October 05, 2006

The Four-Door World

When I was a kid, my parents and I would take road trips every summer. And when I say road trips, I'm not talking about dinky one-day drives. Never ones to do something half-assed, we'd drive from Texas to North Dakota or California or Colorado or Wyoming. And from Houston, where I grew up, it took at least a day to escape the vortex that is Texas.

A lot of kids would have hated it, I imagine. I never did. It was just the three of us and instead of leaving the world behind for two weeks each summer, my world traveled with me, packed into a four-door car along with luggage and snacks.

It wasn't always smooth, like the one time we got a motel room in Fort Worth, Texas and it hit 120 degrees outside. We couldn't leave the room because the heat made the door expand and the knob too hot to turn. It was my mom's birthday that night and we all ended up fully clothed in a bathtub filled with cool water drinking orange soda. I'm not sure it's what my mom had in mind but she still talks about it and smiles while doing so. Or the couple of times our car was broken into, once in Oklahoma, I think, and the other time in San Diego, Balboa Park to be exact. And then there was the year we tried to cross the country in a little Mazda which, we learned too late, had terrible air conditioning.

We always stayed in nice places once we'd reached our destinations, but we rented rooms in cheap motels on the way there and back. You know, the ones with outdoor entrances to each room, decorated with interior designs appropriate for 20 years earlier, parking areas for trucks, and cheap coffee shops next to the office. We'd hit fast food joints - something that we never did at home - and the long-gone Stuckey's restaurants for dinner accompanied by their old peg-board games.

Since we took the same route many years, we drove through Raton, New Mexico quite a bit. We tried to time it so that we blew through around breakfast time. There was an old diner that sat precisely in the middle of nowhere, just off the highway. They cooked the best breakfasts. We must have hit that place a dozen times in as many years and while the rest of the staff changed, a kind quiet waitress with a gold tooth was there each year. I first noticed her and continued to remember her because, at the time, I'd never seen anything quite like it.

At the end of the trips, we'd be eager to get home. We'd invariably pull a sprint to the finish, driving for 18 or 20 hours just to arrive at home a little sooner than we'd planned so we could crawl into our own beds that much earlier. For a little while - just a bit - that traveling world we'd created within the boundaries of those four sealed car doors would survive intact. Then, slowly, it would evaporate and we'd all get caught up once again in the vestiges of our pre-vacation lives.

I mention this now, I guess, because of a recent conversation I had with a friend. During the course of this conversation, I realized that the focus of my world has narrowed. When I was a kid, crossing the country in the back of an uncomfortable sedan with bad air conditioning, the only things I needed were right there, surrounding me. As an adult, I've realized the same thing. I'm okay as long as I have Beth and Mia to travel with me, to get stuck in the cheap motel rooms and discover waitresses with golden teeth.

Posted by Chris at October 5, 2006 07:23 AM

Isn't it amazing how a waitress with a gold tooth can be fascinating to a child and horrendous to an adult? You sure made me nostalgic for those long ago family vacations.

Posted by: hr mommy at October 5, 2006 07:30 AM

I never did a cross country trip until this last June. My mother didn't drive, so we didn't even take cross town trips, unless one of us had injured ourselves badly enough to go to the ER but not badly enough to call an ambulance, then she'd call a cab.

All that to say how much I LOVED our trip this year. Yeah, we loved the final destination...but the trip was the best part.

Posted by: Contrary at October 5, 2006 07:39 AM

You have cool parents. I only ever did one road trip of that stature. I was 11, and my aunt and uncle took me on a cross-country camping trip. In retrospect, I think I was there to help diffuse tension between my cousins. But it doesn't matter. I'll never forget the Italian man at one campground. He and my aunt spoke some French to each other in order to communicate. He made espresso, and we girls got to taste it.

Thanks for jogging my memory, and for sharing yours.

Posted by: Alison at October 5, 2006 07:55 AM

We did that when I was a kid, except there were 3 of us. Still made great memories for now, but we sure made my parents (and each other) miserable along the way.

Posted by: Alissa at October 5, 2006 08:00 AM

You never forget your first gold-toothed waitress.

Posted by: Allan at October 5, 2006 08:04 AM

Waitresses with golden teeth...the love children of the rapper Nellie and his wife Flo--the waitress on "Alice".

Posted by: wordgirl at October 5, 2006 08:15 AM

Yeah, just too bad you refuse to go anywhere. ;)

Posted by: Beth at October 5, 2006 08:20 AM

Wow, we took basically the same vacations! Do you remember Ding Dong Daddy billboard? and the volcanoes in mexico? Did you ever drive to the mouth of the volcanoes? And when you hit Raton, it was like you finally made it to the mountains, even though you still had a long way to go all those hills at least made you feel like you'd made it. I loved those trips. I never got to drive all the way to the volcano until I got married though.

