As a kid, I never heard anyone talk about road trips. The trips my family took were just "trips." It was a given that we'd be traveling by automobile, except for the rare occasions when we used the rail passes my physician dad earned by caring for the families of Santa Fe Railroad employees.
But now when I hear "road trip," the term conjures up all the wonder and mystery of those childhood excursions. I'm sure my parents planned routes, destinations and sight-seeing stops along the way, but I just hopped into the backseat—aware only in the vaguest sense of where we were going—and waited to see what would unfold.
Now I'm the one doing the planning, but I still like to leave plenty of room—and plenty of time--for mystery and discovery. That's why you won't be hearing from me for a few weeks. Ray and I will be heading off on a road trip, not quite sure yet when we're leaving, when we're returning or exactly what we'll do, other than visit some relatives and attend a family wedding.
When we decided to allow a little extra time for this expedition, my mind began roaming to past trips and some of the unusual sights we've seen, some by design, some by accident.
On our first trip as a couple—a swing through Northern California in the early '90s—we spent a good bit of time searching San Francisco for a wave-activated acoustic sculpture called the Wave Organ, a quest that turned out to be far more interesting than the organ itself. I'd read about the environmental instrument—the creation of two Exploratorium artists in residence—and imagined spooky, whale-like sounds echoing over the shore. A can't-miss destination for sure. But this was in the days before easy internet look-ups, and though my Bay Area friends had all heard of the Wave Organ, no one knew quite where it was. One finally ventured that it might be somewhere in the Marina District, so we headed in that direction, stopped strangers on the street (none of whom knew where it was either, even when we were getting warm) and listened for those eerie sounds.
After much searching, we found a tiny sign: WAVE ORGAN, with an arrow pointing toward a jetty that extended into San Francisco Bay. (The words on the sign had been graffitied into a suggestive remark involving "Simon Says," and the arrow into a crude illustration, in case readers didn't get the joke.) We had a laugh, snapped a picture of the sign and hurried on, still wondering why we weren't hearing anything.
It was because there was nothing to hear. Not unless you crouched or lay on the ground and put your ear right next to one of the sound-transmitting tubes. Then you heard a surfy sound something like you'd hear if you put a seashell up to your ear. Whoop-dee-do. But you know what? We created such hilarity taking pictures of each other squatting or sprawled out on our sides, cupping our ears, it didn't matter that what we heard was less than marvelous.
And my excitement compounded that evening when we checked into our motel and there, in the parking lot, was the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile. What's more, we passed a French's mustard factory in Springfield, Missouri the very next day. Sadly, there was no enormous mustard bottle out front. However, we took a different route on our way back to Michigan and passed a farm silo decorated like an oversized Coca Cola can in Kansas, so my happy meal was complete.
Then there was the time we were driving through Nevada on our way to meet friends in Lake Tahoe. In one otherwise forgettable stretch of I-80, we caught a glimpse of an assemblage of concrete and junk that begged to be explored. At least it begged me to explore it, and Ray knew me well enough by then to find the nearest turnaround and head back. The conglomeration turned out to be Thunder Mountain, the work of one Frank Van Zant. Car windshields, old TV screens, typewriters, colorful bottles and a wild assortment of other items were set into the concrete walls of a rambling, three-story structure, and foreboding concrete sculptures guarded the grounds. Now, that was spooky (especially since we were the only visitors at the deserted site).
It always seems to be mid-day and at least 90 degrees when we come across one of these wonders. Ray, bless him, never complains as I dawdle, photographing every detail from every angle.
That's why, along with pictures of more typical attractions like Mt. Rushmore, Old Faithful and the Golden Gate Bridge, our photo albums bulge with images of places like Ed Galloway Totem Pole Park in Foyil, Oklahoma, and S.P. Dinsmoor's Garden of Eden in Lucas, Kansas, which has such a hold on me, I'm giving it a major role the novel I recently started writing.
Stay tuned for more about the novel, but since I'm working reaaaaaaaallly slowly on it, stay tuned in the shorter term to find out what we'll discover on our ROAD TRIP!
In the meantime, you're invited to share some of your travel memories. How do you like to travel, and what kinds of sights do you keep an eye out for?
Written from the heart,
from the heart of the woods
Read the introduction to HeartWood here.
Nan Sanders Pokerwinski, a former journalist, writes memoir and personal essays, makes collages and likes to play outside. She lives in West Michigan with her husband, Ray.