Travel, Illuminated

December 16th 1:00 am
A little nudge and then, “C’mon, it’s time to go.” It was the middle of the night, and my mother’s hand barely touched my shoulder, yet I jumped out of bed like it was Christmas morning. My canopy bed couldn’t even contain me—I bounced down and up on my mattress, threw on clothes that had been laid out earlier that day.

We were leaving. Heading to California. New Orleans to Los Angeles, by car, stopping only for bathroom breaks and food. Over the years I’d remember visiting monuments like the Alamo or the Grand Canyon or Carlsbad Caverns, but what appealed most with me was the idea of movement, of adventuring—of going. And this year—this trip—would be the one to pique the wanderlust in me although I was only eight years old.

My parents were both from Los Angeles, came here to marry and stayed. So, since I was a baby, we made an annual trek out west to visit grandmothers and grandfathers, aunts and uncles, cousins, and family friends. The very first time my parents brought me there, I was a six month bundle, and my Grammy, in her pink-flannelled robe, swooped out of her house, without so much as a hug for her son and daughter-in-law and carried me inside, stripped me naked, and gave me the once over to make sure I had all of the requisite parts, ten fingers, ten toes, two eyes, and a nose. Since that first visit, I would make the trip again and again, but wouldn’t really remember much until this time. Then, something happened.That year, my younger brother, Pio, and I piled into the back seat, each of us taking a window and staring out into the dark night as we watched our hometown slip slowly behind us. Our seatbelts were jammed into the crack of the seat, rarely used or even considered because they weren’t required then. It was the seventies, after all. For us, the plush backseat was a trampoline, game table, wrestling mat, and bed—anything but the safest spot in the car.

“Mark the time, kids!” Dad said as he popped two No Doz. For the next thirty-two hours, my father would subsist on No Doz and caffeine. He wouldn’t sleep and he’d hardly eat. Getting to California as quickly as possible, his primary goal. I can’t imagine how my father drove for a day and a half without reprieve. The one and only time mom tried to take the wheel, she nodded off and practically hurled us over the edge of the road within twenty minutes. But, my father prided himself on accepting no help and getting to his destination expeditiously. He used to tell me he was so tired he couldn’t remember the last thirty miles to his mother’s house.

2:45 am
Mom fiddled with her supplies in the front seat—her bag of tricks to keep everyone occupied: snacks, drinks, books, and toys. Her other job, when she wasn’t helping navigate, was to break up fights between my brother and me. And sleep. I remember her jet-black hair slowly tilting back until it touched the headrest, and then she’d be asleep, the antithesis of my dad, who was so wired, he hardly blinked.

The night we left, she had a thermos of hot cocoa for us, and we felt cozy and safe in that car.  I was content to simply watch as the highway stretched away from me, enjoying the feeling of forward momentum, loving the idea of moving through towns, cities, states, regions.  The car hummed quietly, the radio played so softly I couldn’t tell what song it was, and whoosh, I felt it. A rush. A charge. And even though I wasn’t in control of anything but being a kid—not the vehicle, plans, or schedule—I felt empowered, like I was flying, as the world soared past me.

Once we reached the interstitial space between towns where the road turned dark and the stars became luminous, Pio and I would finally grow tired, as the initial thrill of leaving would fade, and we’d realize it was the middle of the night. We slept. A pillow propped against each side of the car, our legs would tangle and kick, but we’d sleep until the first orange light of morning would wake us.

6:02 am
Seeing the sun ascend higher above a flattened horizon, it appeared bigger and brighter than it ever looked from my backyard or my bedroom window, where a cityscape somehow diminished it.  That day, we woke up before the light–black sky shifted to dark blue as color started pushing its way up and up. Then we saw it. A brilliant pink orb as if a magician pulled it from nowhere. Even as a child, I knew it was special. I believed I could touch it and would stay unharmed.

3:25 pm
Quiet, and then.

“Move your big foot!”

“My foot’s not even by you,” Pio said. “Stupid.” A quick kick.

“Mom! He kicked me!”

“I did not. She’s hogging the backseat.”

“His big butt is taking up more than half of the seat!!” I hollered.

“Ok, you two. Separate.” Mom turned back, a look in her eyes.

My brother and I glared at each other. “She started it,” he murmured.

Mom held up a warning finger—don’t, was what that finger meant.

I’m guessing there were at least ten mini-fights and one epic battle that trip, fists and hair-pulling and tears included, which would result in dad pulling over to the side of the road to set us straight. But what could you expect? Two kids trapped in the confines of a car for 1860 miles.  Five minutes later, though, we’d laugh at something silly and as fast as a gearshift, the mood would lighten.

