The Great American Road Trip

I was too old, and I knew it. We all knew it. Now 8 years old, I was too old to be wetting the bed. I could not (and still cannot) understand why the accident happened when it did, as 23 agonizing days spent in a minivan with my sister, brother, mother and father were coming to an end. It was the icing on the cupcake—my pride—slowly soaking the mattress to the springs like a summer storm.

My parents had finally taken time off work to do the classic American road trip. Call it manifest destiny, a midlife crisis or an itch to be scratched—this was something that my father, above all, had to do. In my mother’s words, he was a wild-child when he was young. Then, he got married, had kids and, as they say, that was the end of that. When he turned 40, he decided it was now or never. So, he loaded us into a 1993 Chrysler Town & Country and we set out for the wide open West.

The trip had begun well enough. From Indiana, we drove southwest through St. Louis to Oklahoma City, stopping only for bathroom breaks. At the start of the trip, my mother and I made up a game: we would keep count of every U-Haul we passed on the road. By Amarillo, we were already in the hundreds, and my brother had already threatened to punch me in the gut nearly as many times.

When we reached Flagstaff, the gateway to the Grand Canyon, we were able to stretch out and camp under the stars. It couldn’t have happened at a better time, because everyone was reeling from riding in a van with only the rapidly passing scenery to entertain us for hours each day. Still, the confined space of the family tent was almost too much to bear. I annoyed my sister, who annoyed my brother, who angered my father, who unsettled my mother.

It was at this point that my father adopted a scorched earth policy; we were going to push forward, despite carsickness, complaints, fistfights and general discomfort, seeing as much of the country as we possibly could in the time we had left.

We sailed through Durango, stopping for token pictures near Pike’s Peak and the end of an iconic railroad. Later, we took our Chrysler around Yellowstone, enjoying the fleeting sense of peace that the great outdoors provided. If there was any one point at which we were all relatively stable, it was there, in Montana, watching bison roam the wavy wheat fields. As soon as we hit the road again, the bickering resumed.

In Sturgis—the Badlands—we came across a wild motorcycle rally. Pale tattooed skin, salt-and-pepper ponytails and leather chaps were everywhere. One night, as we settled into bed and my father surfed the hotel TV, he left the remote linger a little too long on a racy Cinemax special, and I knew then that he was running out of steam.

After wasting much of the day lumbering around the Mall of America, we drove six hours from St. Paul to Milwaukee. Everyone was exhausted and my father had a bitter glimmer in his eye. In retrospect, all he wanted was to have a few cold beers in the privacy of his garage. Unfortunately, that was not going to happen. He was stuck with three tagalong kids in a room meant for two. And his youngest was going to wet the trundle bed.

My sister vomited in Colorado. My brother picked his nose and stuck the boogers to the back of the car seats. My mother latched onto my father every time we camped out, afraid that bears would ravage our tent. My father breached the limits of his patience.

Was this what they had pictured? Was this my parents’ perfect road trip? It wasn’t mine. I was restless, tired, smelly and young. In fact, memories of the places we visited faded before I turned 18.

Not surprisingly, this was the last family vacation we ever took. However, that’s not such a bad thing—if we had gone on another trip like this one, we might not still love each other like we do today.

Oh! And the final U-Haul count? 673.

C Sauers

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