Posted by: wlfldy at October 5, 2006 08:23 AM

mmmm. your post brought back happy memories from our family car trips as well. Although, I don't think ours are quite as blissful - there was much fighting between my brother and I and I remember a few times Dad threatening to turn the car around...

but they were good times nonetheless...

Posted by: suze at October 5, 2006 08:46 AM

Oh my god I MISS Stuckey's!
We used to always stop at them when traveling in the states (my grandparents were snowbird...not the airplane acrobats...as I once thought. I LOVED their vending machines. That's really all I remember about them, the fabulous stuff in the vending machines.

Posted by: Pamalamadingdong at October 5, 2006 08:47 AM

this is VERY fitting...tonight we are leaving - the 5 of us...on a ten-hour road trip.
i'm scared as hell.

Posted by: ali at October 5, 2006 09:06 AM

Kind of like the Billy Jole song, "Youre my home"

Posted by: Bill at October 5, 2006 09:06 AM

You're a great writer. Thanks for sharing these memories.

Posted by: Fraulein N at October 5, 2006 09:08 AM

I drove through Raton a couple times when Shane and Tonya were living in Santa Fe. Aside from the couple smaller towns to the north in Colorado, that place is in the middle of nowhere. Go south from there and there's N-O-T-H-I-N-G for miles.

Posted by: Kyle I at October 5, 2006 09:17 AM

I have to second it on the post saying you are a great writer. I sure enjoyed today's post. You keep us all entertained so nicely Chris. Now if you do decide to take a road trip with your family you must take along a laptop so you can continue to keep us entertained. I think we would be lost without you as part of our day.
Big Hugs,

Posted by: Pat (Trish) at October 5, 2006 09:29 AM

Jen and I lay awake one night last month discussing this very thing... this thing we want to pass along to our kids. I look forward to it so much, I can barely wait the years it will take before my kids can take a trip like that.

Posted by: Brad at October 5, 2006 09:32 AM

Thanks for opening the doors to Memory Lane. Was fun hearing about your adventures and thinking about a few of my own.

Posted by: Traci at October 5, 2006 09:43 AM

Every other year my parents, grandparents, brother and I would pile all of our fishing gear in a pickup and drive to Canada with a layover in Fargo, ND. If you can, I would highly recommend taking a vacation with your parents (or with Beth's parents) to allow Mia to get to know her grandparents better. I will always treasure that time with Grandma and Grandpa - even more so now that Grandpa is gone.

Posted by: Beth in StL at October 5, 2006 09:45 AM

My family never took such ambitious road trips, but at least once a summer, we'd do a three-day trip around the state, covering 500 miles or so. I remember a lot of old motels and Denny's along the way.

Both TechDad and I had Dads who'd been Marines, so we both heard a lot of yelling about "gotta get on the road, we're burning daylight!" We've sworn we'll make our vacations less stressful for our kids.

Posted by: Kate the Shrew at October 5, 2006 09:51 AM

GREAT memories! 30-some years ago came rushing back to my memory as we used to drive all six of us in our brown Toronado to the New Jersey shore every year. One year we all got sick on the road. There were pink bottles of Pepto-bismol EVERYwhere. But that one trip was kind of nice...when everyone was somewhat better, we went out to dinner to a seafood place. The hostess came up to my parents and asked if she could watch us kids in another room so my parents could have a nice dinner alone. HEAVEN for mom and dad--and we drank enough Shirley Temples to kill a cow. (That wouldn't be happening now days--nobody touches my kids--see what our world has turned in to!)

Posted by: Kristen at October 5, 2006 10:04 AM

OMG! I think that diner is STILL there! I have travelled back and forth from Fort Worth to Colorado Springs twice a year at least since 1994 and have hit that diner everytime!

Posted by: Steff at October 5, 2006 10:04 AM

Makes me remember our summer vacations driving from Chicago to Baltimore. Except, as a kid, with brothers, it wasn't as peaceful as you make it sound... they were always looking out MY window, or sitting over the imaginary line, or heaven forbid, breathing my air. Travelling is way more fun with multiple children. Just wait... ;)

Posted by: Karen at October 5, 2006 10:34 AM

Thanks for taking us on your trips (down memory lane). I used to drive through Texas every summer myself (well my family), from the top all the way to the bottom. We started out in Wisconsin. We also made a few summer trips to D.C. I always loved those car rides...and you made me laugh at the mention of Stuckey's. Good times!

