I have always loved road trips. As kids we spent a lot of time fighting over the “back back” of our wood-paneled station wagon on the five-hour drives from our home in Greensburg, PA to my Mom’s parents’ home in Wilkes-Barre, PA. Those of you with station wagons in the 60s may remember that  the “back back” was a narrow, coffin-shaped slot between the stacked up suitcases and the side of the car, where a lucky sibling could stretch out his or her legs and sleep through the numbing hours along the Pennsylvania turnpike. That is, during the hours when we weren’t playing the Cow Game, or the Animal, Vegetable or Mineral Game. Alternate configurations included a backward facing bench seat with seat belts that accommodated two to three children making obnoxious faces at the drivers behind us. We played rocks, papers, scissors to determine who would be in the back back on those 4-5 hour trips to Wilkes-Barre and back. Or bribery worked as well.

Old Mother Hubbard
Old Mother Hubbard Shoe Tying Toy

Road trips as a kid are frustrating segments of your life where you can’t get a lot done, like stretching your legs, or running maniacally in circles,  but I did learn to tie my shoes on the Old Mother Hubbard Shoe Toy somewhere between Altoona and Hazelton, PA. My brothers begrudgingly helped me. They had more patience back then.   Later, I mastered reading by the  headlamps of the cars behind us, holding “My Antonia” up in the 6″ band of faint light, pretending not to hear my mother’s warnings about straining my eyes. Of course, one of the three of us always had to go to the bathroom, and the carefully rationed stops contributed as much to my bladder strength as the later  E.S.T training sessions.

Adult road trips are much more fun; I don’t ever remember a friend not allowing us to stop to use the bathroom, or to take pictures of the cows on the side of the road, or as when I was in Sicily once for a job, to sing at the tops of our lungs to schmaltzy Italian pop songs. Yes, road trips are great fun.

Mission project
Not what Chris’ Mission Project looked like except in my fantasy.

Road trips with my husband have been wonderful. We have driven to San Francisco,  and many times, to Los Osos, where his niece Martha lives. We took Chris on a road trip in the fourth grade, to the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, where we attempted to expose him to enough research material to complete his fourth grade Mission project. However, I think the most impactful thing from that trip was the overnight stay at the Madonna Inn in the Old Mill Room. At the time, Chris was way more interested in his GI Joe action figures, which he promptly put in the water wheel on the wall of the room, forgetting anything about the mission project once and for all.

Madonna Inn – The Old Mill Room

There were, of course,  many hockey road trips, to San Diego, to Valencia, to Las Vegas. There were literally dozens of them that transpired over the ten years that Chris played hockey; I tried not to be the potty czar to varying degrees of success.

1985 Bonneville
This is not my grandma’s Bonneville, but an image I got off the internet.

But some of my favorite road trips have been those bookending our lives as parents of a young sports aficionado. Early in our marriage, after the death of my maternal grandmother, and my inheritance of her navy blue 1985 Bonneville, Jimmie and I drove across the country from Wilkes-Barre to Los Angeles.. We were moving from New York to live in Los Angeles, where Jimmie had been cast in the TV series “The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd.” With us on this cross-country adventure, was our preternaturally smart German Shepherd, Jasper.

Jasper was a small part of the reason that I fell in love with Jimmie in the first place. At the McCarter Theatre, in fall of 1983, I was hired as a dresser for the play, “Play Memory” by Johanna Glass, starring Donald Moffatt, Jo Henderson, and Valerie Mahaffey; among others, James Greene was in the cast. One day Jimmie received a bouquet of balloons from a female admirer. I walked them to his fourth floor dressing room, and there he sat, doing the New York Times crossword puzzle, in ink, wearing jeans and a t-shirt, Jasper lying calmly at his feet. When Jimmie was on stage, Jasper sat quietly in the aisle of auditorium, head resting patiently on his outstretched paws. The two of them were both so distinguished, I developed a crush of enormous size. Later, I found out that Jimmie walked Jasper without a leash, in Manhattan, from his apartment on the upper west side to Central Park. Jasper would stop at the corner with the light and look expectantly up at Jimmie, who waited until the light changed and exhaled, “Go!” Jasper would dash across the street and sit on the other side until Jimmie had crossed. He was an amazing dog. So, our road trip from Wilkes-Barre to Los Angeles was going to be an adventure with a dog in tow. We took turns driving, and stopped frequently for water and chances to stretch our legs along the way. We stayed in some literal flea-bag motels including one in Elko, Nevada.

