99th Post: The Roadtrip that Changed My Life

Every now and then, on bios or with friends, I mention the “year I was on the road”, but I never really go into detail. Part of the reason for that is that my memory of that period has really degraded––I can’t remember the dates, or the months, or even how old I was really.

Part of this has to do with my narrative of that trip. I’ve talked about this before in a previous post called “The Dream of Memory“, but there is a point at which, I think, we stop remembering what actually happened in our lives and rebuild the memory anew, in a light that gives it that perfect, nostalgic feeling that makes us long for ‘days gone by’. I think the more cherished a memory, the more corroded it becomes. Like a cassette recorded over too many times. Every time we recall that moment in time, the mind has to build the memory again, and what we are left with seems to change a little more each time, until the narrative is perfect for the effect, the mood, we want it to fill. It can especially be influenced by what other people tell us happened as we talk about it.

The road trip that I so often mention (though it is not the only road trip I went on) changed me; inexplicably and irrevocably. I think about it a lot. My family talks about it a lot. I sometimes think of it as the year I realized I was actually a real person, and I had a future that was my own to sculpt. The narrative tells me I was fourteen at the time, which is probably true, though it’s more likely I was thirteen, as I hadn’t officially become a “woman” yet. There is so much I wonder about, now, about when and where things actually happened, but my brain tells me it is truth, and so I will speak of it as truth, as I’m certain most everyone in my family will remember it the same way, as well.

Mendocino, CA

Our journey didn’t start in Mendocino, of course; it started far back, in the humid pine forests of Louisiana, but for the purposes of this post, we’ll start in Mendocino, CA. I’d only ever been out of Louisiana twice since I’d been born at that point, and having just arrived in Mendocino, my world had suddenly opened up in ways I couldn’t begin to comprehend.

There was a feeling of magic about the place. My first day walking the main drag, I saw a whale breech only a hundred yards from me. Afterward, while falling in love with my first book store, I rescued a warbler from one of their shelves. The bird allowed me to hold it––I remember my dad feeling proud of me. At least, I think I remember that feeling, but I really don’t know if that’s the case, or if my brain is just justifying these snippets with emotions that seem to fit, just so it all makes sense.

Sadly, our stay in Mendocino was short-lived. After five months of struggling with an unhealthily-long commute, my parents decided to move further south, to Marin County. If you’re unfamiliar with it, it’s a large county just north of the Golden Gate Bridge, and one of the most expensive, but creative communities in Northern California. Sunny ninety-eight percent of the year, with organic markets, art galleries and wide, open neighborhoods, it seemed like the perfect place to live.

The Golden Gate Bridge

With one exception.

No one wanted to rent to an out-of-state family with four young children.

We struggled, for what felt like months, to find a place. Watching the heartbreak on my parents’ faces after each “We’re sorry, but we’ve found another applicant.” phone call was only juxtaposed by the games my siblings and I created out of cleaning up our hotel room for the maid staff, pretending like there were only two children staying with my family, and sneaking our cat up and down the fire escape every day. Man, that cat was such a trooper.

I got to know the entire front lobby staff by name. They kept extra quarters on hand just so we’d have enough to do our laundry. They knew there were six of us in the suite, but never said anything. I was home-schooled. I was happy about that (more time for reading). We made our own toys––cardboard horses from the backs of writing pads off the maid carts. I remember being inexplicably terrified of the maid who worked on the 5th floor. She had several disfigurements on her face, which unfortunately made her look like the Crypt Keeper from Tales from the Crypt, and because of it, I truly believed she was a witch and would eat me or my siblings if we came too close. I ate a ridiculous amount of peanut butter, which was the only snack available between meals––and this was peanut butter straight off the knife! I can’t eat the stuff anymore without thinking of that hotel.

Eventually, though, my dad had enough. No one was renting to us, and we were burning through our finances anyway by having to live in a hotel, so he decided we might as well make the best of it. We would go on a road trip. Circumambulate the entire U.S. by car. Burlington, VT or BUST!

At this point, my father was already retired from his job, but my mom had work in the city. She decided to stay behind and live with one of her friends. I didn’t think about it much then, but it must have been so hard for her, separated from us all for so long––especially since we didn’t have cellphones to keep in touch back then.

With my mom staying behind, this left me, my sister (H), and my two brothers (J and Z) to pack up our Landrover with my dad and hit the 101.

