Note: It took a little persuading, but Leah agreed to write a blog post! Here’s her take on our recent road trip. Thank you, Leah!
My mom’s is decisively the best memory for (auto)biographical details. I think I have a reasonable memory, but generally for numbers. For instance, on our recent road trip, my mom and I stayed in room 211 in Rapid City, SD, and 218 in Rochester, MN. 222 in South Bend, IN. I share that mostly to illustrate that if you want qualitative details, she’s your gal, not me. But, she’s asked me to provide some thoughts on our recent trip, and after enough reverse psychology (“I know you won’t write anything,” she said multiple times), I finally assented.
Though my mom and I technically had the same experiences during the road trip – we stopped at the same locations, ate at the same restaurants – it represented very different things. She was on a road trip, while I was closing one chapter of my life and heading into the great unknown of a new one. And in that sense, for me, the road trip began in September 2016. That was when I started looking seriously for jobs. It really got serious when I thought I was going to leave Seattle at the end of January, though I actually stayed, in limbo, until the end of March. At that point, I tetris-ed* my belongings into the car, and said my goodbyes. (*I’m using tetris as a verb here because I think using a word like “pack” would not do justice to the monumental effort it took to get everything into the car, with room for two passengers and my mom’s bags, too.)
The morning we left, it was rainy and grey. I said a last, highly emotional goodbye, and drove to pick up my mom from her hotel, trying to hold it together. Honestly, the most contentious moment of the trip probably happened within the first two minutes when my mom chirped “Bye Seattle!!” I quickly replied, “If you want me not to be sobbing while driving, then how about we not say any more goodbyes?” She agreed, and I actually pleasantly surprised myself – there was no sobbing for the rest of the trip. That alone could constitute a victory!
Our first day we made great time, stopping for a light lunch in Spokane, crossing into Montana, grabbing an iced tea at a recommended café in Missoula, and finally coming to rest in Butte. Rest was about all Butte was good for, best I could tell, and I was pleased to hightail it out of town early the next morning. That next day, Montana’s big sky greeted us as Springsteen sang us eastward. We crisscrossed mountains and valleys, relishing the meandering streams and rocky crags we passed. The burgers we had for lunch in Billings got top marks, and they literally fueled us as we headed slightly south. In Wyoming, I had never seen so much nothingness. Well, not nothingness, but no sign of humans, that’s for sure. Rolling hills with snow-capped mountains in the distance made for a pretty landscape, but it was so isolated. We were also highly amused by a weather front while in Wyoming, which is not something I ever thought I’d say. It was clearly raining a bit in front of us, but the scale of the land made us completely unable to identify where the rain was. We kept saying, “I think we’ll be in it when we crest this next hill” or “I think the rain is coming down on that ridge.” We were wrong so many times! Though we did ultimately hit the rain, it was amusingly disorienting to be so thrown off by the scale of the landscape and sky.
Ultimately, we ended that second day by winding our way through the Black Hills of South Dakota to visit Mount Rushmore. The Black Hills were unexpectedly stunning. While I was anticipating being wowed by Mount Rushmore (and I was), I did not realize that it was located in the midst of a Yosemite-eqsue landscape. Dark, granite spires with scattered evergreen trees shone in the glorious setting sunlight. It was a special time to be in the park as it was off-season and the end of the day, so we got to experience the monument with only a handful of other visitors. We spent the night in Rapid City, SD just outside the park, managing to avoid hitting the many, many deer we saw nibbling the grass on the side of the road. I attribute this successful avoidance of deer to my ongoing conversation with them: I just calmly and repeatedly told the deer, who definitely could not hear me, that I did not want to hit them and if they just stayed where they were we’d all be fine.
The next day – day 3 – we hit our first stretch of truly lousy weather. As we drove through the emptiest stretch of country I’ve ever seen, the rain, sky, land, and road spray all joined together in various shades of drab. It was like purgatory: everything was empty and sad, and you drove forever and never seemed to get anywhere. I swear when we hit the end of the rain around the time we crossed the Missouri River I couldn’t help but cheer. That day we saw the Corn Palace and the Jolly Green Giant, which were strange and welcome breaks from the driving, and ended the night with a delicious dinner and a restful night in Rochester, MN.
Day 4 I’d happily erase from my memory, aside from a delectable lunch in Madison, WI. Let’s just say that after hemming and hawing about how to best avoid traffic in the greater Chicago area, we went 70 miles out of our way to avoid said traffic, and ended up in a big ol’ traffic jam anyway. Plus rain. Plus truly boring scenery. Blerg. Getting to our hotel that night didn’t go exactly as planned, either. Instead of plugging in the address of our hotel, I managed to just plug in “South Bend.” When my GPS cheerily displayed “You have reached your destination!” we realized we were just at a random intersection at the exact center of South Bend. We had a good laugh about that. And ultimately, we were rewarded when we did get to the hotel because our room was incredibly swanky! It was entirely unexpected, but it had a gas fireplace, two bathrooms, and two king-sized beds. Needless to say, that was a highly welcome surprise after a rough day on the road.
