I recently returned from a road trip to my hometown in Illinois with my niece. It’s about an 18-hour drive and other than western South Dakota and Nebraska, the scenery is less than breathtaking. (My apologies to crop landscape devotees. No offense intended.). Other than going west instead of north and not realizing it until we crossed the Central Time Zone into Mountain (which is very confusing when you think you’re going north), the trip was fun but uneventful. Not so other familial car trips.
As I believe I mentioned in my last column, my family made this same pilgrimage in reverse nearly every year from 1976-1986. Yep, it was National Lampoon’s Vacation, complete with the Ford wood-paneled station wagon. Cue the whining, bickering children, mom trying to placate them with snacks and threats and dad grimly trying to ignore the chaos while driving faster. Good times.
Yet as I reflected on those trips to Wyoming over the years, I realized a common theme. The times when it all went completely off the rails are the stories my family has told and retold a zillion times. No one remembers the good times when we were getting along and quiet. No, the more horrific the experience, the funnier it is in the retelling.
Like the first year we headed West. Station wagons ho! We were headed to Wyoming with a stop in Denver first to see my grandmother. I was eight and my brother six. We got a late start and only made it to Des Moines the first night; four hours away from home but a lifetime away from the Mile High City.
The second day was a relentless slog across Iowa and into Nebraska. Suffice it to say, the excitement of the road trip had worn off around West Des Moines. We stopped for lunch at a rest area in eastern Nebraska and dad unloaded the cooler.
There were several picnic tables to choose from but mom had spied one off by itself, with a lovely view of a bucolic pond. Herding us in that direction, we had to walk at an angle, the wind was so strong. Once seated, mom began to unload lunch from the cooler. And this is when it all started heading south.
The sandwiches, wrapped in wax paper, were sodden and brightly colored, thanks to a leaking thermos of Kool-Aid. Have you ever been forced to eat a fruit punch-flavored ham sandwich? Or a red PB&J? I don’t recommend it and I am certain we were less than enthusiastic. But this was it for lunch and there was no McDonald’s drive-thru in the offing so we ate.
The next challenge was that every time you set down the soggy sandwich, the howling wind would grab it and send it sailing. It was like sandwich frisbee without the fun. And that same wind was coming from the direction of the aforementioned bucolic pond. Which, turns out, had an odor that was so strong and so hideous, it was immediately obvious why no one else had chosen this particular table. Turns out, the Nebraska Department of Transportation engineers had thoughtfully situated this rest area next to a waste treatment facility. So that pond had a special purpose. I’ll leave it at that.
This summer, when I asked my dad for his recollection of this legendary event in our family’s history, he remembered it pretty much as my 8-year old self did. It was pretty epic. And it was the first of countless vacation stories gone wrong that we gleefully recount.
So when Mike, the boys and I are on a trip and everything falls apart (nearly running out of gas, going on I-35 north instead of I-80 west, multiple flat tires on the horse trailer, you name it), I know that today’s disaster is tomorrow’s comedy skit. And in our family, it’s the stuff of legends.