Remember the “family vacation?” Not the high-end modern version so often portrayed on television and in films, luggage, and airplanes, but the old school, load everything in the car and drive-there family vacation? It was the ear of roadside rests, gas stations, fast food or the deluxe meal at a chain restaurant, sleeping in the car, drooling on the window, or traveling in a camper. There were 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 of my upbringing was often unpleasant, to say the least, filled with the challenges of living with an abusive, violent, alcoholic, drug-abusing parent. (Not exactly my favorite subject.) I had spent so much time hating the traveling hillbilly atmosphere of my youth that the possibility of there having been any romance to the traveling and the places we visited, 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 anymore. The family travels in conjunction with our nomadic changes of residence had left me feeling like every place I went to was transitory. Three years in one town and the business signs on the main drag didn’t look familiar to me. I was still a stranger. All that scenery 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 there were any, and of the usual variety. Pennant banners, a giant pencil, I had a pink comb from Yosemite that I carried around in my back pocket until the little 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. Rocks, pine cones, pieces of driftwood, seashells, a beaded change purse from some town in Nevada, all long since discarded. When and if I ever feel some longing for those mementos from my youth I can visit exact replicas at most any thrift store, seems no one kept the giant pencils.
The road signs and exit names were the reading primer of my youth, fantastic names derived from the patchwork history of the 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 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 of the highlights were duly pointed out and noted, the churning waters of the mighty “Missasip,” the same of the great lady Colorado. I sat with my legs over the edge of the Grand Canyon. I stood in the center of the Four Corners, walked through ruins and remains, forts, reservations, conservations, burial grounds, caverns, played in the snow on various mountains, swam in the icy waters of their lakes, in the Pacific Ocean, and 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 to the horizon in the daylight.
I had forgotten how much fun it used to be sometimes when I was still young, and small when the family would go on these trips. Often my grandparents and family friends, who were sure to chip in for expenses, were along. We’d caravan in more than one vehicle, from Texas to Mississippi one year with some of us riding in the back of a camper. Setting out in the hours before dawn, bleary-eyed but wide awake, on the road watching the world wake up as we began, knowing that, back then, the best time to drive through L.A. was at two in the morning. The mystery of the unfolding highway, the anonymity of being strangers in places new to us, a band of gypsies, playing our songs around a campfire we managed to build in the dark.
My longing for roots undiminished, I eventually 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, and the traveling carnival caravan of setting up and breaking camp, is that home is also an undisclosed location carried within each of us, someplace of memory. It is the only way to never be without one.