Only the largest of cars will do. Thus, there were no road trips during the energy crisis of the '70s. Before and after that, however, for better and worse, my father and I got to know each other during long drives in his 1971 Impala. No matter how rocky a familial relationship may be, the path becomes clear while parenting by road trip.
Miles of asphalt have a way of tying to gether the different generations. I have never questioned this truth.
At the moment, I drive a Honda Odyssey, a van that is anything but mini. My ten-year-old daughter, Coco, and I are seventeen miles into a 350-mile trip.
"How many arguments do you think we'll have?" she asks.
"An average of one every thirty miles," I reply. "Which means you'd better start getting pissy about something if you want to stay on track."
"Cool," she says, looking out the window. There are cows out there, most of them lying down, but a few, in a phenomenon we have discussed at length since Coco was four, are walking quickly somewhere, for no immediately obvious reason. What are they -- rogue heifers? Rebel steers?
In another hour, I may become the antsy, raw-nerves Mom we both know so well, but right now I tend to agree with this daughter. This journey may be cool, after all. What could be cooler than a mother-daughter road trip punctuated by comfy old girlfights?
"Did you remember to pack any underpants?" I ask, trying to get something going.
"Did YOU bring a hairbrush?" she counters.
The next hour is occupied with laying down a scrupulous set of radio rules. Dr. Dre is permissible; `N Sync is not. No one may sing aloud without prior approval from her car-mate. "Freebird" and "Miss Lucy Had a Steamboat" are expressly prohibited. By the time we have hashed out a settlement on AM talk radio, weather and news, we have driven into a territory where no station comes in clearly anyway, except for the pork-belly-futures report.
We stop for gas and other distractions. In the rest room, my daughter, who is wearing her uniform of huge summer-camp T-shirt, baseball hat, zebra-striped Victoria's Secret sneakers and slinky jazz pants, primps in the mirror. This is new to me. Or is she fiddling with her just-installed orthodontia? What can I find out without appearing to be snooping?
I just know that this ten-year-old bubble is about to pop. In a matter of weeks, she'll be wearing eye shadow. In a matter of months, our arguments will be urgent, as opposed to entertaining. The statute of limitations for long trips in cars with your mother is running out.
"I want Sun Chips," she says, bracing for the old nutrition-between-meals wrangle.
I just shrug. "Whatever."
"Whatever? Then I want Pop-Tarts."
"They have blueberry and brown sugar cinnamon."
"Blueberry, and what's WITH you Mom? Does this mean I can have pop?"
"No. Pop is nothing but sugar," I say, reflexively.
As we pass into South Park I fall into a state of rapture -- the orange stands of cottonwood, the brilliant sky, the ribbon of road, the authentic goddamn cowboys herding cattle on their ATVs.
"Do you have any idea how lucky you are to be growing up here?" I ask.
"Yeah, yeah," she says distractedly, because she's trying to hook one bare foot through the sun visor. That, or rip it from its hinges.
"Quit fiddling with that thing," I snap. "And don't stick your foot out the window. And don't tickle the driver."
"Do you want me to drive into a tree?"
In fact, Fairplay sits, as it always has, on a treeless plain.
"Hey. Hey, Mom. If you're pregnant, do you need to be fertilized all the time till the baby's born, or just once?"
"Oh, never mind. Tell me a story. Tell me a story about your childhood, okay? Not when you were some weird twenty-year-old."
Weekends with my father involved a lot of car time. First of all, he had to get my sister and me from the city to the boatyard where he lived, and with Long Island traffic that seventy-mile drive could take hours. And my father was, and is, the diverting side-trip type. Most outings consisted of getting into the Impala, and then -- oh, we'd go to visit some folksy old fart who dealt in electronics or internal combustibles, and my Dad would settle in to a chat. One of those guys was called Generator Jack. He sold used generators and prided himself on an audiotape collection featuring the sounds of various trains arriving at various stations.
"There you go," Generator Jack would say, "the old B&O arriving at Atlantic City."
Hanging around these places always inspired in me a curious mix of boredom and the sense that I was finding out everything about everything. I don't think that was what my dad was trying to teach me, but he certainly kept busy laying out the parameters of life as he knew it, mile after mile. You eat light rye with hard crusts, not Wonder Bread. You say "sofa," not "couch." It may seem like woolgathering to imagine that you are about to pick up a hitchhiker who turns out to be the Sultan of Brunei's daughter, and the Sultan is grateful to you and buys you a red brick house whose fridge is crammed with smoked salmon and prosciutto, but it is not. If you think this way regularly, you may get lucky.
Whoever grasped the steering wheel was the center of attention -- and, of course, my father was always in the driver's seat. He dictated that the music would be classical. The gossip was highly inappropriate and mercilessly traded and chewed over, even when the tidbits included my Dad, who was the comic (and tragic) hero of every story.
Emotions passed over him like a drop in the barometric pressure. "Who the fuck does she think she is in those walking shorts?" he yelled one afternoon, thumping the dashboard for emphasis. (My sister and I knew better than to ask who she was, anyway, in her goddamn shorts.)
And then, a scant half-hour later, he opened all the windows to let in the sea air that was "like wine," he said. Like wine!
"Now I want you kids to sing that Gilbert and Sullivan song -- and I want you to en-nun-ci-ate. Capeesh?"
In retrospect -- and is there any other 'spect? -- those hours in the car provided very little in the way of sharp turning points upon which the future could be hung. Instead, those hours simply streamed on as inevitably as the road ahead of and behind us, and we passed through them together, which is why the time was so important.
This frazzled-preoccupied-parent thing is nothing new, despite what Dr. Laura may tell you. But in a car, you are together, and time passes.
"Okay, now I'll tell one," Coco says. "You know how Kenton always raises his hand because he knows the answer to everything and Allison got her cast off and it was so funny we were playing flag football and this guy asked Mikey what he was doing and Mikey said what is the - no, wait, it wasn't him it was that other -- Mom? Mom? Hey, MOM?"
"Mom, are you even paying attention? Look at my foot. See that red part? See? I think I really hurt myself."
"You're as healthy as an ox."
"Yeah, but MOM? It really hurts. I may need a Band-Aid."
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The "hm" hangs in the air between us, but the invalid doesn't accept the challenge. Instead, she puts on her glasses and begins to read a book about the Oregon Trail. I expect her to become bored or carsick, but she doesn't. Again, this is something new. I swing the car wide into the turns, hoping for a break in the silence. She doesn't seem to notice.
"Hey," I finally ask, "have you decided what to be when you grow up?"
"Oh, an archaeologist. Or a violinist. Or a rabbi." She keeps reading, but then she looks up. "Why?" she asks. "Do you have any other questions about me?"
"Yes," I say, casting a fond glance at the fuel gauge, which registers full. "One or two."