Motoring Across America
(or Hunting the Wily 6-Year-Old)
North Dakota is like South Dakota, but without the glamour.
How do I know? Because I'm a well-traveled sophisticate, of course. I can thank my parents for that. You see, while other families were lolling on the beach or fooling around at Disneyland, we'd be motoring across America, drinking in the natural splendor of our national parks and communing with the past at all sorts of historic sites.
My dad loved American history because it yielded a society in which guys like him could work hard and prosper. I loved American history because it seemed like it'd been written in blood by cowboys – at places like Bunker Hill, the Alamo, Gettysburg, Ford's Theater and the Little Bighorn. Pardon me, but that's how boys were before it was forbidden.
When I was 10, my parents took my brothers and me on the grandest of all our trips – a drive across the U.S. from coast to coast. My favorite parts of the trip were the re-enacted trial of the guy who shot Wild Bill Hickok in Deadwood, S.D., the 40-foot concrete prairie dog somewhere else in South Dakota, and Yellowstone Park. We saw bears! I was fascinated by animals then, and was excited to see a dead cow by the side of a Nebraska highway. I imagined it had been killed by rustlers.
|"...power corrupts, and eventually Wendy was awarding butts no matter what the contestants said..."|
High in the Cascade Mountains a chipmunk scampered onto the narrow, winding road right in front of us. Thip! "Dad! You killed him!" I said. The least he could have done was slam on the brakes and do some wild veering. Dad offered some feeble defense, but I didn't find it worth remembering.
Dad didn't care much about animals. His favorite thing was to lead us through some historical place, like Andrew Jackson's mansion, or drive us past a white New England church, and say with wonder and enthusiasm, "This is real Americana!" He only applied that word to high-class scenes and sites. Tacky stuff like the 40-foot prairie dog, no matter how real and American it might be, would not earn that admiring designation from Dad.
I collected many experiences that summer, but most importantly I gained an appreciation of just how big this country is. It's something that colors your thinking and informs your opinions. (You say this country is big? Well, you're right. It's REAL big)!
I always knew that one day I would take my family on a really long car trip across America, and the summer the kids were 13, 9 and 6, we did it. We saw a rodeo in Cody, Wyo., roamed through Mark Twain's boyhood home in Hannibal, Mo., watched the re-enacted trial in Deadwood, had costly front-end work done in Spokane, Washington, hunted for fossils in Wyoming, and fed half-tame prairie dogs at a souvenir stand in the middle of nowhere.
Except for the prairie dogs, little Wendy did not appreciate much of what we saw, and expressed her feelings by getting lost. We hunted her through the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, around the Corn Palace in Mitchell, S.D., inside Lincoln's tomb in Springfield, Ill., along the streets of Hannibal and among the assembled throng at Old Faithful in Yellowstone Park. Getting lost was her way of asserting herself and setting the family agenda.
Indelible as all these memories are, the most unforgettable aspect of the trip (not counting the time Wendy painted her lips with a blue marker in a Kansas cafe) was the silly games the kids played companionably in the car as the miles rolled past.
There was "Fat Beth," in which Marie, 13, pre- tended to weigh 1,000 pounds and would talk out scenarios of outlandish binges; "Peachie," in which Wendy, 6, was an evil baby with Sally, 10, playing either her mother or her tattooed, pierced and dyed sister Blossom; and "Drooling Birdy" in which Marie pretended to be French and Wendy was her slobbery canary. (Sounds stupid? You can't imagine.)
Best of all was Wendy's quiz game "Lines and Butts." She kept score on a clipboard. "OK, Daddy, what's my favorite color?"
"Green," I'd say.
"Right! A line for you!" she'd say, drawing a vertical line under my name. (The kind of score-keeping lines where you do four of them and then a diagonal fifth through them. But no one ever earned that many lines.)
"Sally," she'd say, "What's my favorite kind of ice cream?"
"Chocolate chip," Sally would say.
"Wrong! A butt for you!" Wendy would say and draw a small circle with a tiny vertical line through it to represent human buttocks. This game entertained us for many miles, and it was like a tonic for Wendy who was too young to have any appreciation for Americana beyond buying all the crummy souvenirs she could. Her game put her in charge as nothing else could, except for getting lost. And it forced her sisters to ponder things they otherwise wouldn't – namely, their kid-sister's personal preferences. But power corrupts, and eventually Wendy was awarding butts no matter what the contestants said, and finally no one would play.
There was lots of quarreling, too, but happily it's fading from memory.
Although only the oldest child would go on record as having enjoyed the big trip, I was glad to give them a good look at their native land. Plus, I felt I'd measured up to a high standard of classy behavior set by my dad.
You know how when you go back to your old elementary school, it seems a lot smaller? Well, the U.S.A. isn't like that. It stays big. In fact, the more kids you have squirming around in the back seat, the bigger it gets.