After that, everything is sort of a blur. Miles upon miles of tarmac eventually do start to blend, and I got a case of white-line-fever more than once. What I do remember are small vignettes of the trip.

…I remember visiting Seattle, and walking down bubblegum alley. I remember a fisherman scaring the beejeezus out of my brother with a red snapper on a pole prank (the fish on ice suddenly jumped out, mouth agape, for my eight-year-old brother).

That's me, on the far right.
That’s me, on the far right.

…I remember the Columbia River Gorge and Multnomah Falls. We frequently took side roads and made spur of the moment decisions on where to go, and the trip down the gorge was amazing.

There was an old woman with a roadside cart selling Mexican hot chocolate. No matter where I’ve gone since, I’ve never tasted hot chocolate quite like hers.

We had turkey and cranberry sandwiches at the restaurant in the park; an event worth remembering, because I’d never thought to put anything but chips in my baloney sandwich before.

…I remember halfway through Montana, we decided to skip going to see Mt. Rushmore, and instead power through with the drive. I remember one of the nights on that road we tried, unsuccessfully, to save a doe from the road before a sixteen-wheeler plowed it to pieces. None of us kids had ever witnessed death before. It was a long, lonely night, especially for my father, who had to comfort all of us. He was stronger than I ever realized, for all of us.

…I remember the meltdown after the deer. My father calling my mother; my mother, having just taken a sleeping pill, falling asleep over the phone. I remember a fight that seemed to last days, where my sister and I were terrified of what the future held; if we would ever see her again.

Me, on the right.

…I remember Niagara Falls, and my littlest brother Z telling the border patrol that we weren’t his family. At three-years-old, he thought he was being cheeky. Instead, we had to hang out in immigration for an hour. D’oh!

…I remember making it to Burlington, VT, and leaving the next day, because the hotel staff were even more uptight than Marin home owners. Those were some down weeks.

Then, we started heading back. We took a southerly route, through Pennsylvania, and our luck picked up.

…I remember walking through the Martin Guitar Factory, watching the artisans bending the frames, setting abalone or tortoise shell into the piping. I remember all the wood shavings on the floors, like little, lost blonde curls in a barber shop. I remember the smell, and the giant warehouse of gorgeous guitars that would never be sold because they had a small defect of some kind.

…I remember, later that night, randomly finding a bed and breakfast that also served dinner to those passing-through. The owner seemed to be impressed by our behavior, and went on and on about how well-behaved we were. She ended up giving all four of us toys from a secret toy box. And so Pinky the stuffed animal T-Rex became my dashboard buddy for the rest of the trip.

…I remember driving through the Navajo reservation, and seeing a cloud that looked like a dragon over the entire sky. I remember it, because it looked so much like a dragon my dad actually stopped the car so we could watch it until it dispersed. I know that was the moment that I was inspired for a novel I’m still working on. In that moment, the creative bug was back––I drew dragons for the rest of the road trip.

…I remember, somewhere in Kansas or Oklahoma, the wind being so bad that our duffle bags almost flew off the car, several times. I remember my sister and I struggling to tighten them, while my brothers played. I got pretty darn good at securing luggage to a car, let me tell you!

IMG_1983…I remember Sante Fe, and the adobe houses. I remember Chaco Canyon, only accessible through a dirt road and largely abandoned. My family explored the ruins for ages. There were no ropes, back then. You could walk through the old buildings, touch the brick and mortar. All four of us kids found a petrified corn kernel each. You’re not supposed to take them, I know now, but back then we didn’t. So we took them. Afterwards, we headed back to Taos, where we ate dinner in a place called Joe’s (I think)––there was a huge mural of heaven and hell, dividing the restaurant in two. I recall little businessmen dropping their phones as they were sucked towards the massive pearly gates.

…I remember going to Mesa Verde next. We took a tour that time, since there were ropes at the cliff palace and we wanted to be able to go into the underground rooms. The ranger elected me the “leader” of the group. I got a little badge and everything. About as close as I ever came to doing the whole Girl/Boy Scouts thing.

…I remember the Flat Irons in Colorado. I remember Boulder, and the quirky downtown. We went to a restaurant where they give you crayons, and I ended up drawing on the whole paper cover while we waited. I’ll let you guess what it was…. yep, a dragon! The waitress almost dropped our food when she came back, haha.

