We found out, too late, that the rules for booking a family of four on a frequent flyer flight had changed. We’d never had any previous difficulty scheduling a round trip a few months before our intended departure date, but reservations were now required a year in advance. That deadline was long past. Our vision of a pristine beach, an ocean the color of turquoise and a luminescent sky dotted with parasailors vaporized.
In recent years we’d had the opportunity to explore the country via the free flyer miles and hotel points my husband, Bob, earned with his consulting job, but that wasn’t always the case. Through most of our child-raising years summer travel meant taking Highway 50 out of Sacramento to the Sierra Nevada Mountains and pitching a tent next to a creek. I had a love/hate relationship with those camping trips. The kids would poke at a fallen log and stir up a hornet nest, stumble and fall into a cold stream, or aim a squirt can of cheese product the wrong way and end up with hair spiked in sticky yellow goop. The outhouse experience, holding our small sons over a gaping toilet filled with dark, stinking sewage, became fodder for campfire horror stories. But in the first moments, when I appraised the location of the picnic table, reached for the plastic checkered tablecloth and unpacked a bottle of wine, my hopes would soar as high as the majestic firs towering over us. Nothing since then has quite compared to the pure joy of that initial, if fleeting, vacation moment.
Maybe it was the memory of those camp-outs that gave us the impetus we needed to think past our disappointment over Florida. We considered the alternative – stay home – but someone tossed out the words “road trip!” with the same reckless abandon that spurred John Belushi to yell “food fight!” in Animal House. We decided to hit the road, wherever that road might lead.
It turned out the road led to Eureka, a modest coastal town in Northern California. Bob had noticed a photo in a Humboldt County brochure that showed a redwood carving of a bear eating an ice cream cone, and the carving reminded him of the simpler times he’d experienced on family vacations as a kid. Maybe, too, he realized we couldn’t hold on to our children any more than he could hold on to his childhood travels with his parents and brothers. Our sons were fifteen and eighteen – almost too old for these cozy family jaunts of ours – so he may have realized this would be a sentimental journey.
During our sojourn the search for old-fashioned America became a travel game and included anything we saw that we considered “Americana”: A lone scarecrow standing in a barren field (“Look, he scared the crop out of it,” Nick drawled); a diner in the tired little town of Rio Del; a tattooed mountain man selling six-foot tall Bigfoot sculptures in Orick. We explored an isolated stretch of beach appropriately called The Lost Coast; ate cherries from a roadside stand; and one afternoon, exhausted, we plopped down in our hotel room and watched an old Batman movie starring Michael Keaton. Watching Batman battle it out with The Joker on a summer afternoon is not something I would ever do at home, but it was exactly the right thing to do at that particular moment.
Near the end of the trip we sat on the beach and watched the sun go down over the Pacific Ocean on the summer solstice. A few scattered clusters of people had lit bonfires. But as we sat on the sand welcoming the beginning of summer, we found ourselves glancing at a man zigzagging purposefully toward us, and for the first time since our vacation started we were on edge. We waited, and when he finally reached us he smiled and said what a grand sunset it was. Then he handed us a flyer and continued on his way.
When we got back to the hotel I retrieved the crumpled paper from the pocket of Bob’s sweat jacket. There was a photograph of the man from the beach standing beside his specially constructed and patented greenhouse. He had achieved his dream of growing summer vegetables in the unfavorable coastal environment, and he was ready to take orders from other hopeful gardeners.
By this time we’d forgotten about our longed-for Florida vacation. We’d watched the sun go down on the summer solstice, and we knew that somewhere in Eureka there was a man determined to harvest fresh tomatoes no matter how rugged the terrain or how chilly the climate. The beach was just one of his sales routes. Americana in the form of a small town entrepreneur.
The next day we started the long drive home, knowing it was probably the last road trip we’d take together. Halfway back, about twenty miles north of a town called Willets, we passed a barn with a giant message emblazoned across the side of the barn that faced the highway. We all stared at the huge words as we drove past. They were strange, surprising words to find on the side of a barn in the middle of nowhere. I like to think they were meant for weary travelers who have reluctantly closed a chapter in their lives.
“Don’t Forget The Magic.”
Postscript: It is now six years after that final 2006 road trip. Our “kids” are twenty-four and twenty-one. Our older son, Nick, lives four hundred miles away from us, in LA, where he works as a film editor. Our younger son still lives with us, but these days the only road trips he takes are with his friends. I have not forgotten the magic.