In the summer of 2006, my mother, brother, sister, and I took the most incredible trip of our lives. We didn’t fly to Rome to stay in a hotel or take a luxury cruise to Hawaii; no, that summer Mom proclaimed that we were to cram half of the contents of our house into our five-seat automobile and drive all the way from our home in Southern California to New York and back, seeing as much of the country as we possibly could on the way. It was an experience she had as a child that she wanted to pass on to her children (but of course when she was a kid it was uphill both ways).
Like most of our previous trips, this one was not without its tribulations. At the cost of a dramatic and definitive departure, we forgot essential articles several times only when we were miles from the house, making it necessary to turn back, retrieve them, kiss the animals goodbye again, and repeat the process of cramming them into the trunk, which is a lot like playing Jenga except you won’t know when you’ve lost because you’ll have been knocked out by a falling suitcase. Each time we left, Mom felt obliged to make a journey-commencing declaration, which went from “Now we’re off!” to “Here we go.” to “DO WE HAVE EVERYTHING THIS TIME!?!”. The extra trips depleted our fuel, which we discovered only at around eleven p.m., when we were nearing Arizona on a desolate, lightless stretch of highway. Finally, just when we were sure our vehicle was going to sputter to a halt, our salvation loomed in the distance- “FUEL NEXT EXIT”. We had won our first battle with the odds, but not our last. We were stranded on the road for hours on many a night searching for a vacancy, and once drove for over nineteen hours searching for somewhere to get food. In these trials, however, we often discovered people who were willing to offer their compassion and hospitality to complete strangers.
We made a wide circuit around the nation, passing through over twenty-five states. We stopped at all the perfunctory tourist attractions- the Grand Canyon, Graceland, Niagara Falls, Mt. Rushmore, Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Las Vegas- and cruised along Route 66. My favorite places were off the beaten path, not-so-well known locations that exemplified the quirks and unsung beauty that makes America the wonderful place it is- Apache country, the Petrified Forest, the meteor crater, and a gorgeous lightening storm in Arizona, 4B’s “World Famous Cream of Tomato Soup” in New Mexico, the second largest cross in the western hemisphere in Texas, Davey Crockett’s birthplace in Tennessee, White’s Truck Stop in Virginia, the under-construction mountain-statue of Crazy Horse, the Sinclair Dinosaur, Wall Drug in South Dakota, and a plethora of funny place names (Shinarump, Devil Dog Road, Roman Nose, Weird Road, Toad Suck Park, Kickapoo, Big Foot Road, Crazy Woman Creek).
What didn’t work for us on the trip was rushing, driving for too long, and assuming that because people come from very different backgrounds and speak very differently that we couldn’t understand each other. What did work was keeping an open mind and recognizing human connections unite us all no matter how different we are. I learned so much on that drive and it changed me profoundly. I explored different cultures even just between states, gained an appreciation for the great size and diversity of the country, and learned to trust in the kindness of strangers. I am definitely going to share that experience with my children one day.
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