Day 5 was a long but rewarding day. We initially planned to stay overnight in Buffalo, but we hit slightly better weather than expected, found a much better rest stop than expected, and with the Weather Master’s approval we decided to keep driving ‘til we finally made it home after a full 12 hours on the road. (To claify: I refer to my dad as the Weather Master.)
If you haven’t driven on I-90 through western New York to Albany, you might not know that the landscape changes around Utica. In truth, western New York is pretty boring to drive through, but about an hour outside of Albany you start to hit these beautiful hills and mountains. That stretch of the Thruway always reminds me of driving home from college. I never appreciated the Hudson Valley’s beauty when I lived in Albany, but that landscape always told me I was almost home.
In many ways, my road trip is still not over. I’m home, but I’m not home. In about a week, I will be headed to Boston, and two weeks after that I will start a new job. There are so many questions and possibilities for the future, and whatever comes next, I imagine that I will always be comforted and a little thrown off by coming home.
Not everyone gets to drive cross-country with their daughter. I’ve gotten to do it twice! Leah went to graduate school at the University of Washington in Seattle. She began the program in September 2011. She drove the first part of that trip from Albany by herself, visiting friends along the way. I joined her in Minneapolis. The remaining journey went fine, but it was a tense time for Leah and the stress took its toll on us. While I have some fond memories, I’m not sure that either one of us would describe it as an enjoyable venture.
Now that she was done with her program and earned her PhD (I proudly think of her as Dr. Leah), we had a chance to do it again. After considering a number of options, from renting a U-Haul to hiring movers and flying, Leah decided to ship much of her stuff, sell or give away other things and pack up her Honda Civic with the rest and drive. Casting caution to the wind, I offered to share the driving and she welcomed the company. I flew out to Seattle.
I like road trips. Always have. Some people get antsy in the car. I don’t. Between music and scenery, I’m usually good. The only issue for me, as I get older, is that getting out of the car brings an unpleasant reality: after a couple of hours of sitting in a car my hips and lower back scream in protest when I climb out. But even with that, I still enjoy the trip.
I arrived in Seattle late on Saturday evening. We started out at 8:15 a.m. on Sunday in a light rain. Our arsenal for the trip included our smart phones, podcasts, audiobooks, music, a map of America, a triptik from AAA, a charger that could accommodate two USB connections (keeping phones charged was key!), patience and a sense of humor. Oh, some cash and credit cards helped, too.
Success in planning a cross-country trip depends on managing expectations and making sure your travel companion is on the same page. Leah and I agreed to take a middle ground where we would try to be efficient (cover a long distance each day) while taking a bit of time to enjoy ourselves. Not surprisingly, enjoying ourselves usually meant finding good food for lunch and dinner. We used Yelp and/or Google to find a good lunch spot in a town off the road. No McDonalds or Burger King at a rest area.
With the wonders of the World Wide Web available to us (cell service was pretty consistent), we found quirky cafes and burger joints. We had some excellent lunches. Only once did the apps fail us. The #2 rated place in Butte, Montana, for dinner, which was walking distance from our hotel, was a disappointment. The fact that it was a Mexican restaurant in a small casino should’ve been a clue, but we ignored that. Afterwards we agreed that Taco Bell probably would’ve been better.
That first night on the road in Butte, before turning in, we stopped at a Walgreens so I could pick up breathe-right strips. I don’t want to believe I snore, but Leah tells me otherwise and we were sharing a hotel room. Leah has trouble falling asleep under the best of circumstances, all we needed was for her to be kept awake by my snoring. I decided discretion was the better part of valor, swallowed my pride, and bought the strips. Why do we view snoring as a personal failing? Just wondering.
Other than the Three Amigos (yes, that was the name of the Mexican restaurant in Butte), we did quite well with our meals. If you’re ever in Billings, Montana, check out Burger Dive. It was a truly excellent, award winning burger (see picture below) and the restaurant itself was comfortable and decked out with funky, odd pieces, like a reclaimed Blockbuster video store sign. The service was friendly, too. Look at me becoming a restaurant critic! Leah and I returned to the road fortified and happy.
Proof that it was an award winning burger
Lest you think the only places we saw were the inside of restaurants, we did make a couple of other kinds of stops. Based on a recommendation from the woman at AAA we stopped at the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota. This is one of those ‘only in America’ kinds of places (see pictures below). We also had a fine lunch at Teresa’s Café (I would never forget a meal!).
The Corn Palace features ‘mosaics’ made of corn kernels. Each year is a new theme – 2016-17 is rock-n-roll.
