From an early age, my parents raised us to be travelers—more than tourists. We discovered gems nestled between our native Pennsylvania rolling ridges and river valleys: Caledonia, Greenwood Furnace, Rickett’s Glen, the Poconos, Laurel Highlands and Lake Erie, to name a few. I still remember the ache in my shin bones when I walked into Greenwood Furnace Lake.
On our first long distance road trip, my brother and I clambered into the backseat of a Chevy, separated only by two paper grocery bags filled with picnic food. My brother counted the rows of stitching in the cloth late model seat, divvied them up, and drew a battle line. I had my Rubic’s Cube, a few library books, and my own little fortress with the bag’s serrated edge as my parapet. Let’s just say my brother and I scrapped like healthy American kids.
We motored from Pennsylvania to Yellowstone National Park in three days, eating at rest stops and crawling into clean, hard beds late at night after Dad achieved the day’s pre-destined map point. A mathematician and surveyor by birth and trade, he plotted our entire two-week vacation on 3 x 5 index cards. Even at the naive age of ten, I sensed he was ambitious.
My mother is one of the most industrious people I know and vacations were no exception. She created her own fast-food restaurant for us, filling a cooler and grocery bags to the brim with peanut butter, Oreos, Fig Bars, Middleswarth BBQ chips, bologna and cheese, Campbell’s soup, and apples. We’d pull into the rest stop as soon as we crossed a state line, and maybe halfway in-between if the state was wide. My brother and I’d run around yelling and dodging dog piles. Meanwhile, Mom spread out our 1970’s “patchwork” tablecloth and prepared lunch on the Coleman Stove.
At every picnic table, at every rest stop, my Dad would unfold his map across Mom’s tablecloth, pushing it impatiently between the fig bars and chips. Then he’d draw a line with his thick muscular finger from point to point and exaggerate the miles we’d cover before our next stop. I’d squall and my brother would sulk—and for some reason, Dad would smile. As the bags wrinkled and collapsed, their contents dwindling, so did the gap to our final goal: Yellowstone.
“Get your head out of those books, kids! Look around! You might never see this again.” We barely raised our heads through Ohio, Indiana, and the wheat fields unfurling across the plains. We stared at the speeding, unfamiliar landscape every time he shouted at us against the road noise of his rolled down window, then we’d return to devouring books and shoving grocery bags back and forth until Mom’s hand swatted the air as a warning and the bags disintegrated into dust. We competed to be the first to recite the hundreds of signs on the way to Wall Drug in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, then we pocketed our wooden nickels and drove on. The Badlands and Mount Rushmore appeared and disappeared, curious foretellers of the ancient sights waiting for us. As the elevation lifted and the peaks rose out of the hard ground, I found one of my first great and lasting passions: the American West.
I never questioned how my school teacher father and stay-at-home mother (later, a nurse) fed, clothed, sheltered AND took us on a vacation every summer. Now, I know, and I carry on, packing a cooler on every trip longer than a half-day. I pull in at rest stops and stick my feet in the grass for awhile chatting with other travelers: they are friendlier at these plazas for some reason. I budget my food, exercise my legs, let the wind whip through my hair, and revisit my lost 10 year old self.
Like my mother, I fill my cooler with munchies: almonds, protein bars, apples, cheese, greek yogurt, and bottles of water. And 70% dark chocolate. If I’m really prepared, I grill chicken and hard boil eggs. Delicious. I plot out my route, tap points of interest into my GPS, and store important details in an app. I also find a comfort in smoothing out my own familiar tablecloth across a picnic table. Oh, if they could talk!
The apple has not fallen too far and I thank my parents for planting this seed. And it seems I’ve programmed it successfully into my own children’s DNA, as I’ve got a daughter and son-in-law living in China and a son planning a trip to the Philippines. I’m thrilled to watch them chase their lives all over this magnificent landscape because, as much as I miss them and worry a little, I know they’ll understand others—and themselves—a little better when they come back home.
Should I call my obsession with travel an addiction? I sometimes see raised eyebrows when I’m asked where I’m planning my next trip…as if they can’t. Can I say that, for me, it’s the pursuit of scenery, for natural perfection that startles and moves me? For time apart for silence and thinking? That I’ve found value in shedding my possessions and paring down to the necessaries for a time? Oh, I know I might be stretching here, but that I find another new—or old—piece of myself whenever I travel?
I was sad to see that my mother retired the old patchwork tablecloth this past Father’s Day. When I arrived at Little Buffalo State Park, I hugged my Dad, then turned to my Mom and asked what happened to the old tablecloth. “Oh, it wore out, I guess.” She smiled an apology, then we turned and stared at the brand new, mint green, noticeably thinner plastic cloth for a few minutes. She raised her eyebrows at me and marched over to the cooler to begin spreading our picnic across it.
I like to resolve concerns as soon as they appear in my life, but sometimes resolution is not swift. Or even an option. When that happens, I pack my bag and a cooler and push a little distance between myself and my life. Travel gives me time and space to reflect and dream again, which I sometimes mislay in my grownup life. It’s good to get away to be still.