The End of a Chapter

(This week my Storyworth tale is replete with screen shots taken from old home movies that have lost the little sharpness they once had –even when Dad didn’t cut off the heads of the subjects).

Was there a special vacation that your family took?

Every family has a story.  A narrative.  And like any story there are beginnings, endings, twists and turns.  Births, graduations, jobs, marriages, and more can all mark new directions for the tale that makes a family’s story.  And there are times when we miss the turning points at the time but, in retrospect, we can see the end of one chapter and the start of the next.  This is the story of chapter’s ending — though we didn’t see it at the time.  For us it was just a special summer; unlike any we had ever had.  

It was the summer of ‘61.   It was before the sixties got crazy.  Before a President was assassinated….before MLK was too.   It was before race riots and busing and Vietnam and growing generational divides dominated our national consciousness.   It was a simpler time and, if the memories of an eight year old see true, it was a gentler time — despite injustices and inequalities that lay beneath the surface.   Those can be discussed another day in another post if that is ok because, for me, that was the summer of a great adventure.  And what eight year old can resist the call of adventure.  

My mother was pregnant with my little brother, Andy.  She was due in November and there had been a miscarriage(s) I think, in the years after my birth in 1953.  We were planning on visiting her sister Joan McFarland and her family in Sacramento that summer but the cross-country drive was considered “too much” so she was flying round trip.  That left dad…38 years old and quite possibly clueless about what lay ahead…to transport Debbie, 16; Dan 15; Christine 12 and me on a 4000+ mile round-trip journey of discovery.

I remember setting off in the family station wagon. 

No AC in those days.  It was early summer I think.  I have no idea of how we got packed — I can only assume Mom must have overseen that before she left.  The suitcases and all the assorted paraphernalia was loaded in the back and off we went.

I recall the trip began with my sister Debbie sobbing into a pillow in the back seat.  It did not seem to bode well.  She was distraught, you see, at leaving her boyfriend for the summer and, like any perfectly normal teenage girl, imbued her concerns with an extra touch of drama.  But how long can you bury your face in a pillow as the world reveals itself to you on a road trip unlike any we’d taken before. 

We’d been to Colorado before to visit my Mom’s sister Barb and that was our first official stop where Mom would be breaking her journey as well to see how we were faring.  But, there was no mad dash to Denver.  Instead, this trip, with Dad in command and on his own, revealed something new’. Was there the spirit of a wanderer we hadn’t yet met hiding inside him?  Was he an explorer at heart wanting to share his discoveries with his children?  Or was he just riding the line drawn on a AAA Trip Tik?  I don’t know, but whatever drove him, we were thrilled to be along for the ride.  

South from the Twin Cities, through Mankato, to Windom and then to Sioux City South Dakota and finally on to Pierre where we spent the first night. I’m not sure that Pierre was anything but a good stopping point for the first leg but we nonetheless have the State Capitol Dome prominently featured in the background of a video clip and I always know the capital of South Dakota when the question arises on Jeopardy!   


The next day it was on to the Badlands with its sharp ridges, canyons, gullies, pyramids, and  knobs that stretch as far as the eye can see.  A wild landscape that made you think of the Indians of the plains, the huge herds of buffalo, and a young nation convinced this was part of its destiny.  The films, and books and stories…they all came alive here against a  backdrop that looked as it may have 100 years before.

Then it was on to Wall, South Dakota and Wall Drug — with the countless billboards reminding that you had covered yet another mile across the plains and that this incredible, not-to-be missed place awaited your arrival.  Since 1931 it  was that middle of nowhere spot with free ice water that lured travelers traveling across the east-west roads in the nation’s northern tier of states.  150 miles to Wall Drug…29 miles to Wall Drug….You Just Missed Wall Drug!  How could you not stop.  And the build-up matched the reality. There was a T-rex.  Cowboys.  Zoltar.   As you wandered the labyrinth of aisles with everything from taffy to petrified wood to all the assorted paraphernalia that epitomized the cowboy and Indian   stereotypes of the day.  It was overwhelming.

Dad not only stopped —there and at countless other spots along the way — but he indulged our whims and let us choose our loot.  I can’t say I remember exactly what I bought but it was enough to make my eight-year old heart sing.

Sure there were moments of impatience, times when everyone would be tired and cranky but I don’t recall them when I think of the trip.  Magical is an overused word perhaps but it was prety cool as I recall it.  I asked Chris and she remembers it much the same way.  It was special.  A memory worth preserving.  

From Wall Drug it was on to Rapid City where the a dinosaur….yes…a dinosaur greeted us.  Pretty impressive in the days before Jurassic Park.  

A little research tells me today that it was one of several towering beasts from the Rapid City Dinosaur Park dating back to science of 1936 when what is now considered to be one of America’s quirkier parks was created.  To us, it  was just cool to see a dinosaur in the middle of nowhere without the forewarning that would have come from Google searches and the like today.  It was unexpected.  Fun.   