We stopped at another oddity (again based on a suggestion from AAA) in Blue Earth, Minnesota. Just off I-90 there is a 55-foot statue of the Jolly Green Giant. Blue Earth is the home of the brand and the humongous green statue is an homage to the partnership between the town and the company. It was good to get out and stretch our legs, take some fun photos, and hop back in the car. There is a museum, but it was closed; we were not heartbroken.
The only ‘real’ tourist destination we visited was Mount Rushmore. I had been there 44 years ago on a trip with my parents. While the huge sculpture of our presidents carved into the mountainside has not changed, the area surrounding it has. Now there is a four level parking garage, a huge plaza, a walkway lined with each state’s flag, an amphitheater, and café. We arrived just before sunset on Monday, March 27th – hardly a peak time for tourists. Almost everything was closed. The gift shop was still open – fortunately for me since I collect magnets from places I visit. Other than a few hearty souls, we had the place to ourselves. It turned out to be a beautiful time to be there. The setting sun, the tall pines and Black Hills against the baby blue sky were lovely. The faces of the presidents are illuminated at night and we saw the lights come on and then we got back in the car and headed to our hotel a few miles away in Rapid City. Exiting Mount Rushmore we drove through a faux old western town. It was a tourist attraction made of up shops and motels. Off-season, empty and shuttered, it looked like a movie set.
The western part of the United States is such a contrast to the east. The landscape in the west ranges from long stretches of amber fields of grain where the only signs of life are cattle, to other stretches that feature granite, snow-capped mountains that look like painted backdrops. Eastern Washington state and central Minnesota had vast areas of plains dotted with wind farms. Leah and I agreed that the sculptural white windmills were whimsical and graceful – they weren’t a blight on the scenery. I wondered why South Dakota and Wyoming didn’t have them, too. The common denominator in those western states was the wide-open space.
photo by Leah
Borrowing from a Jackson Browne lyric, the road and the sky collide on long segments of I-90. At one point it all became indistinguishable. In South Dakota the slate gray skies, pouring rain and copious amounts of road spray made for a bleak scene. Passing an 18-wheeler under those conditions was a white-knuckle experience. We were quite lucky that didn’t happen much during our five days on the road.
As we moved east the landscape became increasingly congested. While there was farmland in every state we drove through, we simply didn’t see the awe-inspiring views in Illinois, Indiana and Ohio. As we drove through Montana, South Dakota and Wyoming we couldn’t help but break out in song – The Sound Of Music, America the Beautiful, Home on the Range and Country Roads spontaneously burst forth. The bad weather, increased truck traffic and flat, uninteresting landscape cut down on our spontaneous singing once we arrived in the Midwest. We were left with On the Road Again each time we returned to the car.
With all those hours to pass we listened to a 7-part podcast called S-Town (or Shit Town). This was a fascinating deep dive into a Southern town with a focus on a particularly eccentric individual. The series wasn’t entirely satisfying in that it was advertised as a murder mystery, but didn’t exactly fulfill its promise. However, it was still well worth listening to as a character study.
Aside from the many hours of distraction, the podcasts provided lots of fuel for discussion for Leah and I.
Our fourth night on the road found us in South Bend, Indiana. That day had been the most stressful, with almost constant rain and Chicago-area traffic. We were so relieved to get off the road, we just ordered pizza to the room and called it a night.
We studied the maps and the weather forecasts. Our plan had been to ease up and complete the last part of the trip in two days by stopping in Buffalo the following night. We considered taking the northern route from South Bend and crossing Michigan and part of Ontario, instead of continuing on I-90. The weather forecast was bleak so we decided to stick with what we knew. Leah went to college in Ohio so the trip from Cleveland was well known to us.
The uninspiring portion of our trip.
The Ohio Turnpike gets the award for the best service areas. At this point in the trip, with the weather so miserable, we weren’t feeling adventurous. We opted for convenience and in Ohio the food choices on the turnpike were much better than what one typically finds. We had lunch at Panera’s at the Vermillion stop. We warmed up with some chicken noodle soup and then got back on the road.
We crossed the New York State line at about 3:00 in the afternoon. I was behind the wheel. “Maybe we should just go the distance and get home. We have a lot of daylight left and the weather may be worse tomorrow,” I suggested. We knew that the next day’s forecast called for a wintry mix. Leah’s eyes lit up, she liked that idea. We got a second wind. I drove through some more rain and we didn’t stop until we got to a service area outside Syracuse (our first Burger King of the trip). Leah took over the driving. I played DJ and we powered through the rest of the way listening to Springsteen and Billy Joel.
At 8:30 pm, tired but happy, we greeted Gary and our two cats, Roger and Raffa. This had been a far better trip than the one we took almost six years before. Leah and I chatted easily, sang, enjoyed listening to S-Town and took in a lot of America. I will treasure my memories.
