My brother, Walt, had an extended van with bench seats behind the front seat. It held about nine passengers, ten or eleven for good vacations. Way before the days of seat belts. Mom called it the “Flapping Chicken.” It was a Chevy, and its body was flapping away on the highways. He had such a big van because once he was married to a woman with six children. Plus, at that time, his three.
One year Mom and I took her grandchildren to see the Atlantic Ocean, starting in Maine. I think my oldest daughter will remember it as the year her oldest male cousin, a head taller than she, refused to get on the ground under the camper and knock lose the camper’s foot, because he was too cold. Directing a look of disgust at him, Beth went under and got the job done.
The next spring the children discussed potential vacation venues. My niece Michelle prevailed. “Pacific Ocean!” She had a bottle of the Atlantic, and intended to balance the collection with a bottle of the Pacific. Neither of us entertained naysayers. It was 1980. I wanted to see the Columbia River and Mt. St. Helens, which had erupted.
We worked our way across the country, seeing things children are obliged to see. I remember the kids won the license plate game at Mt. Rushmore, where they collected the twenty or so missing states in the parking lot. We pulled off the interstate for gas. Montana, I think. Mom leaned against the Chicken, shading her eyes and said “Look up the butte, there. I’m sure that’s the road my father took in 1936.”
My grandfather was big on vacations, too, and took his two kids and my longsuffering grandmother across country in 1936, brand new Buick 1936 Buick Roadmaster and color film in the camera. My Aunt Flo always moaned “Do anything but make me watch the movie of 1936 again!”
We took the road. It went up, up, up, around and around. Once it dipped slightly into a valley with a picture perfect farm set into fields of green crops. We came out at the Columbia River, and picked up a trucker on the CB who regaled us for an hour with stories of his great grandparents crossing this country in covered wagons. The Columbia River is breath taking.
We drove California State Route 1 down the coast, through sequoias, to San Francisco. Michelle got her jar of Pacific. All the children had jars of Mt. St. Helens ash. My brother wanted to drive Lombard Street, but left it to me, so he could see better. He redeemed himself when I was driving on the way home and the Chicken lost its fan belt in the Great Salt Desert. I’ve always been terrified of dying by fire or drowning. I can add dying in the Great Salt Desert to that.
There literally was nothing and no one. “Drive it until you peg out the heat gauge, turn off the ignition and coast to almost a stop, do it again, until we find help,” Walt said, and so I did. Like those car races on the salt flats, I put the Chicken to her max of about a hundred miles an hour, killed the engine and coasted on down, over and over. Like a scene from Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner, a gas station materialized from the rising heat waves. I do not recall gas pumps, but I distinctly remember two solid walls of fan belts.
Good times. Yesterday I smelled campfires while I was outside. Today I saw a map of the smoke.