The next day it was on to the Rushmore Cave  It’s funny the things you remember.  My sister Chris, with whom I had my moments when I was a kid (as any brother and sister separated by a few years in age might), was unhappy.  She wasn’t thrilled about the cave, I think, and Dad was a bit put out with her.  So, as we walked up the path the to the caves and Dad brushed my arm accidentally with his lit cigarette (unfiltered Lucky Strikes in those days), I was SO determined to not be a baby.  Chris, after all, was in the doghouse, and that’s where I wanted to keep Dad’s focus!   Like I said…funny what sticks in your head.

When we reached the entrance to the cave the tour had just left minutes before starting to descend in to the caves with stalagmites and stalactites and other limestone formations like I had never seen.   They told us to head off to catch up to the group that they contacted by walkie-talkie, telling them to wait for the family with the pretty blond girl with the blue ribbon in her hair.  (THAT, I seem to recall, perked Debbie up a bit).

The caves were cool — I thought.  Chris hated them though — and not just in the anticipation but in the reality. Dad had to take her out partway through the tour. A bit of drama but it was all part of the adventure, .  And, when it we done, we calmed down and carried on.  

Mt. Rushmore was next.  We were all suitably impressed.  Those massive presidential portraits in stone.  We were seeing America.  It kind of hit you. 

 I’m pretty sure we spent the night in Cheyenne, Wyoming.  The Frontier State.  Images of a cowboy on a bucking bronco silhouetted against the sky seemed commonplace.  Nothing like the Twin Cities.  And then it was on to Denver where Mom and Aunt Barb awaited.  A taste of home en route.  Not sure how long we stayed, but there was a lot that we did.

Chris remembers swimming in the pool at Barb’s house and friends was impressed by Barb’s friends who had a real arcade-style pinball machine in their house  

  We went to the Frontier Days Festival in Central City.   I recall that there was a clown who chose Debbie to flirt with and there was the saloon with the Face on the Ballroom Floor — Mom used to read us that poem all the time.  There were kids square dancing and a  volunteer firefighter competition that got me sprayed with their firehose.  (I may not have been particularly stoic about that incident, but I was, after all, still the baby of the family and Mom was with us and responded appropriately to my playing that card!)

Chris and I both remember we saw Buffalo Bill Cody’s grave on Lookout Mountain and we also saw Mother Cabrini’s shrine.  Both were in the mountains outside of Denver and we stopped on the way home from Central City.  We both remember the sky darkening, the temperature dropping and snow squalls that made a summer’s day turn icy and the roads back to Denver far trickier than we would have expected.

After Denver, on we went into the Rockies.  It was Chris’s turn to bury her face in the pillow. She hated the narrow roads and the steep drops.  She was quiet..sort of…having given up for the moment on her self-appointed roll as the chatty Cathy who would keep Dad awake on the road…no highway hypnosis for him if she was going to have her way!  She must have been successful — we all survived.  She may be lucky that SHE did, however, as Dad probably wearied of being asked if he was “OK?” All along the road.  

On we went, nonetheless, as he led his brood across the country.  I don’t recall how we passed all the long miles in the car — besides Chris keeping Dad awake — but I don’t remember much bickering.  I was fascinated to see the changing landscape.   We played the alphabet game, the license plate game, and Dad sang (he had quite a repertoire).  I can still see him driving…window down, elbow resting on the door, cigarette in hand and the vent window adjusted just right to keep the air moving.  

We saw Pikes Peak.  Crossed the Continental Divide and then descended into Utah and Nevada.

We spent a night in Reno.  Dad was intrigued I think by the idea.  It was the era of the Rat Pack. Vegas was a sort of Mecca and Reno, not so far from Sacramento, was the next best thing.  

The lights.  The hype.  The neon signs.  It even made an impression on me.  I remember my sister Debbie being the babysitter us while Dad tried his luck in the casinos.  Chris remembers she and Debbie having their own room — the height of luxury — while Dad and Dan and I were destined to bunk together..  Hamburgers for dinner in the hotel room?  Not sure why THAT is in my head or if it’s what we ate but, again, memory works in funny ways and that’s what I tell myself.   

It was a different world.  At the restaurant in the morning there were even slot machines at the booth.  A few coins may have been slipped into those one-eyed bandits by a few underage gamblers but we avoided the long arm of the law and on we went, eventually making it to California.  

In California Mom was waiting for us and it was great to see her and Aunt Joan and Uncle Ray and their family.  My cousins Mike and Rick were older, closer to Debbie and Dan and Chris in age.  I don’t recall that they had a lot of time for their youngest cousin but they really were nice kids. 

It was very hot while we were there.   And I of course sought relief and what better way than to enjoy the cold air of the stand-up freezer at the house.  When I was discovered… eventually… enjoying my own air-conditioning I was informed that this was NOT the proper use of a freezer like this.  Ah well.  What did I know?  I was only 8, after all.  It seemed a good idea at the time. I was reminded for years after, however, of how Aunt Joan couldn’t figure out why the ice cream and other frozen items were so soft until my creative problem solving came to light.   