Gary had a break for the Christmas holiday during his second year of medical school and I had off from work at the City of Pittsburgh Finance Department, so we planned a trip to Buffalo. Where else would one go during Christmas week?
Why Buffalo? In a remarkable turn of events, my two brothers married two sisters who were from Hamburg, a suburb of Buffalo. Consequently, though my brothers and their wives lived in New Jersey and Albany respectively, they frequently spent the holidays with their mutual in-laws. In addition, my closest friend, Merle, was getting her PhD in psychology at the University of Buffalo. So we decided to make the trip for the long weekend. It promised to be fun, especially since I would also get to see my totally adorable almost two year old nephew.
We had a car – barely. I had purchased my uncle’s 1972 Toyota Celica for $100. It had a manual transmission. It rarely started when I turned the key in the ignition. Fortunately Pittsburgh is quite hilly so we would most often push the car to the nearest hill, get it rolling and pop it into gear. Renting a car seemed much more sensible than risking the trip with the Celica, so we did.
December 24 was a cold, partly sunny day in Pittsburgh in 1983. We picked up the rental and started north on route 79. We were enjoying the ride, listening to music and munching on some snacks. About 90 miles out of Pittsburgh some snow started to fall – we were approaching Meadville. We weren’t too concerned and continued on our way.
The snow grew heavier and heavier as we proceeded north. This was the definition of lake effect snow. By the time we got to the turnoff for route 90 East, just outside of Erie, we were in whiteout conditions. I opened my window and leaned my head out and tried to help Gary to stay on the road. We literally could barely see a foot in front of us.
We saw a sign for an upcoming exit and decided we had to get off the road. At the end of the ramp was a Holiday Inn, we pulled into its parking lot and debated what to do. It was still barely past noon. We listened to the weather forecast on the radio. They were reporting blizzard conditions in Erie. No kidding!!! It didn’t sound promising.
Other cars were following us off the road and into the parking lot and we realized that if we didn’t register soon, we might not get a room. Gary parked, we took our suitcases and, as it turned out, got the last room available.
We settled in, turned on the tv, read the newspaper that we brought from Pittsburgh and relaxed. We called Merle and then we called my brothers’ in-laws. While conditions weren’t quite as bad in Buffalo, the New York State Thruway was closed. We agreed that we would wait and see if we could continue the trip the next morning. Meanwhile conditions worsened outside. The wind picked up and the temperature plummeted.
We thought we would venture out for dinner, since there was a restaurant just down the road. We bundled up and left our room to find cots in the hallway and in the conference room near by. We were quite lucky that we got that room. I felt bad for the families that were celebrating their Christmas on cots in the hallway.
We made our way to the car with difficulty, the wind had caused impressive snow drifts. Looking at the accumulated snow, it was still snowing hard, the wind was howling, we realized we weren’t going anywhere. In the short time that we had been outside, my feet were nearly frozen. We hurried back into the Holiday Inn.
The staff set up tomato soup and cheese sandwiches for everyone. That was dinner and we were grateful for it.
We went back to our room and went to sleep.
The next day, Christmas day, was brilliantly sunny. We had gotten over two feet of snow, the wind was still blowing and the temperature, without windchill, was barely above zero. We went out to clear the car off and see if we could go get some breakfast. The car wouldn’t start! I called AAA. It was going to be a while until they could get to the car. We went back to the room.
The day before we had exhausted most of the resources we had with us to entertain ourselves. We got pretty creative (perhaps not the way some people would get creative). Using the chart in the newspaper, we quizzed each other on the high and low temperatures in cities across the United States and world. It was amazing how long we amused ourselves with that! Our room had sliding glass doors that had thick frost on them and we played hangman in the ice. The window would refrost fast so we were able to play multiple rounds!
Now it was Christmas day and since the car wouldn’t start, we flipped through the channels on the television. The options were quite limited. In that day and age, I don’t think the motel had cable, there were only three stations available in a place like Erie. The Yule log was on one channel. Another was off the air for the holiday. The last one featured the local middle school choir singing Christmas carols. While that was on, we saw a commercial advertising an NCAA basketball game coming up at noon. We couldn’t believe our luck, we love college basketball! At least we’d have something to watch for a couple hours.
The appointed time came and the local station announced that they were going to replay the middle school Christmas concert! Gary and I were beside ourselves. I pulled out the telephone book and found the number for the tv station. Gary called and surprisingly someone answered. Gary asked why they were replaying the concert when the network was broadcasting a basketball game. The person on the phone was none too pleased to be bothered and explained, as if Gary was an idiot, that it was Christmas and this is what people would want to watch. Gary responded, “It’s Christmas in Pittsburgh, too, but they’re getting to watch basketball! Why can’t we?!!” Not surprisingly, the guy from the station wasn’t moved by Gary’s argument. Gary slammed the phone down in frustration.
