When I was a kid, the grandest road trip we took as a family was camping to Mammoth Pools, which was only about an hour and a half away from home. My friends often took trips that spanned the United States but I was 17 before I ever stepped foot in San Francisco much less anywhere outside of California.
So when it came time for our eldest son’s Army National Guard Advanced Individual Training (AIT) graduation from Ft. Sill in Oklahoma, I had the wild idea of driving the 22 hours to go and bring him home.
My husband of 24 years was not quite as enamored of my suggestion as he had taken many road trips throughout his childhood and his memories were not quite as complimentary.
But seeing as flying wasn’t an option — and nothing was going to keep me from getting my boy — we girded our loins and planned a road trip.
First stop — a minor detour
We had a 22-hour drive ahead of us so it made total sense to make a detour, right? I love ghost towns but I’d never been to one so my husband — who is a master itinerary builder — managed to find a ghost town outside of Barstow, California for our first stop.
The Calico Ghost Town, established in 1881 and located in San Bernardino County, was a former mining town that once produced $86 million in silver. Walter Scott, of Knott’s Berry Farm fame, restored the town to preserve a part of California’s rich mining heritage for future generations to enjoy.
I was giddy — and out of breath. Nothing says you’re out of shape faster and in desperate need of more cardio than hiking up a ridge. By the top, I was wheezing and breathing hard as if I’d just run a marathon and barely crossing the finish line with a collapsed lung.
To be fair, I was also hiking in my Bear Paw boots, which are really not suitable for hiking but I can’t say that was the entire reason I was ready to pass out by the time we reached the scenic plateau. Let’s just say, working from home hasn’t done my fitness level any favors and leave it at that.
We poked around in the shops, paid the $3 for a walking tour down in the silver mine, learned a few things about mining life, cracked a few jokes about not being able to follow directions (at our core, we are rebels) and reemerged, blinking like moles at the bright sunlight.
As much as we would’ve liked to spend more time in Calico, the clock was ticking and we had miles to cover so we tipped our hat (and I emptied my boots of gravel) and hit the open road once more.
The Open — Never-Ending — Road
I grew up in the mountains below Yosemite National Park. I don’t blink an eye at long, winding roads with sheer drops below me. Roads that disappear into the flat expanse of more nothing … I don’t know what to do with.
Arizona, with the exception of Flagstaff, Highway 40 plows through country that made me want to stab a fork in my eye just to switch up the monotony of staring at absolutely nothing.
Scrub brush, red clay, prickly cacti, and lots of jackrabbits — for as far as the eye could see. I know that one person’s trash is another’s treasure but for me, this was the kind of place where dreams went to die. I couldn’t imagine why anyone would willfully choose to live there. However, I was also grumpy because my tush was tired of sitting so there was that, too. In other words, maybe it wasn’t that bad and I was just grouchy.
Arizona melted into New Mexico and the landscape didn’t change much. Aside from a few rocky plateaus erupting from the red clay, it was the same show on repeat.
For a native Californian, there were a few things that as a writer, had my brain questioning because I couldn’t make heads or tails of the “why” or “what” I was seeing.
Back in the day, Rt. 66 was a thriving interstate corridor that bustled with traffic. The towns that popped up catered to the travelers who were hustling their way across the United States for various reasons. But once the bypass went through, Rt. 66 became obsolete and many of the towns shriveled and died, leaving behind a shadow of their former greatness.
Boarded up homes falling into disrepair, graffiti on abandoned buildings, and faded kitsch everywhere — and I mean, everywhere.
In today’s world, the cultural appropriation of the Native American cultures that once called these places home, is a sharp reminder of how much has changed. Teepees and dinosaurs seemed to be the decorating theme of most places — something I didn’t quite understand until someone explained that aside from the Native American heritage there are still dinosaur bones to be found in the Arizona and New Mexico soil — and advertising both was killing two birds with one stone.
But there also seemed to be a lot of rusted school buses lying around in backyards. Was there a two-for-one special? Why would someone want a school bus in their yard? I couldn’t quite wrap my head around this decorating choice but we didn’t have time to unravel the mystery, so we pushed on.
