Sweltering with my siblings in the “way-back” of our road-weary Ford station wagon, Nebraska’s neverending cornfields a yellow-green roadside blur, I swore I would never, ever subject my children to a road trip.
My family went on two major ones while I was growing up, one to California and one to Utah. Our car strained to haul a camper and enough baggage for a family of five, and then six, once my sister Becky was born. There was no advance itinerary planning.
“We figured out the direction we were going and knew we would run into the mountains eventually,” my dad reminisced.
He calls those trips adventures and speaks enthusiastically about the challenge of it all, while my mother mainly remembers the incessant unpacking and repacking.
We stayed at free campgrounds, unless rotten weather drove us to shelter in low-cost motor inns where the black and white TV had lines disrupting the picture and insects often scampered across the floor.
Our shoestring budget did not allow for restaurant stops, unless it was to surreptitiously use a McDonald’s outdoor seating area to eat our pre-packed peanut butter and jelly. We drank warm water out of a large, clear jug kept in the back of the car. That water always tasted like plastic.
When the radio could be tuned to something besides static, my dad had an equal-time rule: my half-hour of rock balanced with an interminable half-hour of Bach.
On one of our trips, when the excruciating flatness of the Great Plains was finally disrupted by the mountains of Wyoming, we had to get out of the car and trudge up the steepest part of the road, Dad at the wheel, urging our jalopy on.
In my mind, it took forever to get to where we were going and then another round of forever to get back. I eventually gave up asking, “How long until we get there?” because I figured we never would.
(Photo by Kelly de la Rocha: Kelly de la Rocha's daughter Emily poses next to the car outside the Pink Cadillac Diner in Natural Bridge, Virginia.)
Once those trips were finally over, time sped up and somehow it got to be August of 2014. There I was with my teenage daughter, Emily, the two of us starting off on a road trip of our own. I had not forgotten my childhood anti-roadtrip vow, but this was as a trip born of necessity. We had to deliver my sister’s ancient Honda Civic from Glenville to Asheville, North Carolina, and also haul my son’s college gear to Boone, North Carolina, before flying back home.
Determined to avoid a rerun of my childhood treks, I made hotel reservations, researched interesting roadside destinations and did not pack sandwich ingredients. Once on the open road, I cranked the classic rock up loud, until Emily asked for a turn, and on came the Arctic Monkeys. I did not demand equal time but did tell her about her grandfather’s radio rule, describing how he would take both hands off the steering wheel, pretending to be a conductor as the classical music crescendoed. I had forgotten about that until then. He always found ways to make us laugh.
Two days into the trip, Emily and I were the sole customers at the Pink Cadillac Diner in Natural Bridge, Virginia, where we ate burgers, surrounded by jukeboxes and black and white prints of long-dead musicians. Outside, we posed next to the Pepto-Bismol-colored Cadillac that had drawn us to the place, and admired the hulking King Kong statue that stood nearby.
Somewhere near the Tennessee border we took a spur-of-the-moment detour to check out a winding cavern that featured an underground stream stocked with brook trout. We did not fish, but I bet my dad would have figured out a way to. (Photo by Kelly de la Rocha: Kelly de la Rocha's daughter Emily under a King Kong statue outside the Pink Cadillac Diner in Natural Bridge, Virginia.)
My childhood trips included the occasional stop at a roadside attraction. My mother recalled the fun of seeing the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota, through her children’s eyes. “You guys were amazed by that place,” she reminisced. I reminded her of the side trip we took to the Buffalo Bill Rodeo in North Platte, Nebraska. Looking back now, that actually was pretty cool.
As dusk fell in Roanoke, Virginia, Emily and I ventured up a winding road to the site of the world’s largest neon star. We craned our necks to take in the full glory of its electric gaudiness and wondered why it was even there.
That star took me back to hours of driving through the open plains at night, my dad and I the only ones awake in the car, a dome of genuine stars overhead. He and I made a game of scanning the dark landscape for electric lights, which were few and far between on the prairie.
The bright spots were easier to see on my trip with Emily, but there were also mind-numbing stretches of highway, tractor trailers coating the windshield with road spray, and places where Internet reception cut out, sending our GPS into a tailspin. (I didn’t think to bring a paper map.) There were nasty gas station bathrooms and mountains that made the Civic’s tired engine rev so furiously I thought one of us might have to get out and walk. There were hours when Emily stayed hunched over her phone while I concocting ways to draw her eyes to the ramshackle roadside shack selling boiled peanuts, or a herd of cattle grazing on a steep hillside. I quietly cursed technology, found myself wishing for the days when there was only a staticky radio and travel bingo for road trip entertainment. (Photo by Kelly de la Rocha: Kelly de la Rocha and her daughter Emily take a selfie at a scenic lookout during their road trip.)
But throughout it all there was something that felt right about having Emily there with me in that tiny old car, scenery flying by, sunlight turning her hair chestnut, miles and miles ahead of us, her music playing on the radio.
Somewhere along that stretch of road, it came to me, the answer to that question I asked so frequently years ago:
How long until we get there?
We’ve been there the whole time.
Kelly de la Rocha is a former Gazette reporter and Glenville resident. She now resides in Farmington, CT. Reach her at [email protected]