Posted by: Kate at October 5, 2006 10:46 AM

What a wonderful post and it brought back some really great (and some pretty awful!) memories! Like how my brother and I used to build a "fort" in the backseat between each other so neither of us could touch the other one or any of their stuff. Kids. :-)

Posted by: GigglePixie (Evil Genius) at October 5, 2006 10:55 AM

That's what I've got with my husband, and right now, dog, although you know we hope to put a kid in the picture someday too. It's good, and you captured the feeling perfectly here.

Posted by: bad penguin at October 5, 2006 11:10 AM

Oh the road trips. Fun when I was younger and had the brother with me in the back seat to torture. This year I drove from Dallas to Wyoming (through Raton) with just the parental units and it was not as much fun.

And I second that taking forever to get out of Texas thing. Why must the state be that large?

Posted by: Hannah at October 5, 2006 11:24 AM

We used to do road trips like that too, the most memorable being 5 weeks driving from Michigan through the south to LA and then back through the north. At 13 I wasn't thrilled about the trip, but now I'm glad we did it.

Posted by: Jessie at October 5, 2006 11:28 AM

It's the small things we remember... My dads' cottage has this tiny store in the middle of nowhere. This summer I took my bike there, went in and bought a box a popsicles for all the kids at the cottage...just like my dad used to do when I was a kid.

You walk into the store and you have a view of the living room through Jamacain beads. Well the beads are still there and the lady with the beard is still the one serving the popsicles.

Her nameis Mme Bérard and there must be thousand of kids who remeber her just like me.

Posted by: DavidR at October 5, 2006 11:33 AM

I had just one vacation with my family when I was growing up, and I was so young, I don't remember any of it. It's a long story, but I will say that my parents were not into their kids, or each other. WW III was my basic homelife back then.

Posted by: Maribeth at October 5, 2006 11:36 AM

The only roadtrips we took when I was little was from Oklahoma to Wyoming or Colorado to visit my grandparents, depending on where they wanted us to go (to their house or to JELLYSTONE [so not kidding]). I love roadtrips now and in my quest for a new used car, one of my requirements is "something that will make roadtrips AWESOME." Which basically means something that will get good gas mileage and won't die 20 miles from home.

I wonder if our families ever passed each other on the highway when you were in Oklahoma?

Posted by: Sparkle Pants at October 5, 2006 12:09 PM

Chris, you should write a book. Seriously. You have such an interesting family, and you talk about them with evident love and poignancy.

Posted by: Heather at October 5, 2006 12:14 PM

My family only did road trips to see relatives in Colorado (from Kansas), so I missed the really big ones - you know the national parks, etc. So three years ago I did a 17,000 miler with just me and the dogs. It was great - 5 1/2 weeks, 16 hour days, but lots of countryside, great music and time to just think. 28 states and 5 provinces later, I still love to drive and will hop into a car for eight hours no problem.

Posted by: Heather at October 5, 2006 02:07 PM

My parents did the same thing when I was a child. We went everywhere and it was great, I really loved it. It was very educational, I remember going to the Little Big Horn and just being in awe of how huge it was and just thinking that Custer never had a chance. I hope that you are planning on sharing the same experiences you had with Beth and Mia. We both know Mia will be greatful for taking her on such adventures!

Posted by: Michelle at October 5, 2006 03:10 PM

I swear to god Chris, I know which diner you are talking about in Raton....although when we drove through this year, we couldn't find it. But I even know which woman you are talking about. We were always convinced she was really a pirate in disguise. My family always did the same thing. We'd do 2 weeks of driving, just seeing the US. We have done some of that with the girls but we will continue to do it.

Stuckey's with the old peg-board games, ha...we went to one in Utah this summer.

Posted by: Melissa at October 5, 2006 03:16 PM

You are a beautiful man with a beautiful family and a beautiful life and such a talent for writing.

Just sayin!'

Posted by: Rengirl at October 5, 2006 04:53 PM

i think you are required to stay in the cheap places while on the road. it's part of the experience.

Posted by: jodi at October 5, 2006 07:07 PM

I love this post because it reminds me of my childhood too...

We would all pack up (mom, dad, the three kids) in an LTD and drive 14 hours to where my grandmother lives in Florida. Those were some of the best times in my childhood...

Posted by: Snidget at October 5, 2006 07:41 PM

I have a friend who has just found a girl who he is convinced he will marry, and while I'm not quite sure I believe him, talking with him afforded me the opportunity to share with him exactly what you said: life's not worth living if you can't be with the people you love. You can survive anything as long as they're by your side.

