My first cross-country trip by car was in a 1961 Ford Falcon station wagon, with fake wood trim on the sides and a 3-speed on the column. My father had just bought the car and we were going to Los Angeles to reconcile with my grandfather after decades of gritted-teeth phone conversations on birthdays and Christmas. At the time neither I nor my sisters understood the cause of this long, long rupture. We didn’t know about The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints, nor of my grandfather’s ambitions within the Church, and the crippling blow to those aspirations that my father’s refusal of the faith had brought. Only much later did I hear the story of my grandfather’s own betrayal; Pa was 88, Ma 87 and near death and hardly able to speak from a succession of small strokes, when they sat in the living room of the house in Morgantown, West Virginia, his voice shaking, silent tears running down her face, while I listened, and every part of my own history was transformed.
We left sometime early in the summer of 1961; I was 11. We had a checkerboard Thermos picnic box we’d redeemed some three books of S&H Green Stamps to get. We had a Leica IIIc with a foldout 50mm lens. Marty had a sun hat with cutouts of bananas and apples and the words Luscious Fruit appliqued to the brim. I was wearing corrective shoes. Su was the oldest and the most responsible. She had read up on some of the places we were going on the way from Long Hill Road, Guilford, Connecticut, to 1317 Clubview Drive, Los Angeles, California.
The interstate system had been a matter of law for five years, but we didn’t see any of it, unless you count the Pennsylvania Turnpike, which by then may have been designated I-76, though no one called it that.
It was on the Turnpike somewhere around Bedford that my father realized the 90 horsepower straight 6 was underpowered. We didn’t have air conditioning; the only accessories were the heater and the AM radio. Going uphill in the Alleghenies Pa would downshift to second and power—barely—past the big rigs lumbering up at 25 or 30; on the way back down, they’d go past at 75 or 80, trying to get their momentum for the next hill attack. The road was full of swooping curves which opened up to great green vistas, and tunnels that were dark and noisy, with the windows open and the headlights on and the trucks lumbering on one side or rushing past on the other. For children embarking on a great adventure, rural kids who raced our bicycles up and down the roads between the chicken coops and the truck farms, the mountains were thrilling. Soon, however, we sank into the back seat; Pa’s hands were clenched and white on the steering wheel. Up Sideling Hill, he watched the engine temperature rising steadily. It was the first new car he’d bought since before the war.
That first day was a very long one: from Guilford to Morgantown, West Virginia, where Will and Molly had offered us a place to stay. We left very early, but hit New York traffic at the edge of the Connecticut Turnpike, and sat impatiently on the Cross Bronx Expressway. The Esso maps were on Ma’s lap; any talk between the back seat and the front was desultory and often interrupted as driver and navigator tried to find the next turn or landmark. We exited the Pennsylvania Turnpike at New Stanton in the dusk; it wasn’t the shortest way, but by then Will’s directions from the Somerset exit, which involved the New Centerville Road and then the Kingwood into Confluence, then following the signs to Markleysburg and Bruceton Mills looked unlikely. By the time we got to Will and Molly’s house, it had been full dark for more than an hour, and Pa’s hands were shaking and he could hardly get out of the car with his legs cramping up.
It is difficult today to imagine the experience of that 500 mile trip, its terror and its immediacy and the intimacy of every moment, when there was nothing to distract or to insulate: hot air blowing in from the little side-vent windows turned all the way out; the high blat of the engine braking on a runaway semi going down Sideling Hill; the crinkle of wax paper as the sandwiches were unwrapped; the smell of hot tomato soup in a thermos kept in a checkerboard vinyl picnic bag; the rise and fall of the temperature gauge; the changing voices of two adults embarking on a difficult and ultimately futile journey.
But I remember things with hallucinatory clarity: not just the brilliant white of Marty’s Luscious Fruit hat or the struggles to allocate the bench seat among the three children; more lucidly, the rhythmic swoop of the cables on the George Washington Bridge; the approaches to the oases on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, with their stone buildings and the lines of cars at the gas pumps, and the smell of gasoline, so sweet it was a temptation to drink it; the warm light of early evening as we paid the toll and were, for a short while, granted something like solace.