By the time the car got jumped, it was dinner time, too late to leave. We realized that it didn’t make sense to continue on to Buffalo. We decided we would stay another night in the Holiday Inn and go back to Pittsburgh the next morning. Fortunately, we were able to drive to the Ground Round for dinner! We enjoyed a cocktail and took our time eating. At least we were out of the hotel!
To our great relief, the next morning the car started. It was still brutally cold. We got back on route 79 and headed south. We were disappointed in how the weekend turned out, to say the least. Not to mention the money we spent for our trouble. Just to put a cherry on top, a bird dive bombed into the middle of the front windshield as we were driving. I don’t know why the suicidal bird picked our car, but now it was splattered across the windshield. Gary tried using the wipers, but the fluid was frozen and the wipers just smeared the bird’s remains. I had a brilliant idea. I had a cup of diet soda that I thought I could rinse the feathers and blood off. I leaned out the window and poured it on the mess. It froze instantly! Now the bird remains were coated with diet coke – at least if I had been drinking 7up it wouldn’t have looked so awful. We pulled over to clean it enough to see, and then continued on our way, shaking our heads in disbelief.
We made it back to Pittsburgh without further incident. We returned the car and said nothing to the agent about the mess on the window. As we walked away we started laughing. The whole weekend had been so preposterous. We laughed so hard there were tears rolling down our cheeks. At least we survived and had a story to tell.
My parents and I spent much of the summer of 1973 in Colorado. My dad had applied for and received a grant to study for his administrative certificate in education at the University of Colorado in Boulder. So we took another road trip. My brothers weren’t with us. Steven was working at Ackerman’s Hotel (which contrary to what I thought at the time was NOT in the Poconos, but was in the hills of Morristown, New Jersey) and Mark was working at a summer camp in upstate New York. I wasn’t usually in the habit of missing my brothers, but I did that trip.
The three of us left Brooklyn in our Chevy Impala, the huge backseat all to myself. I had books and a transistor radio to entertain me. For some reason my parents were not getting along. There was a lot of arguing about directions, among other things. My mom navigated using the AAA triptik while my dad drove. This was obviously long before GPS and my father was basically dyslexic when it came to directions – more on that later.
I wasn’t enjoying this road trip. I fiddled endlessly with my radio, trying to tune in to music stations that reminded me of home. Whenever Bad, Bad Leroy Brown or Kodachrome came on, it lifted my spirits. My dad, a high school social studies teacher, didn’t appreciate the latter song, something about ‘when I think back on all the crap I learned in high school, it’s a wonder I can think at all’ offended him. Other than the music, I felt kind of lonely. The bleak Midwest landscape didn’t help.
The AAA book about Nebraska and Colorado said that when we left Nebraska and entered Colorado we would soon see the Rocky Mountains in the distance. I looked hard, but all I could see was the gray sky and drab prairie. We made it all the way to Denver and we still didn’t see the mountains!
We were staying on the University of Colorado campus and I had a single room in a high rise dormitory. My parents were next door in a suite. It was a relief that we each had our own space. We arrived in the evening and got settled in.
The next day miraculously the mountains appeared! They looked like a painted backdrop just like I had seen in so many John Wayne westerns. It was shocking since the day before the fog and cloud cover had been so thick that I would’ve sworn they weren’t there. I learned that they called the foothills the ‘flat irons,’ and it was an apt description. Things were starting to look up – literally. At that point I had only ever seen the Catskill Mountains, and I quickly understood that while they may have been pretty, they weren’t real mountains.
I was 13 years old and my view of the world broadened immensely that summer. From appreciating nature much more, seeing the continental divide in Rocky Mountain National Park and watching a thunderstorm below us on Pike’s Peak were awesome to behold, to seeing that people lived very different kinds of lives – my eyes were opened.
While we were in Colorado, Uncle Terry and Aunt Barbara, who were also teachers like my parents and had the summer off, took their Toyota Celica and yorkie, TJ, on their own road trip. They drove from Brooklyn to Alaska! Though not exactly on their way back, they came by and visited us in Boulder. We went horseback riding, played volleyball and generally had more fun – a theme in my young life. Things were more fun with Uncle Terry and Aunt Barbara around. In addition, Uncle Terry and my parents mapped out a sightseeing trip for us before we went back to Brooklyn.
While we were in Boulder we went to a rodeo. I can thank that rodeo for opening my eyes to two other issues I was only vaguely aware of – sexism and animal cruelty. I was horrified by the rodeo on so many levels. I learned how they got the bulls to buck – strapping their testicles back or by using some kind of electric prod (that may not be how they do it today, though it still doesn’t seem like a humane activity for either the bull or rider). Not to mention finding the prospect of a cowboy being trampled by the bull sickening. Part of the entertainment involved a pretty young woman dressed up in a gingham dress who acted dumb. We were supposed to laugh – I wasn’t laughing. As far as I knew, Brooklyn had never hosted a rodeo, which to my mind made it infinitely more civilized, even if the streets were more violent. I haven’t gone to a rodeo since.