By the way. Get on the hosting thing. Beth needs to redesign. Look for templates. (But don't tell anyone that I told you that because they'll find out that my site is a template and I've always discouraged templates but I dont' have TIME to code my own site and this is the longest sentence. Ever.)

Posted by: Emily at October 5, 2006 08:02 PM

I love this post. Seriously, totally, completely, puffy heart it. Ok, off to sound a little less like an internet stalker gone wrong.

Posted by: Elaine at October 5, 2006 08:54 PM

I've eaten breakfast at that diner in the middle of nowhere in Raton, NM!!!! My now ex-husband and I were traveling from NC to CO, and we had just spent the night in absolute hell, aka Amarillo, TX, and I dictated that we would NOT even stop for breakfast until he got my ass out of TX!! Wasn't it called the Rabbit Ear Cafe??? I remember they had the best breakfast I'd had in ages.

Posted by: coolchick at October 5, 2006 10:32 PM

I still love a good road trip. My family always went 5 hours north to Vermont in the summers. I always got car sick and we always stopped at the same diner for lunch. I still know all of the words to every Beach Boys song.

Posted by: Annie at October 6, 2006 12:02 AM

Ohhhh. This post is precious.
Gold tooth? Cool. Traveling as a family with the monkey is the best. I'm okay, too, as lons as I have them with me. They're my world (well, and my 3 cats...well, erm, Minden).

Posted by: haley-o at October 6, 2006 01:33 AM

beautifully written. brought back a ton of memories...except for the stuckey's...my dad had some sort of vendetta against them.

Posted by: oldmanneill at October 6, 2006 02:02 AM

That brought back memories. But I had two brothers with which to fight with and draw imaginary territory lines in our station wagon. And, you were spoiled. We didn't have air conditioning and did the annual trek from OKC to Colo.Springs and one summer we went all the way to California.

I had Nancy Drew to keep me company for several years.

My dad hated stopping. I remember my little brother having to pee in a cup one time.

Posted by: Debbie at October 6, 2006 04:11 AM

Glad I didn't comment when I read this yesterday, because now I have something to do to relieve the boredom during this 3 hour break I have between lectures. Now that's what I call timetabling! Still at least I haven't had to divide any fractions today. I actually dozed during my maths lecture this morning. Well, they were showing a boring video and couldn't even get the sound to work properly so what do you expect?

What's that? Oh right, I'm supposed to be commenting on your blog, not writing my own entry in the comments. Hehe.

I've always wanted to do a road trip like that. Of course in this country if you drive for more than, like, 10 hours (complete guess, I have no idea, but it can't be much more than that) you hit the sea. Unless you go on the Eurotunnel. But then you have to drive in France and no one wants to do that. Haha.

Having said that I do have very fond memories of a holiday in Mallorca (Spanish island) when we hired a car and drove around the island (which is 5 billion times smaller than the UK!). The only tape we had was 'Cover Story' by David Essex. (It was my mum's boyfriend's, DO NOT JUDGE ME!). By the end of the fortnight my brother and I had the whole album memorised and had written new lyrics to do with farting (of course! We were 12 and 8, what do you expect?!). Every time I hear one of those songs now I still get totally nostalgic for that holiday.

Thanks for letting me overtake your comments section with my waffle (no, don't delete me, please!) :)

Posted by: starrynite at October 6, 2006 05:35 AM

You've brought back some good memories and effectively made me long to travel again. Of course, this is helped by the fact that "Best of My Love" by the Eagles has just come on the radio. My mom and I used to go on cross-country trips together every other summer, and the Eagles' Greatest Hits Volume I ended up in the tape player of our A/C-less Mazda more than any other tape.

By the way, I LOVED the story of you guys in the bathtub drinking orange soda. It says a lot about your mother that it became a fond memory instead of a bad one.

Posted by: Caryn at October 7, 2006 09:14 PM

we used to drive from florida to rhode island as kids with our parents. there were 3 kids stuffed in the back seat of the car, with our pillows and sleeping bags and a cooler of crap just for us. It was great. Well, minus the few fights my sisters and i would have. Usually me and my youngest sister ended up on the ends of the seat while my middle sister ended up, well, in the middle. Supposedly this cut down on the fighting. Usually we just beat her up instead, "passing" the punches thru her. Poor girl. ;) But we still talk fondly of all our trips. Road trips rule.

Posted by: kristied at October 8, 2006 09:54 PM