Happy Wonderer

If the photo above is not of the actual car that my family owned in 1979, it is the same model Chevy Malibu station wagon that my memory has chosen to remember as the actual car that my parents drove to cart my sister and ten-year-old me around that summer and every other summer, before 1979 and after. (My memory is not what it used to be: It is better!)

Our family road trips over about two decades included vacations in Vermont (to see family) and weekends on Cape Cod, in Pennsylvania, along the Connecticut shore. We were not a wealthy family, so our family vacations were always road trips to a destination that we could reach in one day or less of driving. My father was the only driver, so this was more than fair. The long(ish) car ride was simultaneously unendurable and somehow, maybe sometimes, the only part of the trip that was worth remembering.

Given the unspoken assignment to “entertain ourselves,” my sister and I did just that. She is and was two-and-a-half years younger than I am, which was a large enough number to justify my perpetual existential cri de coeur: “Why is she in my life?” Those two (and a half, remember, two and a half) years between us presented us with an unbridgeable chasm that I definitely did not want to bridge at the time.

But on road trips she was the only sidekick life offered. Her vast collection of stuffed animals, each one of which had a name and always traveled with her, were hired by the two of us to put on theatrical productions (non-union). My parents for some reason tolerated these or at least did not shut them down. What I remember is that we would put up a blanket in the back window as a curtain and move the dolls around in front of the curtain for the entertainment of drivers behind us. Our car was never pulled over. Were state troopers more forgiving back then? Or was that the sort of vision of domestic hell/bliss—a blanket with two or more stuffed animals putting on a “Punch & Judy” show in the back window—pretty much what everyone expected to see in the rear window of a car like the one at top?

For many of the trips, for long long hours, I would allow my mind to wander and imagine life in each street sign name we passed under. If I moved here, would this be my favorite restaurant? My workplace? Seen that way, the world beckoned with possibility. Upon arrival at our destination, I was usually discombobulated, as I often am on waking up or on leaving a movie theater, and miffed at rejoining real life or whatever real life was for my ten-year-old (not-yet inner child) self.

inside bus

The inside of a Burlington Trailways bus, like the one I sat in. My seat is on the left side of the photo, the right side of the bus, three rows deep. The window seat when possible. Photo from their website.

In 2000, I landed a job and moved partway across the country, from the Hudson Valley to East Central Iowa. Poughkeepsie, New York, to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, by bus. It was a 36-hour-long journey, across all the states required for a person to make that journey. In anecdotes, I probably make it sound like something I accomplished, when in fact all I did was sit and sometimes stretch my legs. Someone else drove.

The population of passengers on the bus was whittled down, layover by layover, because what for me were layovers were for most people destinations: Cleveland, Gary, Chicago. From Joliet on, a conversation took over the bus; when it is 9:00 a.m. and there are only a half-dozen people on a bus crossing the Mississippi River, away from Chicago, that half-dozen intuits that they have something in common and someone breaks the silence and asks—it was the driver, I remember—What are you all going to be doing in Iowa?

We were all going to be leaving the bus in Iowa, some in Davenport, some in the next stop, Iowa City. Only two of us were traveling all the way to Cedar Rapids, and I was the one moving there. I was no longer ten years old, no longer allowing my mind to wander and wonder about my future favorite restaurant, my future workplace. I was in my future and not about to be awakened from a daydream.

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Some of this first appeared here almost a year ago. It is a full re-write.

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  1. TEG Diez · April 29, 2015

    This is beautiful. I love the descriptive language is almost every single if not every single sentence and the proverbial line about the longish car ride that was like hell but also the most memorable part of the trip. It’s so true.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Martha Kennedy · April 29, 2015

    Lovely writing — it’s a strange thing when we realize we’re in the future. I can imagine it would be stranger still to realize you’re in the future and it’s Iowa City. I was in Guangzhou when I realized I was in the future. I was standing on the balcony of my apartment looking out over the rice fields of the agricultural college at a water buffalo who had found rest and shelter after a days work. I thought, ‘I’m in China. I’m looking at a water buffalo. My future is finally here.’ That was pretty strange, but it was one of those moments you know you will remember all your life.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. livingonchi · April 30, 2015

    What fun childhood memories of your sister! We did a childhood trip to Cape Cod and my brother had an absolute temper tantrum because he didn’t want to see Plymouth Rock. When we finally got there he said “Ok, we’ve seen it. Now let’s go.” He had no appreciation for the aesthetics of a rock :p

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Anonymous · April 30, 2015

    I have happy memories of long holiday car rides too. And of the jostling and game playing with my siblings. I always feel sad when I see ads for cars that put a premium on keeping kids occupied watching movies or playing video games in cars. There’s nothing like making up your own games on a car ride. Thanks for this trip down memory lane.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. loisajay · May 1, 2015

    for the entertainment of the drivers behind you… What a riot! Now, someone would probably think you were trying to signal that you were being kidnapped and beaten. So weird. This brought back so many memories of car trips. Good one, Mark.


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