Dad successfully completed his program and we left Colorado and started the road trip that would eventually take us home. We headed to Salt Lake City, then to the Grand Tetons, Yellowstone, Mount Rushmore and last, the Badlands.
While I had heard of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, I didn’t know anything about the religion. Another eye-opening experience. Coming from an academic family that was only culturally Jewish, the story of the Mormons struck me as other worldly. With my natural skepticism, I found it hard to believe that others put faith in the story of John Smith, all the more preposterous to me because it started in, of all places, Western New York.
As I noted before, my Dad had a terrible sense of direction. That ‘disability’ was on full display as we tried to navigate around Salt Lake City. We headed to the Great Salt Lake, only to be thwarted by confusing signs (at least to my Dad) and we kept missing the turn, heading toward Provo (the opposite direction) three times before we finally got it right. When we finally did make it to the lake, there was some kind of fly infestation there. We took one quick look and got back in the car and drove back to our motel in Salt Lake City, or at least tried to. Whenever we went out to see the sights we would have great difficulty finding our way back to the motel. I think we finally had it figured out when it was time to leave. Next stop the Grand Tetons.
We drove through long stretches of desolation in Wyoming getting to Grand Teton National Park and then again when we were leaving Yellowstone. We passed towns named Ten Sleep and Emblem where the population would be 10 or 30! I wondered if they changed the sign for each birth or death. I noticed a truck stop with a trailer next to it, and nothing else, I mean nothing else, for as far as the eye could see. It appeared that whoever ran the truck stop lived in the trailer and that was his world. I couldn’t imagine the isolation, though I tried. My father remarked, only half joking “Maybe we could bring half the population of Brooklyn here. It would be better for everybody.”
Yellowstone was another revelation. The weather was not cooperating, a persistent cold rain threatened to ruin the sightseeing. My dad, in his frustration, complained, “I didn’t come all this way to get pissed on!” I tried not to laugh from my spot in the back seat but couldn’t help it. All of us started laughing, defusing the tension. Fortunately the rain did stop and we got to see the incredible geological anomalies that dot Yellowstone while staying dry. The Mammoth Hot Springs, the geysers, paint pots, mud volcanos, there was so much to see.
Despite all the wonders or maybe because there was so much, we managed to get on each other’s nerves. This time my mother was making me crazy. As we walked through the Mammoth Hot Springs, which looked like giant, steaming wax candles, I complained to my dad, “I can’t stand Mom’s attitude. She marches through each site and commands us when it’s time to move on. It takes all the fun out of it.” Dad tried to explain that she just wanted to fit as much as we could into each day. He reminded me that I was old enough to wander the sites on my own.
Another lesson from Yellowstone: I learned how stupid people could be. Despite all kinds of warning signs about staying away from bears, naturally someone had to test the premise. We were driving along the main park road when traffic came to a stop. Looking ahead, my dad started jumping up and down in his seat, his hand thumping the steering wheel with each jump. “Feige, Feige, look!” he was so excited, like a little boy, I had to smile. There was a bear a couple of cars ahead of us. We stayed in our car, windows rolled up, watching. A person in a small camper ahead of us got out of their vehicle with a camera to get a closer picture. The bear noticed and moved toward her. She hurried back into the camper and safely got in, to my great relief, (though a small part of me was rooting for the bear). The bear, spotting a red round object at the end the camper’s radio antennae, must have thought it was food, grabbed for it. Frustrated when it wouldn’t come off, the bear pounded on the hood. We watched the vehicle rocking under the weight of the bear. Finally he ripped the antennae off, angry that it wasn’t food, threw it down and slunk off back into the forest. “How could anyone be so stupid?” I asked. My parents had no answer.
Seeing the Grand Tetons, the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone and Mount Rushmore left indelible images in my mind. I had a much better understanding of the grandeur and power of nature. I also had a much greater appreciation for John Denver’s song Rocky Mountain High, which was ubiquitous on the radio.
There came a point, after seeing Mount Rushmore, where I had had enough. I don’t remember how long we had been on that road trip, but I had spent more than a month where it was just me and my parents. Riding in the car and staying in a single motel room made for tight quarters. Enough was enough. I made my stand at the Badlands. I wouldn’t get out of the car to look. I wanted to just go home.
Now who was stupid? I didn’t really see the Badlands and I’m pretty sure I ruined it for my parents. We headed home.
Aside from my new appreciation for the beauty in nature, my broader view of life in America, I came back to Brooklyn looking forward to seeing my brothers!
