Monday, March 21, 2011

The Great Road Trip

I'm told that the 1950's and 1960's were the era of the great family road trips.  Station Wagons stuffed to the gunwales with suitcases (and more piled on-top) allowed families to tour America, stopping at road-side venues for entertainment, meals, or just to see what was there.

As a child, I remember our family piling into the car with a focus on 'getting there'.  I remember bathroom breaks when we stopped for gasoline, and not many other stops.  BTW, in those days, we stopped at "service stations".  They were usually an auto-mechanic's shop with a couple of gas pumps.  Restrooms were "around back", and usually just as greasy as the bays where repairs were performed.  Mom's admonishment of "don't touch anything" carried an entirely different connotation than usual.

But, in the spring of 1987, Carol and I decided to plan a traditional road trip.  Dad was in San Diego, we had a reliable car (the first-ever "brand new" car for us), and we had managed to save a little money.  So, we carefully planned the major stops we wanted to make, and built-in enough extra time to allow us to make unplanned stops for something interesting.

In January, Carol had been the unwitting victim of an uninsured driver's failed attempt to outrun a traffic light.  She was still experiencing quite a bit of back pain, and we needed to be extra flexible insofar as our schedule.  As it turned-out, we gave ourselves too much extra time and arrived almost a day early.

The major stops on the way to California were Carlsbad Caverns, Fort Lowell, Saguaro National Monument, and Yuma Territorial Prison.  For the trip back, the planned stops were: Quartzsite Arizona, The Grand Canyon, Meteor Crater, and Palo Duro Canyon.

Carlsbad Caverns were fun.  Because of Carol's back, we avoided the long hike by riding the elevator.  Shaun was quite small, and didn't realize the elevator had gone down from ground-level.  This led to some remarkable questions.  The first was "where are the windows?", which I answered.  The second question was even more astute; "what's holding up the roof?".  He didn't seem to be afraid, or particularly concerned.  It was a very practical question, asked in a very calm manner.  I laughed out-loud as I once-again realized what a wonderful gift it is to be able to observe children.  Each new experience must somehow be added to their small  framework of experiences.  And, new experiences which vary significantly from past ones generate delightful questions.  We took a LOT of photographs, primarily without flash, using long exposures and the permanent lighting.

Our road Atlas, at that time, had a space marked in Tucson for something like 'historic Fort Lowell'.  Well, the idea of visiting the remains of an actual 'old west' fort was too much of a temptation.  I successfully found "Fort Lowell rd", and assumed that the fort must be somewhere along that road (it certainly sounded reasonable).  I further assumed that there would be something like historical markers to lead one to the fort.  But, after driving along the road for several miles, I began to distrust my assumptions.  Following Carol's advice, I stopped at a convenience store, hoping to get confirmation or directions.  Much to my surprise, the attendants there were completely unaware of any "fort" in or near Tucson.  And, they had no idea why the road was named 'Fort Lowell'.  So, I continued 'following my nose', and found 'Fort Lowell Park' at the very eastern end of Fort Lowell rd.   The park was a sports complex.  But, we noticed a covered, fenced-in, area apart from the other facilities.  There, we found the remains of an adobe wall, with a sign telling the history of the fort.  We didn't stay too long.

The Saguaro National Park was unlike anything I had seen up to that point in my life.  The Saguaro lives naturally only in the Sonora desert (despite what I saw in all those western movies), and don't grow their first 'arm' until 50 to 100 years of age.  And, the adults are HUGE, reaching 50 feet in height and 6 tons in weight.  Unfortunately, they are not as picturesque up-close as I had imagined.  It seems that a variety of birds excavate cavities in the plant to use as nests.  And, while that is natural, it does detract from the beauty of these giants.  We spent an hour or so doing some creative photography.

Where the Saguaro Nat'l Park is loaded with plant life, the area around Yuma was mostly barren except for areas of obvious intense irrigation.  It was about mid-April, and the temperatures were pushing 90-degrees.  And, the sun!  Somehow, I would have expected solar intensity to be fairly constant along a given latitude, but the sun is tougher in Southern Arizona than in North Texas.  The prison is well worth a visit.  But given the heat, I was struck with the thought that the prisoners in the "holes" (used for extra punishment) had it far better than those in the "yard"...and exposed to the sun.

