Now that it’s summer and most normal people go on some kind of vacation, I’ve been remembering some of the trips my family took when I was a kid.
My dad’s family moved from Texas to California in the late 1930s, like a lot of Dust Bowl/Depression-era families, looking for work in the defense plants, ship yards and canneries, and for a better life. Some years later, several of them ended up back here in Texas, but some married and made their lives out there in California.
It was important to Daddy to stay close with all of them, so about every three years, we’d load up whatever vehicle we had at the time, and head west. I had two sisters, and then later a brother, so there were three or four kids. Then, an assorted aunt or two, or a grandma, always went with us, plus my mother and dad. Going to California was a pretty big event back in the late 50s and then the 60s.
I don’t know if the insides of cars were bigger back then, or if it’s because I was just a lot smaller, but that was seven or eight people riding in a regular car. One year, it was our yellow 1963 Ford Galaxy, and before that it was the 1960-something Buick Roadmaster, which was a nice car in its day. It was big white car with soft blue velour seats. It also had electric windows, and it was the fanciest car we had ever had. In 1976 we went in an orangey-gold van, and thought we were really uptown in that.
One trip almost didn’t happen. My mother was at work, and always left the keys in the ignition. In 1963, in Wichita Falls, Texas, it was OK to leave the keys in the car. But on that day, some AWOL soldiers from Fort Sill, in Lawton, Okla., drove off in our new Ford Galaxy. We barely got it back in time to leave on our trip.
I remember the 1957 Ford Fairlane most because Daddy had it for a long time, into the 70s. I learned to drive a standard shift in that car. Daddy worked for the Post Office carrying mail, and would get up real early in the morning, while it was still dark. I would hear him get up and then he’d go to the garage and start up the Ford. The sound of the engine turning over said, “Charles Kuralt.” Because it was a Ford, Daddy said, it didn’t always start on the first try, so as it kept trying to turn over, it kept on saying, “Charles Kuralt, Charles Kuralt.”
Not all of the cars had air conditioning. We had a device that fit into the car window, and operated like a swamp cooler. The air rushing through a wet filter was supposed to make cool air blow into the car. I don’t remember it working very well through the desert.
There was some arguing about who would get to sit in the front between my parents, but for the most part, everyone had fun. In the van, we’d get in the back and play cards. We played Password, or games like looking for other states’ license plates. But all across the west, the one we played the most was looking for all the motels that had the word ‘Desert’ in them. Names like Desert Star, Desert Skies, Desert Wind, Desert Moon. Those were the little motels on the edges of towns, and most of the time, they were not the fanciest. Those were the ones we stayed in.
I remember driving through Las Vegas, seeing the lights and marveling at all the beautiful motels, like the Sands.
“Can we stay there?”
“Can’t we stay in that one?”
No, we’d drive to the edge of town and stay in one of the little places, maybe named Desert Cactus. I understand why now, but at the time, I really thought I was deprived.
Our version of a cooler was a big metal box that someone had welded together for us. It sat in the back seat by one of the doors. I remember wanting to sit next to it because it was cool to lean on, but not very soft.
We always went somewhere scenic on the way to California, like through the Painted Desert and the Petrified Forest. I’ll never forget the year we went in February, and took along my aunt Kat. It was snowing, and we stood on the edge of the Grand Canyon, looking down on the snow still drifting through the air way below us. I can still see it today. Every once in a while, Kat and I would remember it, and she would just shake her head slowly back and forth, not able to put in words the beauty of what she had seen.
My grandma would pick up rocks along the way. Some my mother and dad still have, ones she probably got from a beach in California. She sat behind my mother, in the right side of the back seat. They laughed at all the fingerprints on the window. She saw so many new and exciting sights that she’d point, and make a new print on the window every time she pointed.
Food, well, we were really in high style there. Bologna sandwiches and Vienna sausages. Who could want anything more than that?
Those were the best trips.
Maybe you know someone now who has one of the fancy vans or SUVs with the DVD or tape player. You get in, get the kids all plugged in with headsets so they can be in their own little world for even the short drives. I’m not saying that’s all a bad thing, I just wonder if it’s as much fun as looking for motels with funny names, like Desert Burro. Come to think of it, there’s not many of those motels around any more. They’re all named Holiday Inn, or Comfort Inn, or Microtel; all parts of a chain. Where’s the fun in seeing those? Where’s the romance in those names?
Is it more fun to stop at McDonald’s than pass around a can of Vienna sausages? You may have me there. Score one for Ronald. But we have something to look back on and share a laugh about. We have the memories of our aunts and grandmas seeing new sights, and our parents talking to us, and making an effort to see family and staying close to them.
I hope you’ve got those memories too, and I hope this summer, you make some of those memories for your kids. Take a can of Vienna sausage along, just for the fun of it.