6:10 pm
Night took forever to arrive it seemed, and when it did, dad would venture off of the interstate, but just barely, as he searched for a place to eat. We were approaching El Paso, and starting to feel the pangs of hunger despite all the junk food we’d already inhaled. The ultimate goal for both my brother and I, of course, was the Golden Arches. We’d make a game of trying to spot them from the interstate, and at night, the neon yellow and red titillated us even more, made us think we’d die if we didn’t have a hamburger and fries and shake from McDonalds.

Sometimes we’d get what we wanted, but dad was more partial to truck stops. There were bathrooms, a store, and restaurant at truck stops, so it was efficient and cheap to get in and get out.  The restaurants looked the same no matter what state we were in–sixties diner décor with vinyl chairs and florescent lights, country music always.

(photo: Gas Stations and Truck Stops of Days Gone By)

We stumbled in, crumpled but wired, happy for a change in venue.

“What’ll ya’ have hon?” the waitress with the high hairdo asked.

“I want a hamburger!” Pio yelled.

“That with fries?” she asked.

“Yes m’am!” He was thrilled, like it was a treat and we weren’t going to eat a hamburger the rest of the trip. But ordering it here was more like an adventure because the only time we stopped at these places was when we were on the road. The food tasted better there, and different kinds of people populated the truck stops. Travelers and truckers. Loners sitting with their cups of coffee and cigarettes. Kids like us bouncing in their seats.

December 17th 1:08 am
Pitch black stretched out in front of us. Mom and Pio were asleep and I sat behind dad watching the road with him, feeling a little like I was driving too.

“Watch for deer,” he said. “Look for the eyes. They glow.”  Beginning to tire, he bent his stiff neck; I’d rub his shoulders and act as sentinel.

We saw rabbits and deer, one small doe even jumped in front of the car. Dad tapped the breaks to avoid hitting her, and the sleepers in the car simply adjusted. I was excited, as if I’d witnessed something secret. Eventually, though, I’d become tired too, and while I felt guilty leaving dad to be the only one awake, I’d nod off with the rest of them, trusting him entirely to carry us through the night.

5:59 am
“Kids, wake up. Wake up,” Mom whispered, her hand softly tapping us. “We’re almost there.”

It was still dark but I instantly recognized the amber lights of the freeway, casting a brown glow onto the near empty road. Our Buick sped onward through the flashes. We didn’t have lights like those at home—only the plain white ones. I remember thinking that California was so modern, so cool, so advanced to have that color lights and as soon as I’d see them, I’d feel a tingle of anticipation knowing we were almost to Los Angeles.

Dad’s finger punched at the five radio station keys until he found a song he liked. We were in a new town with new stations, but it was easy for him to light on a favorite. Donna Summer: Last Dance. He turned it up and we started grooving in our seats. I suspect that he did that more to keep himself awake for the remaining twenty minutes of the drive, but at the time, we saw it as a celebration. Mom turned to us, smiling, relieved to be close to escaping the four-wheeled green machine, happy that she’d get to see her mother, we to see our grandparents and cousins.

“Almost to Kellogg Hill,” Dad said. “Keep your eyes peeled.”

Pio and I propped ourselves up on the backs of their seat, eyes glued to the horizon. Kellogg Hill was it. The pinnacle of the trip, maybe even bigger than arriving at my grandmother’s house. For, once we reached the top of the hill, Los Angeles would be illuminated, a city of a million lights. It was what we loved most. The moment was quick, and in subsequent years, I’d become angry with myself if I was too lazy to wake up and would miss it. Now, however, we were wide, wide awake, and the car moved upward, until we were at the summit.

The city of Los Angeles.

Amber and white sparkles like holiday lights covered the ground below us, denser in some parts than others, but still, reaching as far as I could see. The twinkle of a city more alive and electric than my own. I felt energized and not the least bit tired.

10:15 am
Alone for the first time, I explored my Grammy’s backyard, a place that seemed like it was from another time. The air was crisp and cool, without a drop of Louisiana humidity. Exotic plants, with the exception of the familiar wide-leafed mirliton vines hung down from a rigged laundry wire on posts. Her white stucco house had a matching dollhouse garage, holding boxes of loot, just waiting to be explored. The grass underfoot was springy as I walked around the yard, looking into corners, ducking under the fig tree. I loved being in this place. And I wasn’t sure which made me happier—being there or getting there.

Though I’d made the trip several times before and would make it even more after, it wasn’t until this one that ignited something in me and made the desire to travel a passion, driving most of my waking moments. From that young age onward, I’d always want to go.


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