Two years later, we headed out west, first going north to Chicago, where my father was born. Here Dad took numerous pictures, only to discover later that he had failed to remove the camera’s lens cap.
Besides the almost unimaginable imagine of my father as a boy, Chicago was memorable for two things: the Field Museum of Natural History and the fact that we stayed in a hotel, motels being our usual venue. At the latter, my next sister down and I shared a connecting room all by ourselves, lending a certain sophistication to the already exalted event.
Each morning, we breakfasted in the hotel’s coffee shop in which was ensconced a mahogany framed tower of glass used to display various exotic toiletries. Next to my seat was a display of Yardley’s Lavender Talc, which I somehow equated with signifying adulthood. As soon as we returned home, I hurried downtown and bought a tin of it with my babysitting money, hoping to capture the moment.
Having shared his childhood memories, my father turned the car’s steering wheel sharply left, and we headed west.
For the next several days, he focused solely on the road before us as we drove through miles and miles of corn fields – a beleaguered lone male among a gaggle of females – chewing Aspergum to fight the headaches that continuously assailed him, as we averaged 500 miles daily over narrow two lane roads.
We stopped only when the car needed gas, which explains why most of us survivors come equipped with highly developed social bladders.
This particular automobile was advertised as being capable of holding a six-foot man lying down, and the TV commercials fascinated an innocent buyer’s market with demonstrations. If you watched the Ed Sullivan Show on Sunday evening, you might get to experience this sensation twice over.
My parents pushed the trunk’s capacity to its limits, by stuffing it with luggage for six, a first aid kit, an assortment of books and papers, two aluminum cots, two pillows, and two sleeping bags. The latter items were included, so that we could sleep the whole family in rooms with only two double beds.
Dad, a PhD chemist, had loading and unloading the trunk each morning and night down to a science.
We ate and slept cheaply, so that we could see much, including every national park along our way – all of which seemed to be constructed to show off some sort of geological miracle.
Years later, my librarian sister and I – both of us completely nonscientific and totally verbal – aced Geology, checking off our undergraduate science requirements with ease.
Thanks, Mom and Dad!
In this way, we meandered across the top half of the country, taking in the Badlands, Mt. Rushmore, and Old Faithful in Yellowstone.
I don’t recall much of the Badlands, except for their being hot. I’m sure they were quite a sight for sore eyes, but mine were preoccupied for most of our time spent there as I tried not to spill the bottled Coke that I was constantly pouring into tiny Dixie cups and passing around.
You have to remember that the car had no air conditioner, and my mother was certain we would all perish from the extreme heat, ending up as charred bits of dehydrated flesh barely visible on what would appear to be our abandoned vinyl car seats. As it was, we survived the experience quite nicely.
Mt. Rushmore was pleasant, if for no other reason than it was much cooler, but I had mixed feelings about it as I understood that it was carved from another nation’s holy land. To this day the Lakota people have not collected the money set aside for them by the U. S. government as payment for the property.
Old Faithful was a fountain without any pennies, and at the time, I wasn’t all that impressed. Nor did I particularly care for walking on narrow board sidewalks strung across boiling mud holes, which appeared to comprise most of Yellowstone. The views, though, were extraordinary.
We crawled over frozen in time lava flows in Craters of the Moon National Park, and my parents made my sister remove the book from the front of her face and watch as Mt. Shasta, home to Crater Lake, drew closer.
We paused in San Francisco, where my father attended a less eventful scientific meeting. Here we visited Golden Gate Park, before it was taken over by the hippies.
Then we drove down the coast, where we visited my father’s cousin in Santa Barbara before going to Disneyland. Realizing that our family of six was headed for the Grand Canyon and the Painted Desert in a car with no air conditioning in the middle of August, this cousin had graciously leant us her portable unit.
A silver cylinder that hooked onto the passenger window like a drive-in restaurant food tray, this gift to our comfort was designed to be filled with ice before traveling. Then, as the car morphed into more and more of an oven, the occupant of the front passenger seat – my lucky self – was instructed to pull a small chain that allowed air to flow through the cylinder and over the ice before, now marginally cooler, it entered the car, while other occupants, especially those in the back, kept up a cry for, “More! More!”
Unfortunately, my father’s Aspergum said right on the package, “To be chewed by adult drivers ONLY!” Believe me. You can trust me. I asked.
Somewhere outside of Flagstaff we ran out of gas, but we managed to coast down a hill to a gas station, where we filled the tank up. We took in the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas, and the Petrified Forest – not in that order. The Painted Desert was a disappointment, its colors not nearly as vibrant as those in the sand paintings sold in the tourist gift shops, where I spent some of my allowance on a silver necklace to which was attached a piece of turquoise – my first major jewelry purchase.
Somehow, we made it safely across Texas intact and then continued, completely exhausted, in an eastward direction towards our comfortable, cozy, and quite stationary little home.
Upon our arrival, my two-year-old sister stayed put in the car, until my mother realized that her youngest chick had managed to glue herself to the vinyl back seat with her chewing gum.
At the time, this seemed like a fitting end to a very long haul, but looking back on our adventure I, for one, am very grateful for the opportunity that was given me.
In an age when most young people can barely name their own state, I can point out all fifty of them on a map and disclose something of interest from personal experience about most of them.
Frankly, hot and tired as we were at the end, I would do it all over again.