A couple of weeks ago, something reminded me of the greatest trip I’ve ever been on, and I thought: Oh, I wonder if, when I blogged about it, I mentioned that.
Then I went back through eight years of this blog (that’s right, I’m term-limited out of blogging now) and was astonished, gobsmacked, amazed, to find out I’ve never written about it.
Truly, it had a huge impact on my life, I’ve written essays in actual newspapers about it, and yet, I’ve never told it here. Madness.
So, with summer just about over, here goes: I want to tell you about the summer of 1984, when a man, his wife, his 12-year-old daughter, and 8-year-old son (Me!) drove from Commack, N.Y., to California and back in a Winnebago motor home, over six glorious, occasionally foul-smelling weeks, and my entire world was opened up like a curtain at a Broadway show, revealing backstage.
It all started because my father was a schoolteacher, and in the 1983-84 school year he was granted a sabbatical. It was common for NYC teachers back then, and so for a whole school year my Dad planned a trip that sounded ridiculous on paper: The four of us, in a 26-foot Winnebago motor home, eating, sleeping, living in it all together, for six weeks.
We’d drive from our home on Long Island to Knox, Pa., on June 15, our first stop, and from memory, I want to say we arrived back home on July 28 or 29th. (There was a long, long period, I’d say at least 10 years afterwards, where my father, in front of friends, would ask me to recite the entire itinerary in order, and I could do it. If challenged right now, I could probably still get it 80 percent right.)
My mother and father had been counselors on summer teen tours in the late 1960s, but this was going to be a whole different thing.
We threw questions at my father all year, fast and furious:
— “We’re going to go to the bathroom in this thing, then emptying it all outside?”
— “Whaddaya mean, my bed turns into our kitchen table?”
— “I’ve got to be with my sister every minute of every day, for six weeks?”
There was skepticism everywhere. But my father’s enthusiasm was so overwhelming, so overpowering, that eventually I think I just gave up doubting him.
“We’re going to see America!” he’d shout, like a TV evangelist. “We’re going to look at incredible blue skies, and smell amazing air. It’s going to be great!”
Thirty-three years later, I can tell you: He undersold it. The trip was magical. Life-changing. Incredible.
We saw things my 8-year-old eyes had never seen. I can still remember so many details, huge and small: The huge ones? Seeing the Grand Canyon at sunrise, and sunset, still the most beautiful thing in nature I’ve ever seen.
The elk and moose at Yellowstone National Park. The majesty of Mount Rushmore. The enormity of Hearst Castle. The coolness of the “Four Corners,” monument, where Utah, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico meet.
The grandeur of Old Faithful, and Yosemite, and taking a walk with my Dad down some trail to a river, and sticking our feet in and it feeling just glorious.
And the small details, I remember just as much: The yellowed piece of paper that had our itinerary on it, so we always knew where we’d be going next.
The cabover mattress/sleeping compartment above the driving area where my parents slept, where I spent most of the time we drove, watching America from a unique perch. My “job” was to record every expense of the trip in a little spiral notebook, and I was very proud to have that job.
The flat tire we got near Yosemite. The time my friend Andrew, vacationing with his family in Colorado that summer, clogged our little toilet. The hole-in-one I got in mini-golf somewhere in South Dakota. The complete shock and joy we felt when we found Hebrew National hot dogs in, I think it was, Minnesota.
It was unlike any trip I’d ever taken, or probably ever will take again. Was it all sunshine and roses? Of course not. We were an American family, so we fought sometimes, got sick of each other, complained there was nothing to do (KOA campgrounds, where we usually parked overnight, were not exactly hotbeds of excitement, but they did offer warm showers.)
When it was finally over, and we returned back to our little slice of suburbia, I remember being thrilled to be back in a real bed.
And more than a little sad, that this wild and crazy adventure was over.
I’ve often said, and many people who I’ve talked to about this trip have said, that I was at the perfect age to enjoy the trip. Not too young that I didn’t know what was going on, but not too old that I thought I was too cool for all of this (My sister, of course, has different memories of the trip, nowhere near as positive as mine.)
It was the summer of my life, and a summer I’ll never forget. And if I can ever convince my wife and family to climb aboard a motorhome, I know they’ll have the journey of their lives.