Remember the “family vacation?” Not the high-end, modern, version so often depicted in television and films, matching luggage and airplanes, but the old-school, load everything in the car and driver there family vacation? Roadside rests, gas stations, fast food, or the deluxe meal at a chain restaurant, sleeping in the car, drooling on the window, no cell phones, ipods, video games, DVD players or internet access, only the radio stations fading in and out, passing through one town after another?
The atmosphere during my childhood was often unpleasant, to say the least. It was filled with the challenges of enduring living with an abusive, violent, alcoholic, drug addicted, father, and all the complications there-of. Not exactly my favorite subject. I’ve learned, however, that not stating that can give the reader an inaccurate impression, one that I occasionally end up having to correct later. Sometimes, it doesn’t matter, that inaccurate impression. Sometimes, it does. So-called “happy memories” from that era of my life are tough to find. I spent so much time hating the traveling hillbilly atmosphere of my growing up years, that the possibility of there having been any romance to the traveling about and constantly moving, was lost on me. Across the Continental Divide and the Mississippi River by age two, the passing landscape a blur of golden fields, deep green forestry, and hushed hues of shadowed mountains, majestic and otherwise, my early fascination with new places gave way to a kind of malaise at the prospect of travel. By the time I was entering the sixth grade, I didn’t want to go on these trips anymore, whether they lasted the weekend or were for two or three weeks during the summer. The family travels in conjunction with our nomadic changes of residence, left me feeling like every place was transitory. Three years in one town and the business signs on the main drag didn’t look any more familiar to me than any place else I’d ever lived, I was still a stranger. All that passing scenery out the car window was great, but I wanted to stay home. I wanted to know where home was.
We traveled on the cheap, ice chests held our food, no showers for days, until we got “there” and no extras. Souvenirs were small if any, and of the usual variety, a pennant banner, a giant pencil. I had a pink comb from Yosemite that I carried around in my back pocket, or the side pocket on my painter pants until the little blue flowers and the words “Yosemite National Forest” had rubbed off. Postcards were cheap and it was suggested once that a collection of matchbooks be started seeing as how they were free. None of us was interested in that idea. Rocks, pine cones, pieces of driftwood, sea shells, a beaded change purse from some town in Nevada, all long since discarded. When and if I ever want to visit those mementos from my youth, I can find exact replicas in most any thrift store or antique shop. It seems no one kept those giant pencils.
The road signs and exit names were my first reading primer. Fantastic names derived from the patchwork history of this country, Tassajara. Albuquerque, Bogalusa, and Biloxi. Looking out at the towns we passed through in the night, everywhere and nowhere, Pomona, Odessa, Grand Junction, Springfield, I used to wonder what it was like to live there, to live somewhere, to not be moving. Visible from the highway every now and then, a light would be on in someone’s kitchen window, a glimpse of someone standing at a sink washing dishes, I’d wonder what they had for dinner, imagine then clean sheets and a good bed to sleep in, someplace safe, without a nightlight.
All the highlights were duly pointed out and noted, the churning waters of “the mighty Missasip,” the same of the Great Lady Colorado. I hung my legs over the edge of the grand canyon, stood in the center of the Four Corners, walked through ruins and remains, forts, reservations, conservations, burial grounds, caverns, played in the snow on a few mountains, swam in the icy waters of their lakes and in the Pacific Ocean as well as the warmer waters of the Gulf of Mexico. I hiked through Yosemite, not the touristy part, lived in the desert for a time, and grew to appreciate the solace of vast open spaces, being able to see the stars in the night sky and having an unobstructed view all the way to the Horizon in the daylight.
I had forgotten how fun it sometimes was, when I was still young and small, when the family would go on these trips, often with my grandparents or family friends. From California to Mississippi, from Texas to Mississippi to California, to Utah, Colorado, Oregon, Washington, sometimes riding in the back of a camper, sometimes in the back of a pick-up truck into the mountains. Setting out in the hours before dawn, bleary-eyed but wide awake, on the road watching the world wake up as we began, know that, back then, the best time to drive through L.A. was at two in the morning, the freeways practically empty. The mystery of the unfolding highway, the anonymity of being strangers in places new to us, a band of gypsies, playing our songs around some campfire we managed to build in the dark.
My longing for roots undiminished, eventually I discovered that it really is true that home is where your heart is. They say it is in the center of one’s chest, but that’s just anatomy. For me, home has become my family, my husband, and my son, home has become the quiet place where I can write. Home has become the rail towns of the San Joaquin Valley and the mournful lullaby of the trains passing through in the night on their way to places unknown. What I gathered from the rootless existence of my youth, from the traveling carnival caravan of setting up and breaking camp, is that home is someplace of memory, an undisclosed location carried within each of us, it is the only way to never be without one.
“Gypsy” was a nickname given to me by my grandfather during a time when I was continuously packing a bag to stay with one relative or another. As of 2019, this author’s lifetime total for changes of residence, over the course of three states and five decades, is over thirty.
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