…I remember the Loneliest Road in America. I don’t know the interstate number, or where it was located, but I remember dad being terrified he would run out of gas, and I remember hallucinating. (White line fever.) I kept imagining a pink vulture strolling out into the middle of the road and calling for us to halt, before our car would slam through him. Again, and again, and again. Who needs drugs when your mind is loopy to begin with?

…I remember finally heading back to California. I remember looking forward to seeing mom again, and I remember, as we crossed the Richmond Bridge, the pedometer on the Land Rover rolled to 10,000. A 10,000 mile journey. And we were finally home.

Well, not completely. We still had to find a place to live… but that is a story for another day.

16 thoughts on “99th Post: The Roadtrip that Changed My Life

  1. What a story. I don’t often say this, but that sounds like an incredible memoir, if you ever choose to write one. Also “I think the more cherished a memory, the more corroded it becomes.” – I loved that. So true!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for the comment, Liz. That means a lot. I really would like to write a memoir at some point (Seems a little too soon right now, though). I’ll have to start interviewing my family, haha.


  2. I agree with Liz Blocker, Alex–there’s great potential for a memoir here. I think we can all relate to that feeling of how our memories fade, blurring around the edges over time. But so many of yours that you recount here are incredibly sharp and vivid. When you described the death of the doe, I felt heartbroken for you and your siblings. Something like that will stay with you forever. A powerful post, Alex, and one that reveals what a strong writer you are.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much, Miranda! The death of the doe was one of our lowest points, absolutely. I tried not to put too much detail in the post as it was quite gory. She’d been clipped by another car before we got there, and my dad was out in the road trying to pull her off when we saw the truck coming. The driver didn’t even make a pretense of slowing down. It was nighttime, so dad retired to the car, and angled tried to angle his headlights in time…. but it was only in time to put a spotlight on the massacre… we all watched it. He tried so hard to console us… but it’s very hard when four children are suddenly traumatized and scared. He did the best he could, though.

      Generally, my memory is pretty good (just ask N J), but I do wonder these days if it’s just building a narrative to help me remember, and if it is, how much is getting changed to make my life a narrative worth remembering. If I do write a memoir, that would definitely be one of the things I consider throughout it. 🙂


  3. We never did anything like that when I was a kid. But that’s another story.
    There was a time when I was… oh, probably around 4 or 5 when there was a migration of frogs across a highway in Texas. I made them stop the truck, but the frogs just went on and on in both directions, and they tried to explain to me that we couldn’t just sit there and wait until all the frogs crossed because it could be morning by the time that happened, if then. So we drove through the frogs, and I was devastated.


  4. What a great story about a huge event (moving across country) and all the events that followed. Your comments about memories are quite insightful, and I like it that those comments led into the telling of the story.
    I think it’s certainly true that the impact of happenings in our lives and our interpretation of them greatly depend on our age at the time.


    1. Thanks so much for the compliment, Marilyn. I’m pleased you could enjoy the story. It’s so hard to bottle down events like that to their essence. I ended up deleting several paragraphs in order to keep the word count down… but at least I know I have a lot of future material, if people get interested. 🙂


  5. If it was that windy going through Kansas or Oklahoma, there is a good chance you went through in March. We usually have some horrific winds that last all day long in March. Once in a while in November, but usually in March. Also, in Arizona…”the Loneliest Road in America” where you would worry about running out of gasoline and you never seem to go anywhere is the road to Kingman (IMHO). It looks like it’s about twenty minutes away, at most. It takes hours to get there. You drive and drive and drive… Or, maybe I had white line fever??? 😉

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    1. I’ll have to ask my dad regarding the Loneliest Road… we drove on it in the dead of night for about 200 miles. There was ONE farm, and when we finally got to the only gas station, it was closed! Quite a night. I think it was somewhere close to Joshua Tree National Park… at least it seems to fall in that general geographic area. Don’t know for sure, though.


    1. Thanks, Sharon! I guess I’m going to have to add it to my to-do list, heehee. 😉 Thanks for the comment!


    1. It was pretty epic, haha. We went on several, but that one was the most extended, and for the longest time without my mom. We had a lot of adventures. 🙂 I plan to write the memoir eventually…. just seems a little silly to do so before thirty. 😛


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