Hold The Bedbugs, Please
Word to the wise — don’t leave your hotel accommodations to chance.
You used to be able to throw caution to the wind and pull into a town and find a hotel or motel room available — sometimes at a rock-bottom rate because they wanted to book the room — but those days are long gone.
We had plans to stop in Flagstaff but as we rolled into the scenic town around 11:30 p.m. after 13 hours of driving, we discovered to our dismay there were literally no vacancies in any of the hotels or motels in the area. We ended up driving 45 minutes further to Winslow and booking the last hotel room available.
As you can imagine, the room wasn’t the Ritz but it was a bed and we weren’t sleeping in our rental so we weren’t going to complain.
The next morning, having learned our lesson, we quickly booked our next night’s hotel room right away, which was in Lawton, Oklahoma, where we would be picking up our son from Ft. Sill and it would turn out to be the best night’s sleep of our entire trip.
We wouldn’t be that lucky again but at least we had beds and for that we were grateful.
Cue The Waterworks
If you’ve never been on a military base, let me just say … there are a lot of rules. We had to get special day passes to be on base, which included a temporary photo ID and while everyone was polite and courteous, it was very apparent we weren’t in Kansas anymore.
Ft. Sill’s primary function is to train artillery soldiers for the Army and Marines. The Field Artillery Training Center, home of basic combat, one-station unit training, and advanced individual training, is the largest field artillery complex in the free world. It’s a military city with its own rhythm and I was in awe that my son had created memories there.
Full disclosure, I’m a crier. If I can break down and sob during a parade, you can be sure that I leaked a few tears at my son’s AIT graduation.
I was able to hold myself together as long as I didn’t look at him in his dress uniform or remember that as an adorable 1-year-old he used to drink his bottles hands-free, clenching the nipple between his teeth as he crawled around our tiny apartment.
Now he was wearing a uniform, looking very adult-y, and I just wanted to bawl with pride.
It was a long road to this moment and he earned every accolade, every victory. As a mom, this was a shining yet bittersweet moment. He was still my boy, but there was something different about him. He stood a little taller, spoke with more confidence, and there was a watchfulness to his gaze that wasn’t there before.
Our son graduated and after collecting his things, we stuffed him into the small rental and turned around and hit the road again.
No rest for the wicked — or the determined to get home.
Grand Plans Hit Fresh Reality
Originally, we had plans to hit the Grand Canyon on the way home. Long story short, we canned that idea. After so many hours on the road, and the prospect of more hours behind the wheel, we all agreed, we’d do it another time, perhaps when we were able to have all the family with us. As it was, our daughter was Tinkerbell-level-irritated that we had to leave her behind so this decision worked out for everyone.
We put the pedal to the metal and started the long drive home. We made quick pit stops at historic Rt. 66 spots — the Blue Swallow Motel, Teepee Curios, and the Cocono Tower Gas Station to name a few — but for the most part, we drove like the wind to get back home.
Our son slept through a lot of the drive (none of our children enjoy our ‘80s hair band music choices) and my husband and I traded off driving so that neither of us joined the cacti on the side of the road.
There was no greater joy than crossing into Oakdale, knowing our beds were only moments away.
No Place Like Home
We often jokingly refer to our bed as “the boat” because the simple act of breathing causes it to creak and groan like a ship at sea during a storm. But nothing felt more heavenly than our old boat after a few days spent crimped in a car.
It’s only taken half a lifetime but I finally managed to check off “road trip” from my bucket list.
We may not have been anywhere fancy — sorry Grand Canyon, we’ll catch you next time — but the company was perfect. After 26 years together, there isn’t much we can’t laugh about — even when GPS sends us on an adventure down a desolate road cutting through the Mojave desert that we christened “Murder Road” for the crazy stained-blood-red colored asphalt — I can’t imagine road trippin’ with anyone else.
We came. We saw. We ate our weight in snacks.
But we made awesome memories.
And, as with all road trip adventures … that’s all that matters.