Between Yuma and San Diego is an expanse of HARSH desert.  After the first hour or so, I was struck with thought that San Diego MUST have been discovered by sea.  That desert would surely have discouraged even the most hardy explorers.  We entered San Diego with a combination of dismay and relief.  Relief that we got through the desert ok.  But dismay at being back in a 'big city' after so many days of small towns and open expanses.

Our visit in San Diego was great.  I hadn't seen my Dad in a couple of years, and had never met his soon-to-be wife.  They took us to SeaWorld, the San Diego Zoo, several different beaches, a couple of missions (more photos), and a number of their favorite places.  Unfortunately, the profuse vegetation around San Diego completely overwhelmed Carol's system, and triggered intense allergic reactions.  Still, she managed to smile most of the time, and had a good time despite her discomfort.

The last week in April, we began our return trip.  After several hours' drive we reached Quartzsite, Arizona.  Due to our interest in gems and minerals, we were aware of Quartzsite Pow Wow, held in January.  And, I assumed (there is that word again), that there would be 'some' permanent facilities...we were really surprised.  As I remember it, we found one gas station, one mobile-home-turned-jewelry-store, and a few other buildings that looked vacant.  BUT, we did see a yard full of rock, and a sign indicating rocks for sale.  The owner emerged from a very small (about 10' x 10') building, and introduced himself as "Grandpa Rocky".  We spent the next couple of hours scouring a yard-full of rocks that must have covered 2-to-3 acres of land.  "Grandpa Rocky" told us the story behind countless rocks and minerals, and many of the treasures he sold us remain in our possession to this day.

From Quartzsite, we made our way toward Prescott Arizona.  The roads are indirect, and follow the shape of the mountains.  The road was probably more suited to a motorcycle (or roller-coaster) than a car.  And our family's ongoing issue with motion-sickness overtook all of us.  By the time we reached Prescott, we were all miserable, and in need of rest.  So we found a hotel and after brief naps, searched for the closest restaurant.  There was a line out the door, so we knew the restaurant had to be good.  The receptionist asked "smoking or non-smoking".  And, upon selecting non-smoking, we were startled to be whisked immediately into a nearly-empty dining area.  This was in the early days of smoke-free dining, but I have never seen such a contrast between smokers standing in-line to be seated, and non-smokers dining almost alone.

When Shaun arose the following morning, his first action was to pull-back the curtains, and proclaim "it snowed!".  I was naturally doubtful, was the last week in April!  But, he was correct.  Our car was resting beneath about 3-inches of snow.  And, snow was still falling.  Sensing that our Grand Canyon visit was in danger, we rapidly packed the car, and headed to Williams...the "Gateway to the Grand Canyon".  At an information center, we asked what advice was being given about the canyon.  She responded with two words: "don't go".

Finding our way to Interstate-40, it was clear that the snow was getting worse.  So, we carefully headed east in an attempt to avoid getting "snowed in" anywhere.  The evergreens were soon covered in snow, and Carol was fascinated with their beauty.  So much so, that she shot about 100 photographs of snow-covered trees.  Remember, this was before the day of digital cameras.  So, a hundred exposures meant the use of four rolls of film.

At Meteor Crater, we entered the doors of the building just-in-time to hear an employee yell; "they just closed the interstate".  We were naturally relieved to have avoided being stranded, and happy to be in a snow-free area.  So, we paid our admission, and spent some time in their exhibits.

Our next planned stop was Palo Duro Canyon.  Carol had spent most of her childhood in Amarillo, and her family had frequently visited Palo Duro Canyon.  To me, it was a new experience.  The descent into the canyon required one to be fully focused on driving.  The descent was fairly steep, there was no shoulder to the road, and turns were sharp.  Once to the canyon floor, we found a place to park and began exploring.  At that time, there was a large erosional 'cave' that fascinated Shaun.  It appeared that rain had found a small hole in a plateau, bored down a dozen feet or so, then egressed horizontally.  Shaun had a great time climbing in, around and through the 'cave', and was soon worn-out.

