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By Helen Black Wherein Old Mother undergoes a challenging life transition while en route from Portland, Oregon, to the Rocky Mountains with her five children on the annual vacation road trip Mother’s Day Out, Vol.2, No.6 July 10, 2010
Helen Winslow Swoosh, 16
aka Old Mother. Think a white Aldis Hodge. Official van DJ, chief tech support. future actor or politician, currently Libertarian Buddhist. Good with animals and small children. Nicknames: too cool for nicknames. Dinka in a past life. Total goofball, accident-prone (esp. before piano recitals). Talented artist. Future long and lanky dreamboat. Assistant tech support. Nicknames: Mountain Man, Bandaid Bobby.
Penrod, 12 ½
Miss Literary Omnivore Jr. (Miss O), 11 Legs start at shoulders. Smart as a whip, nose velcroed to book 24/7. Also total goofball. Nicknames: Rapunzel, Hydroponic Plant. Sparkles, 9 ½ She of the exquisitely chiseled features. Future Homemaker of America. Singing voice of Broadway caliber. Nicknames: Binky, Betty Crocker Jr.
ForeverBaby, 5 ½ Too young to tell. (Focus still on large muscle groups, building guns out of any available material, and showering kisses on his mother.) Nicknames: Dimples, Jibberjabber, Jibmeister, The Man, Hedgehog Bristleboy, and “INCOMING!!”
Fig.1. Innocents Abroad.
This is an excerpt from a book draft.
DAY 3 9 a.m. Lava Hot Springs, Idaho The children, limp as noodles after leaving the hot springs, contentedly draw pictures on 3 x 5 notecards with pens (inertia has prevented Old Mother from stopping at a dollar store for crayons as promised) while itemizing cuts and scrapes that have magically healed and disappeared in the mineral waters. We had the run of our beloved ramshackle hot springs inn on a weeknight, and the kids (who apparently don’t get out that much!) seem to view it as a combination of Lourdes and Disneyland: strings of lights twinkle in weeping willows during evening swim...the full hot breakfast buffet in the morning includes a platter of cream puffs drizzled with chocolate sauce. 9:30 a.m. Highway 30 South. Sound track: Deft Punk, perfect for waving fields of grain. Used to be Raffi, Burl Ives, and Woody Guthrie, with some Stan Ridgeway thrown in to keep Old Father sane on the way home. Two pre-teen feet in blue socks materialize on my armrests. “It’s too early for that, Penrod,” I say. I begin playing “This Little Piggy” on one of them and they are swiftly retracted. 10 a.m. Almost July and lilacs still in bloom all over southeastern Idaho. Lots of pretty LDS churches. “Look to the left, kids, there’s Bear Lake. A puddle left over from the great prehistoric lake that covered this whole area in the Miocene Age.” “That’s a puddle?” ForeverBaby exclaims. At Montpelier we turn right at the junction of 30 and 89. On this spot in 2001 Daddy made me laugh so hard I wet my pants when he asserted he’d rather give himself a lobotomy with an ice pick than listen to the piccolo solo in “Watch the Doughnut, not the Hole” one more time. Morning snack: three baby carrots, a piece of beef jerky and a baggie of Cheerios. Penrod refuses Cheerios, is on strike for some store-bought junk food but mother has economically packed all the snacks from home and is holding firm. 10:30 a.m. Welcome to Utah, briefly. First plea for orange soda heard from the rear. I’ve brought twenty-four cans of orange soda, to be dispensed at timed intervals. Sparkles asks me what my favorite kitchen utensil is. Narrowly miss a prairie dog while considering this question. “A spatula,” I finally say. Miss O. furiously scrivening her debut novel, “Travels With My Mother” (apologies to Graham Greene) in an 8 ½ x 11 spiral-bound notebook. 11 a.m. Second plea for orange soda. This is the third day of the three-day trip, the longest and the hardest. “Attention campers, at this time the orange soda is for display purposes only,” I joke. I remember why Old Father always stayed home to feed the chickens, flying into Colorado Springs mid-month to join us. A sudden high-pitched wail from the rear of the van makes that new place in my head I’ve just recently discovered snap like an old dried-up rubber band. I pull over, stop the engine, and hyperventilate over the steering wheel. The children are silent except for the wailer. I get out of the van. Swoosh gets out too and finds me doubled over by the rear bumper, crying “I can’t do this anymore, I can’t do it anymore!” He opens the side door, makes the wailer get out, gives her a sales talk, and puts her back in. “Be nice to her,” I say. He glares at me. “I’m TIRED of hysterical women,” he snaps. I’m ashamed. 11:30 a.m. Emergency McChickenburger stop at the McDonald’s in Evanston, Wyoming. Our color-coding draws smiles from an elderly Mennonite couple. (Key to a successful road trip #1: wardrobe colorcoding. High schoolers may opt out). Before eating, each child reapplies sunblock and then washes
