In the fall of 1962 during the Cuban missile crisis, my parents, my oldest brother, and I left Birmingham on a cold rainy day for a cross-country, once-in-a-lifetime journey. Although I had to pack my school books (I was in 10th grade) and do my homework along the way, the journey was all my parents had promised -- and more.
My mother had every AAA guide, which she studied before and during the journey. I had a notebook/scrapbook (her idea) in which I wrote a daily journal and kept mementos gathered along the way. (The notebook was lost to the house I grew up in, unfortunately.) My brother and I read all the Burma Shave signs, and we all played car license tag and other watching-out-the-window games. Because I had my learner's permit, we all took 2-hour turns driving Daddy's gold Buick Electra.
We saw all the big sites from Alabama to California (mostly along Route 66 on the way out and others along an alternate route on the way home). I especially loved Amarillo (where I bought a pair of Western pants like the ones Penny had worn on Sky King and we ate big steaks); a ghost town whose name I don't remember, complete with tumbling tumbleweeds and my brother's and my fear that Daddy would run out of gas -- again; Albuquerque's Old Town, where I had Mexican food for the first time and nearly choked on the hot spicy salsa with chips; Gallup with streets filled with Native Americans (I had previously seen only Cherokees in costume created especially to satisfy tourists in western North Carolina); long straight roads and purple ranges and glorious sunsets in the southwest; the Painted Desert and Petrified Forest; Holbrook, where we spent the night in the Wigwam Motel; The Grand Canyon, where my mother and I rode mules halfway down while my father and brother stayed topside at the fabulous old hotel; Carlsbad Caverns with its bats streaming past (I had already read Bram Stoker's Dracula in eighth grade so the bats actually scared me); Las Vegas and Hoover Dam, the first without stopping and the second with a stop to marvel at its size; Sunset Crater National Monument; Carmel, California, where Joan Baez lived and fog blanketed quaint art galleries and beautiful landscape; San Francisco, where I ate an actual bird's nest in a Chinese restaurant totally different from Joy Young's, with its Americanized dishes; Yosemite and its glorious hotel and mountains (my father took one of his silly poses with El Capitan in the background). Los Angeles was a smoggy blip for me, as I was imprisoned in the hotel room doing Latin and failing to master the ut clause.
This was the last big trip I made with my parents. All along the way, my mother smoked and coughed a rattle deep within her chest. Six months later, doctors removed a cancer-riddled lung, and six months after that she died. What never died, though, is the memory of the fun we had together working our way west and back home again.