While there Debbie dyed Aunt Joan’s hair blonde.  That was quite the event.  And Chris remembers that our cousin Mike was dating Linda — who later became his wife.  Chris remembers visiting Linda’s family’s home and was impressed with both their kidney-shaped pool and  their sunken living-room.  Both exotic when compared to the houses we knew!

 We weren’t just in Sacramento, though.  We explored.  We visited San Francisco.  There was Alcatraz prison out in the bay.   We wandered along Fisherman’s Wharf and even sampled frog  legs — at least some did — I don’t recall being convinced to try them!  We went to Disneyland too. What an adventure that was!  

We sailed on the Nautilus —the submarine from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea — and while in the “depths”  a giant squid eye pressed against the window in front of us.  There was Davy Crockett’s FrontierLand, Mark Twain riverboats, and Mike Fink keelboats.  And I seem to recall that a coonskin hat (tail and all) and a Davy Crockett-style tomahawk left the park with me.

We saw rockets to the moon in Tomorrowland and there was the Magic Kingdom with all the wonderfully iconic characters that are the heart of Disney.   The castle was impressive to my eyes then and when visiting Disney World with the Tjiama and Joe and the grandkids this past November it was still as entrancing.   Disney is woven into our lives in many ways and I’m so glad we saw it first when I was old enough to remember and young enough to be entranced.  

We visited Lake Tahoe as well and I remember more than anything just being impressed by the beautiful setting and striking blue water.  I think some of the older kids even did some water skiiing (though I think the water was cold even in summer) and Debbie buried me in the sand untill only my head was still exposed. 

Eventually, of course, we had to head home.  But even then there was a bit of adventure.  We had to cross Death Valley.  The name alone conjures up powerful images but there had  also been a TV show —  Death Valley Days — that left no doubt about the dangers of that stretch of inhospitable desert  I seem to recall that we got up super early — we might have spent the night in Bakersfield — to set off before the heat became too intense.  (How Dad wrangled all of us into the car before the sun was over the horizon is beyond me.)

The ride after that fell into a certain rhythm.  I think that by then our thoughts had begun to turn to home.  By now we were seasoned travelers content to let the miles pass us by, each one bringing us closer to the comfort of the familiar.  I’m sure we made a few stops.  They just don’t come to the front of mind as I write this.

I do recall as we got closer and closer Dad was picking up the pace.  I think he too was eager to get home.  One night as we drove and it was getting later II may have been urging…somewhat insistently and probably in a less than charming whine….that I was tired and wanted to stop.  We were in Nebraska and I think Dad may have harbored illusions of driving on through to Minnesota. But that wasn’t going to be.  

The encounter with the highway patrol didn’t help.   Dad’s foot might have become just a bit too heavy.  Dad tried valiantly to play the “dad traveling cross country with his kids and just trying to them home tonight” card and the officer took one look at all of us in the car and I’m sure we DID look pathetic.  But not enough to keep him from issuing a ticket that did little to foster an upbeat mood 

And, as I continued to make my own unhappiness know, and as  — like a mini-Wall Drug-style campaign —  small heart shaped signs kept announcing the ever-decreasing distance to Valentine, Nebraska, Dad folded.  And we pulled in to the Valentine Inn…or some similarly named spot….for the night.

Now who among us hasn’t wanted to experience the delights of Valentine Nebraska.  Right?  I really couldn’t fathom the somewhat grudging — well, really grudging perhaps for some of our number — acceptance of what seemed a great idea. 

I’ll just add here that sister Chris recalls the spot as somewhat charming (and of course I’d never argue with her memories of the night)..  Perhaps it seemed to her to be a throwback to an earlier era.  She remembered lamp shades with covered wagons and old west themes.  I’m glad she remembers it that way.  

I seem to recall, however, that it was not quite so charming and that at some of our group — Debbie perhaps?  — seemed to be silently blaming me for lousy beds, a dingy room, a less than stellar bathroom and more.  The food, I was told wasn’t too hot either, but I don’t recall that as I fell asleep before the food we ordered could even be collected. I really was tired! 

In the light of a new day, however, we made a new beginning.  We were only hours now from home and the less than perfect last night on the road couldn’t dim that excitement and I think every one of us was glad to be back in our own rooms and home at last even though it had been an incredibly adventure.  

Andy came along a few months later and then Martha followed in 1964.  Our family grew and changed and I realize now that that trip with Dad was, for my older siblings and me, in many ways the final chapter of a period in our lives.   That summer was ours.  It belonged to us.  There would be other road trips but never again one involving the entire family like this.  It had been something unique.  Just us, and Dad, and the road.  

It was a once in a lifetime journey that only Chris and I are now left to recall.  

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