My dad, never ones to leave the calendar open, thought nothing of loading the kids into the station wagon for a two-week adventure. My parents drove for days on end. We logged thousands of miles together, the best in an Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser–a snazzy station wagon that featured eleven windows, with a tinted skylight across the top and quarter-rounds down the back.
Our model was Astro Blue, with tiger-striped faux wood paneling and a chrome roof rack. The very color, “Astro Blue,” made interstate travel feel like patriotic, space-age exploration. These were the happiest times of my life: mom and dad in front, my two brothers in the middle, my sister and I wedged into the rear fold-down seat, between a Coleman cooler, camping gear, and the bottomless pile of sports equipment.
My favorite trip was the great western pilgrimage. Mom loaded the Vista Cruiser the night before, stocking the cooler with bologna sandwiches, chips, fruit and soda; Dad had the camper, a pop-up with canvas wings for beds, already hitched. My parents and four frowzy kids piled into the car before daybreak. We pulled out of our driveway in north Mississippi in the dark, made Memphis by breakfast and St. Louis by day’s end.
Hours in the car blurred together–we read and re-read Archie comics, bickered, and passed sandwiches to the front of the car. This was before my father stepped past the rules, before personal and professional frustrations led to his affairs, when it still felt like family. We rode a lurching elevator to the top of the Gateway Arch. We crossed the endless wheat fields of Kansas, my dad grasping for relevance amidst the tedium. “Kids,” dad intoned, “you’re looking at the world’s breadbasket.”
After days in the fold-down seat, we reached an underwhelming “Welcome to Colorado” sign, plopped in dry red dirt. We camped at Rocky Mountain National Park. We rode horseback through narrow cascading gorges in the Rockies, passing boulders the size of Volkswagens. At Pikes Peak, the Vista Cruiser’s odometer flipped 100,000 miles.
On the second week of the trip, my sister and I contracted a nasty stomach bug. I drank from a mountain stream in Colorado and vomited through South Dakota. My memories of the Black Hills remain in saturated color, like old Kodachrome prints.
On a winding backroad, I belched out the station wagon’s rear window, onto the dual-action tailgate. I remember the next morning, lying in a fold-out wing of the camper, watching my oldest brother hose down the Vista Cruiser.
Still reeling from giardia, I caught Mount Rushmore’s celebrated night show. I slept through most of the program, head on my mother’s lap, but when the darkened cliff lit the granite faces of Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln, and the crowd of white vacationers rose as one to sing “God Bless America,” I stood too, removing the baseball cap that had been stuck to my head since Memorial Day. I sang along with the crowd. I was fourteen, a good scout.