24 December 2014

The Road

The family singing in a Christmas program
at the Little Theatre in Upland, Ca. Maybe 1984.
This time of year, I am reminded of the many roads we venture to get to our loved ones. Some of these roads being literal, some of them the figurative paths it takes to reach out to those with whom we share a history.
When Robert Frost wrote his famous lines about roads and those “less traveled” I wonder if he had any idea how often he would be quoted and more often I think, misquoted. It is a wonder to me that so many people use his lines to justify taking the path of dire resistance stating that it is, indeed, what has “made all the difference”. Frost seems to be less convinced. He never says whether “all the difference” meant that it was for the better. My best guess is that either road chosen would have made “all the difference”. The fact that he picked one and took it, is really the point.
There are memorable roads in my life.  But  one particular stretch of highway that is so well traveled, it is part of my story in more ways than one, stands out among them: the small piece of the I-15 from San Bernardino, California to Salt Lake City.  Our  own “over the river and through the woods” for the occasional holiday feasts and funerals. It was the road home for my parents, a way back for them, from the busy-ness of Southern California to their families and their complicated histories. And by extension, it was a road to my own complicated history. But we looked forward to it. Every time. There was snow and grandmothers and cousins, old and young. There was a cookie jar, Ralph the dog and a basement with walls teeming with the whispers of memories you could hear but could never really make out. We loved Uncle Dave’s Jam Room and retired Qupie dolls and old cocktail dresses with died-to-match shoes. It was like stepping through a portal from our world into the crystal fragments of the past that never managed to answer as many questions as they raised.
Goofing off before a New Year's performance
(With Jessi-Hurray!) Maybe 1987?
In my earliest memories, we traveled in a maxi-van, mom in the co-pilot position, dad at the wheel and the seven of us (seven at the time) in seats according to seniority and a childhood hierarchy that was mostly unspoken but occasionally dictated with a charlie horse. They were mostly night drives, Dad could make the entire 10 hour drive all in one stretch without having to make frequent bathroom stops and the added cost of having to feed everyone. So the older siblings called dibs on the benches while the younger half rolled around haplessly under foot all night. Sometimes we wouldn’t rouse until we arrived, but I have vivid memories of catching whatever corner of a window I could see through, and watching the movements of the night sky as we hurled ourselves through the desert and mountain terrain, crossing a time zone, climbing altitude, leaving home behind. 
        It wasn’t too long before our travel arrangements took a turn for the extravagant when my parents procured a motor-home, complete with bathroom facilities and kitchenette. The nature of our drives changed. The ability to take our own food and use the facilities when needed meant driving through the night was no longer a necessity. Although  I suspect that it was at night, with the eight of us now, quiet, and the road looking less traveled in the twilight, where my father made his peace with the world. 
      There were times, when we were awakened in the ungodly hours of the morning because we were passing through Vegas and a $1.99 steak and eggs special was too good a deal to pass up.  And so, in came the whole stumbling Nelson brigade, blinking furiously to adjust to the lights and the dinging of the casinos, alive and well with hopefuls, so that we could sup on the morning buffet. 
Coming through the corner of Arizona in the midst of the great stone giants, layered rock in shades of reds and oranges was always impressive and daunting. Long stretches of desert in between small towns is the trademark of the journey. “Watch out for Utah deer," dad would call out as we crossed into Utah State. An inside joke, because despite the signage, we never
saw anything wilder than cattle. 
With all of us awake, maintaining sanity would be an undertaking not for the faint of heart and Mother did her best to help entertain little ones and keep the peace. But there would be more than one exclamation “If you don’t… I’ll pull this over!” and more than once, do I remember them making good on that threat.  As the older siblings got older,  they got better at tuning the little ones out, either lost in books or comfortably wrapped up in their headphones and walkmen.
 Music was a hallmark of our journeys. I can still hear Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton every-time I approach Southern Utah, where the alphabet game gets impossible to finish. But it wasn’t just the music on the speakers that I remember. To this day whenever I find myself on a roadtrip, I cannot help but begin “put another nickle in…” or “when its springtime in the rockies.” These were the songs of the road. My own little family even sings the round, “One bottle of pop” whenever we travel because these are the souveniers of my childhood. This was where I first understood the magic of harmony, listening to my older siblings tune in to each other was like the excitement of the strings tuning at the very beginning of an orchestra. It was practice ground but there was something else about it. If ever my heart was bound in this lifetime to these people, it was in song; it was in nonsense words like “Shidalee-dee” and “Do-Re-Mi”; and it was on the road somewhere between the west coast and the land-locked desert mountains of our ancestors. 
The El Cajon Pass, Las Vegas, Mesquite, St. Geroge all the way to Salt Lake City, I can’t help but think about the pionners that first cut these paths. It is a wonder to me, both in the stinging heat of the summer and the bitter chill of the winter than any of them deicided to make a home here.  Like a ridiculous inversion of fish out of water, these people used the scorcery of faith to draw water out of rocks. 

Over the years I would make this pilgramage again and again from one direction or another. In my youth, when most of our flock had flown, and the motorhome was already an image being created in the dark-room of memory, I would climb into the suburban we now traveled in with the few siblings left and with teenage reluctance made the drive. The chemistry was different. The music changed but still we made the trip to visit our mysterious extended family and take another peek ino our parents' childhoods. 
In my adulthood this road would come to mean different things to me: My first drive  alone would become a right of passage, it was the road for running away from a broken heart, the path to  new freedoms, the trek to a beloved mission, the way to find love, and ultimately my own road home.  And now that I live at the other end, it is the road we take for my children’s peek into my own mysterious childhood, their access to the walls with whispers of my youth and my history and by extension, their own. Because in the end, it is a road well traveled, and that has made all the difference.  
All of us. Present day.


  1. Thanks for your stories and reflections. I just stumbled in while trying to work out whether I can fit a spinet piano into a maxi van, and I'm glad I came.

    1. Thank you for your comment. I'm glad you stopped by. It gave me a chance to take a look at your blog as well. Your "about" page had me at Wendell Berry. I'll be popping in, from time to time. Good luck with the maxi-van and the spinet!