Trip helps family bonds grow even stronger

Four generations of women — ranging in age from 11 to 87 — enjoyed love, laughs during 2009 vacation journey
Mom, Emily, Becky Nana and the writer at the Golden Gate Bridge.
Mom, Emily, Becky Nana and the writer at the Golden Gate Bridge.

Four generations of women from my family set off on a cross-country trip during the summer of 2009. 

It was my Nana Charlotte’s idea. She was 87 at the time. She wanted to take a train from New York to California, a trip her sister had taken decades before and raved about — the fancy train cars, the delicious food. Having taken recent trips on Amtrak, I knew a cross-country train trip would be much different from what she envisioned, so I sold her on a modified plan. We’d fly to Denver, where my brother, Jim, and his family lived, visit for a few days, then take a 36-hour train ride from there to California, where we’d visit my sister, Becky, and her husband, Tom. 

Fellow travelers were my mom, Sandy; sister, Kathy; and daughter, Emily, who was 11 then.  

We flew to Colorado on the afternoon of June 30, accompanied by a mountain of luggage. The few days we spent with my brother and his family went by quickly, with lots of eating and socializing. 

One highlight of the stay was a visit to the Butterfly Pavilion in Westminster, an indoor rainforest where butterflies fly free. A separate room is full of interesting caged insects. There, we were offered the opportunity to hold Rosie the tarantula.  

There’s nothing that scares my brother more than a big spider. He told us there was no way he would get near Rosie. But once Nana held the humongous arachnid without flinching, Jim caved. Sweat poured down his forehead while eight fuzzy legs paraded the length of his palm. He wore his “I held Rosie” sticker proudly for the rest of the day. 

Nana quickly emerged as the star of our trip. She smiled nonstop, laughed with utter joy and began to reveal her wild side. One night, the subject of tattoos came up. Nana said she was toying with the idea of getting one. 

“One of those ones that comes off,” she explained. “I just can’t decide where to put it.”

All Aboard! 

On July 5, we said goodbye to Jim and his family, boarded Amtrak’s California Zephyr and headed west. The train was supposed to travel through the Rocky Mountains, but we were rerouted through Wyoming to Salt Lake City, then continued with our scheduled route. 

“Detours don’t have to be frustrating, they can be unexpected adventures!” said the detour reroute guide, which included a list of attractions we’d see along the way — buffalo, snow fences, even jackalopes! A cross between an antelope and a jackrabbit, jackalopes are best viewed from the bar car, the brochure advised. 

The train had two floors and was quite crowded, but we had plenty of legroom. That was lucky, since our seats would serve as our beds.

The cost of a sleeping car was more than a plane ticket, so we had decided to rough it. 

Tom, Emily and Nana at Big Basin Redwoods State Park in Boulder Creek, California. 

Forty minutes into the ride, we’d seen graffiti-decorated box cars, scrubby fields, telephone poles, industrial buildings, Wal-Mart and Wendy’s. Mom narrated enthusiastically from the seat across the aisle from me. Emily listened to her CD player. Nana watched attentively out the window. 

We crawled through Rawlins, Wyoming, which butted up to bare hills. Trees reluctantly grew beside tiny bungalows with peeling paint.

According to the detour brochure, bordellos remained legal downtown businesses there until the 1950s. 

Six hours in, my butt hurt from sitting. Oil rigs like bobbing birds were scattered throughout the scrubby, rolling landscape. Mom, Kathy and Nana were camped out in the observation car. Emily had been sleeping for hours. 

We made a quick stop in Green River, Wyoming. Looked down upon by towering rock formations, the town is billed as the Trona Capital of the World. Trona, I learned from my brochure, is a sodium carbonate compound used to make things like baking soda and toothpaste. 

We set off again. The train jerked, creaked and swayed. Outside, the sky was bigger than the endless prairie, electric fences and telephone poles the only sign of civilization. 

In Utah, the hills got higher. Red rock cliffs appeared. Silvery green bushes hung on by their fingernails. 

Elliott, an old guy in a red bow tie, served us dinner in the dining car, at a table set with a white linen cloth and white carnations. Mom loved her pork roast. The salmon Kathy and I had was salty and looked boiled. Nana’s chicken tenders were soggy. Emily said her hot dog wasn’t that good. 

