved hotel room, swim in the pool, then have supper sort of road trip; but the real thing, when you drive from sunrise until midnight, eat sandwiches from the cooler, sleep in the car, and don't shower for three days. I'm not sure why I like this sort of trip. It means you arrive at your destination looking like a mess and ready to sleep for 24 hours. It means you get where you're going with a trunk full of dirty laundry and no clean clothes left in your suitcase. But there's something about being connected to nothing but what's inside your own vehicle that brings a refreshing reprieve from everything else.

I've been on many of these hard driving road trips. This was the kind of trip our family took when I was a child. We rarely slept in the car, but we always pushed for as many miles as possible each day. When I first got married, we were two students living on one income from the GI bill, but we loved to travel, so we traveled as cheaply as possible. Out west, up north, all in a little dark green Porsche my husband had bought before we met. It was good on gas, but small for sleeping.

Once we found ourselves in the middle of Kansas with a wall of tornadoes behind us and $5.00 left to make it back to northern Minnesota, so we just kept driving. By the time we ran low on gas in southern Minnesota, we had outrun the tornadoes, so we put enough gas in the tank to make it home and spent the $2.00 left over on two-egg breakfasts and coffee in a truckstop.

When the children were born, things changed. The Porsche was sold and we had a series of other vehicles. It was with our first child that we made the big road trip up the Alaska highway for a job that was waiting. Everything we owned under a tarp in the back of the pickup, and the baby in the middle of the seat in the cab, bouncing along the highway that was really only a trail in the wilderness.

After that, there were the yearly trips down the highway in the summer to see the grandmas and the grandpa, and the aunts and uncles and cousins. From the pickup, to a jimmy, to suburbans, as the family grew larger.

We became experts at keeping kids entertained for hours with raucous songs and imaginative stories and made-up games. We taught them all the songs of our youth--campfire songs and military songs and sailing songs and hymns and choruses. We told them stories of our childhoods. We played "I Spy with My Little Eye". Our children absorbed a good chunk of their cultural heritage on our long road trips.

There was the year that the oldest daughter learned that sing-songing the word "pitiful" over and over again would cause her younger brother to whimper and pout in the most delicious way. And the trip when my youngest daughter learned that chanting, "Get me out!" didn't mean she could get out of the car seat, but it did mean that everyone in the car would join her in her chanting, and that was almost as good.

We would stop for a warm supper cooked on the camp stove, by a lake or river if we could, so the kids and dad could skip rocks while supper was cooking. After supper was finished, it was back into the vehicle again for a few more hours of traveling, until it was time to stop and spread the cushions for sleeping in the back of the suburban. If it rained, we were all filthy, because every outhouse trip meant tracking Alaska highway mud back into the vehicle.

My husband hated getting gas before the gauge read empty, and slight miscalculations would have us running out of gas in the middle of nowhere. This meant Daddy had to take rides from strangers into the nearest town to get gas to bring back while the rest of us waited in the car.

Once we were stopped by a posse of locals with rifles drawn, searching for the hitchhiker who had just held up the Muncho Lake gas station at knifepoint. We remembered passing him 60 miles or so before Muncho Lake, where he had been trying to hitch a ride out in the wilderness. My husband, who was scared of no one and always willing to help, had decided to pass this man without stopping because he didn't like the way he looked.

Last summer we took another road trip--the first one without my husband. It was just the two boys and the dog and I, down the highway to Edmonton. We were carrying my husband's ashes in a small wooden box in the trunk so we could bury him in the family plot in his hometown in central Minnesota. You would think it would have been a sad trip, or at least a bittersweet one, but it wasn't. We listened to Hank Williams, and Dire Straits, and Orff, and The Messiah, and the Montreal Jubilation Choir. We read trashy gossip magazines, and Martyn Lloyd-Jones, and did math problems and crossword puzzles. We counted how many cars of various colors we saw.

In Edmonton, we picked up my oldest daughter. We had planned to stay overnight there, but we arrived in the early evening, and the boys couldn't bear to waste those good nighttime driving hours, so we quickly gathered up their sister and hit the road again. They had all learned their travelling lessons well.

On the morning of the graveside service, we left my parent's house in a two car convoy--the boys with Grandpa in his car, and the girls with me in mine, still carrying the ashes in the wooden box in the trunk. Down the highway by Walker and Hackensack and Pine River and Pequot Lakes, through Crosby to the funeral home where I picked up the triangularly folded vet's coffin flag, and then on to the cemetery. Already gathered were the relatives and the friends, and the vets from the legion in their ceremonial uniforms with their saluting rifles. So we buried my husband and my children's father with a prayer and the taps and the rifle salute.

My husband would have liked that we carried his ashes down the highway in the trunk. And that we sang songs and argued and discussed and played games and drove until midnight. That when the border guard asked if we were carrying anything with us that we were leaving behind in the States, my son piped up, "Yes, my dad's ashes." The boys called that "playing the death card." Whatever you call it, it's a sure way to get a speedy send-through at the border, and my husband would have approved.

Another fall and winter have passed, and today the sun is shining. This morning, I'm longing for another road trip.
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