“North Carolina or Bust!”
Four adults, eight juveniles and two little white dogs of indeterminate poodle lineage set out on a road trip across the country for what would become the most memorable experience of our young lives. My dad had purchased a used 23 foot motor home a few years previous when he realized it was cheaper to buy than rent. My Uncle Tom set a camper shell on the back of his raised black pickup truck, and we were off. “North Carolina or bust!” We kids didn’t really know what that meant, but the adults kept saying it. I was 15 at the time, the oldest of the children.
Looking back I really don’t know how my parents managed to take their five kids along with my uncle’s family of five across the country and back without anyone getting “accidentally” left behind. Including my Uncle Tom’s family we had eight kids, the youngest of whom was my cousin Amanda at just 3 years old. The highlights would be Yellowstone National Park, Niagara Falls, NYC, Ocracoke Island NC, Carlsbad Caverns NM, and many interesting sights along the way. We started out in Jackson, California, a little rural town not far from Sacramento, in July 1986 and returned as profoundly changed people three weeks later.
After two day’s journey, our first stop was Yellowstone National Park. The sights and sounds were more than anyone had expected. We had projected two days but extended it to four in order to see even a small fraction of the magnificence. My favorite was “The Mud Pots” – pools of steaming liquid, either mud or water bubbling out of the ground, causing all different minerals to color the earth in a variety of hues. The limestone steps that were formed as a result of mineral deposits were striking. I had never seen anything like it. “Old Faithful”, the herds of elk, the majestic trees, serene lakes and mountains all in a sunken caldera overwhelmed us.
Falling in Love at Niagara Falls
But we had to push on for Niagara Falls. This stop was most exciting to me because in the planning stage my parents had asked us what we wanted to see. I don’t recall if anyone else contributed their ideas, but I desperately wanted to see Niagara Falls. Even before we visited the falls, what I remember most was the roar we heard from our campground. As we approached, even from quite a distance, we could see the mist rising from the immense falls. We donned raincoats and took the slippery path down to see them close up. To be heard we had to yell over the thundering roar, and there was a constant shower as if it was raining. However, seeing the falls from the US side was not what I expected, and I was disappointed. Somehow I managed to convince my parents to drive over to the Canadian side so we could see the crescent shaped falls. (Those were the days when you could just drive across into Canada without presenting a passport for every single person.) I fell in love with Niagara Falls after seeing them from the other side. It was still loud and had the same mist, but the vantage point afforded the full horseshoe curvature of the falls. It was truly awe inspiring.
Our journey into NYC was the most adventurous, scary part for kids from a little rural community in the Gold Country of California. My parents had been advised not to drive their motor home into New York City or chance it being stripped mere moments after parking. So we parked it in New Jersey, I think, in a campground, and took public transportation into NYC. My 13 year old sister was sure everyone she saw was hiding something, whether it was their motives for being on the train or their gender, something was amiss with everyone she saw. Keeping in mind her absolute conviction that the shower scene in “Psycho” had copious amounts of red blood spraying out always helped me to think twice about her perspective. Since she had covered her eyes during the scene, she swore it happened that way – not in black in white as Alfred Hitchcock filmed it. So I tried to just hang on to the grab bars and later she filled me in on all the strange people she had seen on the train, all thieves and murderers, which became more dramatic each time she recounted the experience. We toured several buildings including the restored Stanley Theater with its clouds moving across the sky/ceiling, which enthralled all of us, and then we returned that evening to the campsite in New Jersey with fresh outlooks on how vast multitudes of people could possibly live in such a small space.
Then it was on to North Carolina. In New Bern, the town where my dad was born, we sat in my great grandmother Lilian’s living room listening to what sounded like a foreign language being spoken by my great Aunt Velma and her husband. The only family member we could remotely understand was my great Uncle they called “The Yank” since he had spent a few years in Texas and spoke with a slight southern drawl. My great grandmother had prepared gifts for all eight of us great grandchildren, and I kept my little pillow she had made as a treasured item for years. We laughed when they called my dad “Denny”, knowing him only as “Dennis”. Seeing my dad through the eyes of my great aunt, as a little boy, instead of the almost 30 year old man he was, certainly changed my teen age perception.
On Ocracoke Island we met a cousin working at the local tourist gift shop, the only one I remember my dad ever willingly patronizing, no doubt to avoid disappointing his cousin. Five kids in a gift shop – that was probably one of the more expensive stops! Seeing the vast Atlantic Ocean and the soft grasses blowing in the wind on the sand dunes on Ocracoke struck me with a sense of how much there is to explore of our planet. I had been to the Pacific many times when visiting my mother’s family near Bodega Bay, north of San Francisco. I learned that the Pacific is named so because it was so calm from the perspective of the sailors traversing it. But the Atlantic was something else. I wondered, why did our coastline have course sand, big cliffs and rocks, yet this Atlantic Ocean produced fine white sand with long flat beaches? It got me thinking, wondering: What else is out there?
“Wanderlust: The Fascination With What Lies Ahead”
By now my desire to travel had been born. I didn’t know what it was at the time, but I felt it growing within me. The idea – the fascination with what lie ahead, what new discovery we would make was too exciting for me. I would never again look at another map the same. Always I want to see where the map might take us – realizing, we could go anywhere this leads. Back home every lonely dirt road with grass growing a foot high became a potential adventure.
Along the way back to California we stopped at what would be another of my favorites, Carlsbad Caverns. I had been in caves before, but this was something else. The tour took us down to where there was no light at all, we couldn’t see our hand in front of our faces – it was absolutely pitch black. The feeling was eerie, especially when we considered that the people who found this cave and originally explored it did not have the paved walkway, the lights and the ropes to keep them from falling in the dense darkness to their death. We peered over the edge at “The bottomless pit” much to my mother’s dismay. Trying to herd three small boys in a cavern where all they wanted to do was rush toward a disastrous ledge or slip down into a great abyss was not my mother’s idea of a fun afternoon. But I loved the huge formations and was amazed by the fact that they are alive, still forming. We could see the spot where people had touched the limestone and had killed the formation process so we felt a profound respect for the continually growing masses.
“Kids, wake up and see the Statue of Liberty”
Somehow we made it back, after traversing 7200 miles, only getting separated once in the Holland Tunnel in New Jersey when the authorities had allowed my uncle’s vehicle to pass but stopped ours, since we had propane. So did my uncle, but apparently they didn’t know that. In the age before cell phones, this was a several hour detour during which we kids were awakened in the middle of the night to the sounds of my dad saying “Kids, wake up and see the Statue of Liberty” as we drove by. It was nice to see, but all I wanted was to find my missing uncle so we could stop for the night. Eventually a thoughtful truck driver helped them connect upon hearing my dad and uncle’s attempts to communicate over the CB radio while out of range from one another. He conveyed messages back and forth until they could reunite.
The adventures and misadventures of a road trip are part of the experience. I will always be thankful my parents instilled in me a sense of relentless exploration. They taught me there is always something to see, something to learn, someone to meet who can enlighten us with their perspective. We are a conglomeration of our experiences, so taking eight kids on an amazing road trip made each of us a better person with broader perspectives, even at our young age.
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As I do some “fact checking” with my dad I learn that the trip to Carlsbad Caverns was on an entirely different road trip to New Orleans when I was only nine years old. If I could remember just half the road trips with my parents I would be on my way to being a road scholar!
My Dad and I in San Francisco, 2011
Do you have a memorable road trip? Or what about a trip you have dreamed of taking? I would love to hear about it in the comments below.