The remainder of the trip went as-planned and involved little more than driving home.  Our turbo-charged Chrysler Laser, rated at 22mpg city and 25mpg highway, had averaged over 36mpg for the trip.  Individual tanks of gas had exceeded 40 mpg.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Put your shoes on, you look like a bunch of hillbillies!

My paternal grandmother was Jeanette (Willie) McCarty.  Her married names were Abbott (when married to my biological grandfather), and Wilkins (when married to my Dad's step-father).  And, it is sad to say that it took me many years to learn to like her.

The title of this entry is a quote from her, in truth, my earliest memory of anything she said.  My Dad enjoyed 'going barefoot' around the house (and sometimes outside the house).  And, like most small boys, my brother and I followed his example...only we were pretty likely to go barefoot outside the house as well.  And, to be scolded for doing as we had always done seemed really "mean" (to a child probably around the age of six).

"Memaw" as she was known to my east coast cousins had left school after the third grade.  She was married at the age of 12, and had endured six pregnancies by the age of 21.  The first three children were stillborn or miscarried.  The last three were born healthy, and (obviously) include my Dad.  Family lore holds that she divorced her first husband for adultery shortly after the youngest son was born.  So, around 1936 ,she was a single mother, in the middle of the 'great depression', before 'single mother' was really part of the American vocabulary.

She worked in a factory making commercial ovens.  This required regular heavy lifting, and although she was very slender, she was also very strong.  But, as a single mother, she couldn't afford very much for her children.  I remember once, going with my Dad to visit the "old neighborhood".  He had contacted a friend from school, and we drove to their home for a visit.  I was probably around 10, but the visit made a huge impression on me.  As best I could tell, Dad's school-friend lived in the only building on the entire street that was still inhabited.  There were no cars, bicycles, or children in front of any of the row-houses on the street.  In Dad's youth, it must surely have been different, but in my mind, it was right out of the "Twilight Zone".  I remember thinking we should be gone before nightfall...and seem to have had some thoughts about zombies.

Before too long, she married Alec (Alexander?) Wilkins.  As a child, I thought of him as a very kind, gentle, and friendly person.  At the time, I was oblivious of the fact that he had suffered a significant stroke and had a drinking-problem.  Sure, he took me into the local bar/pub with him, but what did I care what he was drinking, I got a soda and a grilled-cheese sandwich!

Dad's step-dad readily admitted to having had a bad temper in his younger days (something my Dad confirmed with some of his personal experiences as a child), but he was always kind to me and seemed to REALLY regret his behavior.  But together, he and my grandmother had raised three very solid members of society.

Living some 1400 miles apart, it was not unusual for several years to elapse between visits "back east".  And, each time, I found my attitude toward my grandmother softening.  Her tone was still harsh, but I began to notice subtle things that gave-her-away.  She never stopped criticizing our shoe-less-ness, but I remember noticing that when she said it, there was a slight smirk on her face as she turned-away.  And I slowly came to realize that what I had interpreted as disgust at us being uncivilized, was more like a special game that she played with our family only.

Sometime in my teens, our arrival for one of our visits happened just a matter of days after a major altercation between Dad's parents.  As I understood the story, Alec had returned home late, very intoxicated, and tracked mud or dirt into the house that had just been vacuumed.  My grandmother used the metal tube of the vacuum-cleaner (some call this the "wand) as a club, and bludgeoned him up the stairs to his bedroom.  The following morning, he had come downstairs while she was cooking, with no memory of the beating, and commenting that he must have fallen sometime in the previous evening.  Her angry heart melted, and she remembered how much she loved him. 

Upon hearing my grandmother relate the story of the vacuum-cleaner beating, I began to realize just how deeply she cared for people.  It was rarely evident in her words, but was shown in what she did.  Her life had made her emotionally hard and mentally strong.  I suspect I've never met a tougher woman.  She was a survivor who was highly focused on assuring that her family survived.  Within the framework of Maslow's hierarchy, her life was completely focused on the "deficiency needs", especially physical and security needs.

Dad always said she was a "special lady".  I wish it hadn't taken me so long to see that he was right.