After an uncomfortable night of trying to sleep in my seat, I brushed my teeth in a tiny bathroom that clearly hadn’t been cleaned since we boarded the train. Mom complained to the powers-that-be to no avail. Nana was shocked at the conditions. 

More from A Summer to Remember: 2020 Big Edition

We reached Reno at 9 a.m. — flat scrubland where buildings and trees looked like they had been forced to exist. Expensive-looking condos fought for space on a lakeshore. A billboard advertised a $3.95 endless spaghetti bowl at the Bonanza Casino.

An hour later we entered California and began ascending the Sierra Nevada mountain range — pine trees on all sides, a river, white with rapids, running away from the train. Wooden irrigation flumes followed along our route, leaking. 

At 10:30 a.m. we reached Truckee, a town where seasonal snowfall can reach 35 feet, announced the conductor. The tall, skinny pines looked malnourished. Emily played her Nintendo DS — missing the view, but she didn’t care.

Pine trees gradually gave way to vineyards and orange groves. The countryside flattened and palm trees appeared. Finally, we reached Emeryville, our destination. Brother-in-law Tom drove us to Half Moon Bay, where Becky was waiting. Their apartment perched on a hill above Princeton Harbor. A fog horn sounded in the distance. It was a sunny day — rare for July. 

Trash sculptures, redwoods, and banana slugs

The next morning, I went to Nana’s hotel room and found she had neatly made her bed. “And I wiped everything down in the bathroom,” she said proudly. She didn’t want to leave a mess for the maid. 

We took a day trip to Albany Bulb, a former landfill that juts into San Francisco Bay. The Bulb is inhabited by homeless people. Makeshift residences are tucked under trees and in other sheltered spots. Old tarps serve as roofs. Faded clothes hang drying between trees.


Graffiti, some of it amazingly artful, is everywhere.

Down by the water, Bulb inhabitants have used scraps of concrete, glass, metal and other castoffs to fashion incredible sculptures: a metal dog wearing sunglasses, a shark with a shopping cart basket for teeth. We left knowing we’d only scratched the surface of what there was to see and understand.

The following afternoon we went to Big Basin Redwoods State Park in Boulder Creek. Tom wheeled Nana down a dirt path, popping wheelchair wheelies. She laughed and put out her arms like she was flying. 

There is no way to describe the majesty of the redwood trees that grow there. To understand, you need to crane your neck to get a glimpse of their topmost branches, to stretch your arms as wide as you can around a fraction of their trunks. There are places where you can stand in a hollowed-out trunk that’s still part of a live redwood and feel like you’re in a cathedral.

“You’re just a kid to these trees, an infant,” Tom said to Nana. “Yeah,” she agreed with a grin.

The next day, we were off to San Francisco. We visited the bountiful downtown farmers’ market and Chinatown, where the hills were steep, the streets packed, the stores full of every tchotchke imaginable. Nana picked out a butterfly tattoo from a rack in the back of a dusty, crowded store. 

Another day, we visited Moss Beach in Half Moon Bay. The path along the top of the bluff wound through cypress trees. The ocean below was brilliant blue and sea lions lounged on the rocks. Tom and Nana stayed on the bluff while the rest of us took the winding path down to the beach. Emily could have stayed there all day, sitting on her haunches, peering into tidal pools. 

More from A Summer to Remember: 2020 Big Edition

Tom tattled on Nana, grinning. While we were gone, she had climbed over the fence meant to keep people away from the cliff’s edge to watch us exploring below. 

Later that day, we ventured to Purisima Creek Redwoods Preserve in Half Moon Bay, searching for banana slugs, at Emily’s request. We walked a path through a forest festooned with ferns. A stream gurgled alongside it and stoic redwoods stood sentry. Tom spotted the first slug — 4 inches long and an inch wide — oozing bright yellow amid the green foliage. We saw 13 by the time our walk was through.

The last night of our trip, Tom applied Nana’s butterfly tattoo to her left bicep. She was very pleased with it and said she planned to show it to her hairdresser the following week. Later, we watched a slideshow of our adventures. I asked Nana if there was anyplace else she’d like to go if she could go anywhere in the world. 

She said she couldn’t think of a single place. 

Categories: A Summer To Remember, Special Sections

Leave a Reply