hands with baby wipes, killing two hand-washing needs with one stone. (Key to a successful roadtrip #2: individual baggies of baby wipes.) 11:45 a.m. Unbelievably, ForeverBaby has fallen asleep, just as the ultimate contraband has come his way: French fries. Beside him, Penrod listens to his iPod, munching McChickenburger with a beatific smile. The girls, in their matching green polo shirts, have opted for nuggets. I do neck rolls. “I-80 in Evanston always feels like a 747 is going to come down over my head and land on the road in front of me,” I say to Swoosh. “This stretch is just one long airport runway. Talk about high country.” Swoosh nods, cues up Pink Floyd, and unwraps his McChicken. 11:46 a.m. His yelp wakes up ForeverBaby. “It’s SPICY!” he keens, flailing piteously for the water bottles we all scramble to hand him as though watering eyes have blinded him permanently. “Yeah, they’re spicy,” Penrod nods matter-of-factly between bites, “I don’t know why they made them spicy, they don’t usually.” “They’re not SUPPOSED to be spicy!” Swoosh cries, huffing and puffing. 11:47 a.m. Aerodynamics 101: You cannot spit an emergency cool-down mouthful of water out the window of a vehicle moving 80 MILES PER HOUR. “It’ll come right back at you—“ I screech, but not in time, and he turns back around looking like a shocked but grinning baby otter, face peppered with tiny, perfectly round little water drops. We all laugh hysterically. He punishes us by hooking the tunes into his own, bulbous, noise-cancelling earphones. 12:00 p.m. A state trooper races past us. A few minutes later we pass the scene of the accident, a couple rolledover cars, but no wreckage or ambulances. A man and a boy stand at the side of the road. “It doesn’t look like anyone got hurt because it just happened and there’s no ambulance,” I tell the children, who are now reading magazines. Swoosh cracks his earphones to point out: “Mom, they don’t even notice.” I say three Hail Marys and pray that nobody got hurt, or if they did, then not badly. 12:15 p.m. Another FREQUENT HIGH WINDS sign. “I don’t like the interstate,” I say to Swoosh, who can’t hear me through those damn noise-cancelling earphones. Suddenly without the music I feel shaky and insecure, like I don’t know where I am. In Wyoming Daddy always put on Sons of the Pioneers and sang “Tumbling Tumbleweeds.” I don’t know why but he always did that when we crossed the border into Wyoming. He always drove with us on the way back. A fight has erupted in the back seat over a hairbrush. I ignore it. 1:00 p.m. Off the interstate and onto Wyoming 414. Eldest Son relents and plugs the music back into the van’s sound system. We pass Fort Bridger but don’t stop as we visited there last year. I remember the grass in the picnic area was long, and we sliced the apples with a Swiss Army knife. Penrod is sleeping with his mouth open. I see a church sign: God may say wait but he never says worry. Swoosh rolls his eyes at another request to take dictation. “Hey, come on,” I say, angling down the rear-view to appeal to the girls, “I’m going to make a lot of money with this book so I can send you to Camp B. next year, yes, the one that Julia Roberts went to when she was little, and no, she wasn’t in my cabin, she was a little bit younger than me.” “TAKE THE DICTATION, TAKE THE DICTATION,” they squeal, bouncing up and down in their matching green polo shirts (green is the color of the day). Swoosh sighs and takes the dictation.
1:30 p.m. ForeverBaby wakes up. Talks on the walkie-talkie for half an hour with Sparkles. Mad Libs, I Spy, and The Word Game (each person adds three words to the sentence). The boys and I have a lively argument about what kind of climate is most conducive to breeding mosquitoes. 2:00 p.m. I brake for historical markers: 1825 Rendezvous. Despite the fact I tell the boys we’ll be stopping for gas soon, they avail themselves of the bushes. We gas up in McKinnon, where I somewhat anxiously calculate the remaining time, as I want to get to Aspen and over Independence Pass before it’s pitchdark. Realize we’ll get to the cabin around ten. Relent and buy the Cheetos; also authorize second orange soda. (Key to a successful road trip #3: bending the rules on the last day.) 3:00 p.m. Flaming Gorge, Utah. The van is ten years old and pretty slow on the steep upward grades. This is one of my favorite parts of the drive, as things begin to look alpine. We never did explore the side road to the dam. I reach out my hand. Swoosh takes hold immediately and without comment, anchoring it on his athletic-short clad knee for as long as I need. His hand is as large as my own, calm, comforting, stable. He is this kind of adult because Daddy made him so. I understand what the I Ching meant about when something is taken away, something is added. 4:00 p.m. Vernal, Utah. Time compresses on the downslope. I’m heading toward a phantom phone booth just over the border in Dinosaur, Colorado. Every year, after the unison cry Hello Colorado! I’d stop here and call Daddy at the office to share the news we’d made it. And every year he waited for the call. Understanding why it made me weep, he’d tease me gently, and I could hear his smile. (In later days I used a cell phone.) This year I don’t make the call. The promised land has come and gone, and I face forward, drive straight through, just glancing in the mirror to catch a sunset I never saw coming. Then I tip it down to count the children; some are sleeping, some awake. This whole trip—from the high buttes of eastern Oregon where you can see the ruts from the Oregon Trail, all the way across the great basin of Idaho and Utah into Colorado—this whole trip is one long eternal geology lesson. In real life, however, there exists no parallel to what’s known as a geologic nonconformity: a period of time in which no artifacts are recorded. Each layer is full, it abides, no slate is ever wiped clean. I find this reassuring: just because it was a chapter, not the book, doesn’t mean it didn’t count. When we travel home I’ll be a different person, I’ll be me. But I’ll always have those phone calls, and so will he.