One of the games that Jimmie taught me on this trip was the game where one person thinks of a word with five letters. He had learned the game years before from his actor buddy, Tom Carlin. The game starts when one of us says, “Ok, I have a word.” The other person, then, guesses the word such as, Jimmie’s word,  ‘banal.’ (Don’t go looking for hidden meaning in my use of this word, I don’t want to use good words to teach you the game.)

I would say ‘apple.’ He would say, “zero.” That’s because there are no letters in my word that match the position of the letters in his word. Had I said, “Canal,” he would have said “Four.”Our young minds, mine twenty-six at the time, and his fifty-nine, worked quickly and methodically through the puzzles. We growled at each other with fierce affection when Jimmie used words like “abyss.”  We played it for hours;  it was a great way to pass the time as we crossed the country. Not as exciting as getting stopped for my first speeding ticket just outside the Grand Canyon, mind you, but it was a great distraction. I think Jasper played along silently in the back seat. Or, come to think of it, maybe he just kept score.

During the hockey years, I had tried to play the word game, but Jimmie’s hearing loss and Chris’s disinterest made it impossible to play in the car, so we abandoned the game.

We just finished our most recent road trip, a three-day adventure to Los Osos, where we joined family members to celebrate Christmas on the Central Coast. The recent rains had left the gently terraced slopes of the central coast a green color reminiscent of the old country. I tried to get Jimmie to document the color with my iPhone while I drove home, but the camera didn’t capture the saturated color of the tilted fields bathed in the clear early afternoon sun.

We spent three lovely and eventful days with close family. Jimmie is the paterfamilias now. Gathered at Martha’s house were nieces and nephews, great nieces and a great great niece and nephew. Our son Chris and his girlfriend, Whitney met us for all three days and we stayed in the Bay Side Inn, a B & B about three minutes from Martha’s house. My Dad and his wife, Sally drove down from San Francisco for one day of the festivities.

Martha’s Very productive Christmas Kitchen Photo by Liam Nolan

Martha has a huge kitchen-heavy house, with plenty of space for people to sneak away if they get overwhelmed from too much family time. She and her husband, Phil, had modified the small upstairs kitchen and living room years ago to create a TV room and a living room with a pool table in the middle of it. Nothing is missing for a great entertainment space except for  Phil, who’s untimely death in early September cast a pall over the fall for all of us. Having the family together for these few days was comforting for Martha and Bianca, their daughter,  but also for each of us, who has felt Phil’s absence profoundly.

That's a lotta crab
Picking Crab at Christmas – That’s a lotta crab! Photo by Liam Nolan

Chris and Whitney had brought down twelve Dungeness crabs with them, which he cleaned with a hose in the front yard; a happy group then picked the meat out of for about an hour until there was a huge platter of crab on the counter. We had it for dinner on Christmas along with a spectacular pork crown roast, and squash terrines topped with sliced truffles. We had crab cakes for Boxing Day dinner. Everyone contributed to the preparation or clean up after the meals. There were many games of pool, and hours of enjoyment from watching the next generation play with their Christmas toys, or the young parents play with their next generation.

Driving home today,out of the blue, I said, “I have a word.” And without missing a beat, Jimmie said a five letter word. And so, some ten years later, we resumed the game. It was much easier for him to play with his new hearing aids in place, but both of our older brains have more trouble with the word matching. I was spelling the words out loud, visualizing the letters of his guess next to my word. I sounded like a kindergartener in a spelling bee. Mortifying. Furthermore, I couldn’t remember what words I had already guessed. Jimmie told me today that he tried to use the word “xerox” back in the day with Tom Carlin. But Tom wouldn’t accept it as a word, even though Jimmie used it in a very acceptable sentence (for the time). “Miss Simpson, would you please Xerox that report for me? ” Oh well.  I think it’s time that we  get going with that brain exercise program. We had some good words, though. My best was cacti and his was ounce. I’d say we have a few more good road trips left in us yet.

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