Road trips were something of a theme in my family. The following is a letter I received from Zada detailing a trip he took with two of his siblings. When he wrote this letter, it was just over a year after my trip out west and he had moved to West Palm Beach. Oddly enough the letter is written on stationary from the Holiday Inn of Kankakee (Illinois).
My Darling Linda,
I sometimes wonder, what kind of gift can a grandparent (if it is not money), delight a granddaughter with. In my case I presume telling her a tale of his interesting past would please her and give her something viable to remember him by. Therefore I have chosen this occurrence, that I shall call the “West Point Story” with the hope that she will not find it a boring one.
The time is the summer of 1930. I had just purchased a Model A Ford limousine, which I subsequently christened “Ramona.” The eight years in the life of Ramona (the car) were very exciting. Many a glad tale revolved about and around her existence. This tale is only one of the experiences in which she was involved.
I was a carefree soul in those days, and I decided on a picnic in the country. I invited my sister, Lily, and my brother, Sidney, to be my guests. My plan was to ride to Bear Mountain and view the picturesque scenery of Upper New York State. Remember we were city people, surrounded by tenements, and the hubbub of city life with all its noises, etc.
How refreshing was the clear air, the balmy breezes, as we rode with open windows, scanning the beautiful scenery. We arrived and had lunch at the Bear Mountain Inn, and then knowing that the West Point Academy was nearby, why not visit and watch the cadets parade?
From May to September it was the custom that after classes at precisely 4 p.m. the cadets, under supervision, would march as part of their training. We arrived in time to find a parking place, and we, in the company of about 3000 more spectators, wended our way to the parade grounds.
The parade begins, it is one of the most spectacular sights to see. The colors are born by 4 cadets followed by the Army band blaring for the “Stars and Stripes Forever.” You get goose pimply and possessed with pride that you are an “American,” and that these young men will be our protectors in times of strife. (Ask Uncle Jack and Uncle Morris and they will verbally describe to you the glow that permeates your whole being.) Have you ever heard how Albie Booth used to run through the Harvard Line, or how Bob Cousy would dribble down a basketball court, or how the Roxy Rockettes would dance in unison? Then you have a very good idea of how thrilled we were watching such symmetry in motion. The parade is over after the playing of the Star Spangled Banner. The bugles play taps and we are ready to make the trip home.
But I am not satisfied. I decide to do the whole bit. I will tour the area, show Lily and Sidney the newgym being built, the library, the auditorium, the classrooms, etc. I purposely underlined new gym because this is exactly where this unique happening took place. Now picture me driving and pointing out the various sites, not realizing that I was driving past a dead end sign. When all of sudden Ramona seems to fall, and we find ourselves, in what I thought was a ditch. But lo, no such luck. It was a square pit about 20 feet on each side, naturally it stands to reason, if it was square each side would be 20 feet. To my chagrin it was also 2 feet high. Now as good as Ramona was, her wheels were not built to climb walls. What to do? I am in a quandary. The sun is beginning to set and soon it will be dark. I tell my brother and sister to stay in the car, while I go to seek help.
I walk toward the main road and fortunately I see a squadron composed of 16 cadets, and I assume that the one in charge must be the leader. They are in formation, and probably as was their wont, marching back to their quarters. I step in front, put up my hand, like a traffic cop. On command they halt. I approach the leader, and in the most sorrowful tone, I exclaim, “Captain,” (I really did not know his rank, but I thought it would be complimentary to address him in that manner.) “I did the most stupid thing imaginable.” I explain that my sister and brother are marooned in the car, that I had foolishly driven into a hole and that I could not extricate the vehicle. He asked where the car was, and this is when it all happened.
Now he really became a squad commander, it was “squad left, squad right,” and when we arrived at the place it was “squad halt!” I forgot “squad, forward march.” Now he surveys the scene, then like a drill he orders by name 4 cadets on each side of Ramona. Then the order comes out in a stentorian voice, “Squad, heave to, and lift the car off the ground!” Then turning to me, in the same tone, “which way do you want to face the car?” I said, meekly, “Toward the main road so that I can be on my way.” Meanwhile the squadron was holding Ramona aloft. And then in the same manner, he ordered the four cadets in front of the car to take positions in the rear and then what seemed like a super human effort, his voice rang out, “Men, propel the car onto level ground!” and with all their might, they did just that.
We thanked him profusely and he answered. “It is all in a day’s work. We were glad to be of service.”
Then the orders began again “Squad, fall in formation! Squad, forward march!” They marched away like true American soldiers that had followed orders and helped people in distress.
I’ve heard so many contradictory stories about our men in the armed services, but I can never forget the sterling qualities of our West Point Cadets.
Darling Linda, like most of the things that happened to me, I end this letter with the old cliché, “You had to be there to appreciate the incident.”
As ever devotedly,
P.S. I am making a copy of this letter and sending it to Laurie. I wish for both of my lovelies to be amused. – CS
Uncle Mike had a great idea. He would take my brothers and me to visit our cousins at sleep-away camp. Laurie and Ira were going to summer camp in the Catskills, the same camp Uncle Mike had attended when he was a kid. He had great memories of going to Camp Olympus and he was eager to show us the verdant grounds and, of course, see his other niece and nephew.
Early on the morning of August 16, 1969, we piled into his green two-door GTO (which Uncle Mike named “Boss”). Steven was riding shotgun, Mark and I were in the back. Uncle Mike was a big guy, in all dimensions. He was about 6’3” so the driver’s seat was positioned as far back as it would go. Since I had the shortest legs, I sat behind him. I was not yet 10, Uncle Mike was 23, Steven was 14 and Mark was 12.
Uncle Mike supplied 8 tracks to keep us entertained. I don’t ever remember riding in a car with Uncle Mike without music playing – he loved R&B and early rock ‘n’ roll. The “oldies” on WCBS-FM were the soundtrack for many car rides. That morning we set off from Canarsie listening to the Chambers Brothers on a trip that should have taken about two, maybe two and a half hours each way. It was already a gray and very humid day and perhaps that should’ve been a clue that we should postpone the trip. But, we barely noticed the weather in our excitement.
Things were proceeding uneventfully as we left Brooklyn, skirted Manhattan and headed through the Bronx. Then the traffic got heavy as we drove past Yonkers. We were approaching the Harriman toll when we came to a virtual standstill. Fortunately, Uncle Mike knew another route and we got off and made it to the Red Apple Rest Stop– a cafeteria-style restaurant that didn’t look like much to me, but it was a favorite of Uncle Mike’s.
I think sometimes he and his friends, at the end of an evening in Brooklyn, would take a ride “upstate” to the Red Apple. Anything beyond the Bronx was upstate to us; the Red Apple was about 40 miles outside the city. Apparently, in its heyday, comedians who performed at the hotels in the Catskills would congregate at the Red Apple at the end of their evening, too.
We had some breakfast there and got back in the car, still unaware that this was an inauspicious day to be making the trip. After we left the Red Apple, things got really interesting.
None of us realized that August 16th was in the midst of the Woodstock Music Festival. We were attempting to drive right by it because Camp Olympus was located a few miles from Bethel, the site of the concert. We couldn’t have picked a worse time to try to visit!
As we proceeded up Route 17 we saw cars parked on the side of the road; people abandoned their cars and made the pilgrimage on foot to Yasgur’s Farm (just like the song lyric described later). We finally understood what was going on – we put the radio on and heard the news. Many of the people had long hair, bell-bottoms, beads, sandals – the costume of the day – they looked pretty dirty, too. It was not a look embraced by either of my uncles, or my brothers. Each time we passed a group, Uncle Mike yelled “Hippie!!” out the window. I’m not sure why, maybe it was his merry, antic tone, but my brothers and I found this hysterical. We laughed every time he did it.
I got the sense that Uncle Mike didn’t much approve of the hippies. And, they looked back at us disinterested. Uncle Mike worked full time and, as far as I knew, didn’t partake of any kind of illegal substances. I don’t believe I ever saw him with a drink in his hand either. The counter-culture was as foreign to him as it was to me.
At a snail’s pace, we made it to the camp hours later than expected. At least I think we made it. I don’t remember much about the visit. Given the circumstances, and the weather (it was raining steadily), we probably made it pretty brief and started back home.
Uncle Mike navigated a very roundabout route toward home that I think took us through Pennsylvania and then New Jersey. The rain was unrelenting. It was nearly impossible to keep the windows from fogging up and now it was dark.
Uncle Mike tried every possible combination of defroster on high, low, cold air, warm air, and windows open, windows closed. It was a battle to see the road. I was given the choice of getting rained on with Uncle Mike’s window open or sweltering in the humidity with his window closed. I wanted a third choice.
The novelty of yelling “Hippie!!” had worn off. We had played all of Uncle Mike’s 8 tracks again and again. There were only so many times we could listen to the Chambers Brothers – even if People Get Ready and In the Midnight Hour were awesome songs. We were wet and hot and hungry and the trip home seemed never-ending. After a long, sweaty, aggravating day, the air in the car wasn’t too pleasant either.
Fortunately, Uncle Mike persevered. He had an uncanny sense of direction despite never having taken this particular route. We were incredibly relieved when we finally recognized the highway heading to the Verrazano Bridge. Even I knew my way home from there.
Needless to say, hours later than expected, we got back to East 91st Street. It wasn’t our most successful outing, but at least we had a story to tell. I could say that I was almost at Woodstock.