Best Road Trip Ever (Every Word in this Story is True)
Oral histories are very cool. But I love the written word. When Michael died, my kids realized that our stories and experiences were deposited in my head and they asked to know more about what we shared before they showed up. This is one of my favorites. I hope you enjoy it.
In the December cold of 1974, we were in sore need of a vacation. I’d been in a paranoid state for some time. We lived in a small white house on Oregon Street near some railroad tracks. The rumble of freights in the night and the squeaks of the rails frequently woke me. Michael the train lover slept through everything.
I was paranoid in our house. I always felt like someone was watching me. Our idea of window treatments were cheap bamboo shades, virtually transparent. Michael was always soothing me and saying I was imagining things, but one morning I woke up to let our dogs out and saw human footprints in the snow all around the perimeter of the house. The next night people were visiting us, playing cards and chatting. My friend Fern was in the midst of one of her “mental break hideouts,” and had been staying with us for a couple of weeks. Shortly after heading to the bathroom for a shower, she suddenly burst through the door, saying there was a face looking at her through the window. Everyone leapt up and ran out the door to capture the peeper but me and my frightened friend. They caught this bizarre person by the tracks, hauled him to the front yard and called the police. The guy was quite penitent and promised not to return, but Michael was in a barely controlled rage, while I was a mixture of terrified and righteous because I’d known all along that we we weren’t alone. Getting out of town felt like a necessity.
We had this old green Ford pickup truck. I don’t remember where we got it. Vehicles came and went from our lives with a casual frequency. The truck needed work. But this baby was going to haul us all the way to Fort Myers, Florida, where Michael had been a few years before. He said there was the most beautiful campsite really close to the Gulf. We were both water lovers and thought this would be the perfect adventure, our first long trip in our young two year relationship. And a welcome relief from the stress. Michael, who was experienced at fixing cars, worked at Earthworks garage, night after night. The truck would be finely tuned and perfect for our adventure. Solenoids, alternators and carburetors tumbled through my head like word salad while car parts floated in containers on the kitchen table. In addition to the top notch mechanical repairs, Michael decided to build his own camper top out of wood. He painted it bright red, and added a couple of custom windows. Truly deluxe. Eventually he felt he’d done everything so we loaded up camping gear, food and our dogs and hit the road.
Back in the day, scraping together enough cash to take a road trip meant having about a hundred bucks, an urge to blow out of town and a fun destination in mind. Plans were fairly vague. Good company was the critical factor. We were eager to get to our destination, so except for a few bathroom and picnic stops, we decided to drive straight through to Florida, about a 25 hour trip. We took turns driving, sleeping, chatting and reading. Now and then we could pick up a radio station. No tapes, no CD players, no IPods. Day turned to night and then day again. The air warmed and though bleary-eyed, we excitedly pulled into Ft. Myers to make camp.
Suddenly, the truck started making really scary sounds. We managed to get to a gas station. Back then mechanics actually worked in gas stations and after awhile and a brief perusal, they informed us that the truck’s engine block was cracked. A total loss. What a moment. Michael sprawled on the lawn near the station, staring up at the sky, close to catatonic. I, always brimming with great ideas, borrowed a phonebook and starting looking up parts shops, hoping we could strip out all Michael’s improvements and raise some cash to help us with the next phase of the trip. Loaded with camping gear and two lively dogs, we needed a vehicle. Tough to get with our meager funds. It didn’t take long to figure out that we’d need to swallow our pride and call our families for help.My parents, although far less financially well off than Michael’s folks, were more generous and infinitely more understanding. At the time, my dad worked for The First National Bank of Chicago which miraculously had a branch in Ft. Myers. He wired us $500, which we picked up and took directly to the closest used car lot. A classic experience. A tall middle-aged man named Jim, a toothpick spinning in his mouth at a pace that equaled his chatter, started walking us around his little lot, extolling the praises of the great deals he had for us. He really wanted us to buy this Oldsmobile Toronado. When he popped the hood, the engine was painted bright orange. We could only imagine what rust lurked underneath and felt helpless and confused.
Vehicles in our price range were scant and we had dogs and gear to consider. Suddenly Jim remembered that he had a Chevy pickup with a camper top in the back, newly purchased from a family of migrant farm workers. He hadn’t even had a chance to spruce it up but at $450, it sounded like a dream come true. He pulled it up and we took it for a quick spin. We didn’t exactly have many options so within half an hour, we bought it, drove back to the dead Ford, transferred our stuff and our dogs into the back and resumed our road trip. Yup. Just like that. That blue Chevy truck. One of the best moves we ever made. Here’s a photo of it in its long lasting glory, me behind the wheel.
So, problem solved. We took off for our beautiful campsite, determined to continue our trip and not let some setback wreck our good time. We headed toward the Gulf. The campsites were on a wooded side of the road. Michael was having trouble finding the location. He swore it was “right here.” But right here was nothing but concrete. To quote the immortal words of Joni Mitchell, “they paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” You could begin to feel like the stars were aligned against us. We were exhausted. A long drive. A dead car. A nonexistent campsite. What next? I still remember our youthful determination. We were getting our trip no matter what the obstacles. We saw a police car and asked where other campsites were located. And he told us something that hadn’t made the news in Illinois. Evidently, the hotel/motel associations in Florida had figured out that camping was cutting into their profits. There was a new set of regulations that effectively banned camping, likely aimed at young people like us who were turning their beaches into hippie eyesores up and down the Gulf Coast.
What despair. We had no idea what to do next. Eventually we headed north to Sarasota, where Michael’s grandmother lived. He was more familiar with that area. When we showed up on Grandma Ruth’s doorstep, she took one look at us, said, “wait here,” came back with $100 and told us to get lost. Unforgettable. We got creative. We drove to a YMCA and asked if we could park our truck around the side of their building at night. They said yes. Sweet relief. Off we went to Lido Beach, where there was a bathhouse for showers and the beautiful white sand and turquoise water of our dreams. We ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, or baloney and cheese, laid on the beach, played with the dogs and read books. At last, our slice of paradise. Here’s a photo of Lido. That night we drove back to our parking space next to the Y. We piled into the back of the camper with the dogs, cracked the windows and went to sleep. Scant hours later, we were roused by knocks on the back window, accompanied by flashing red lights and fast-moving heavy footsteps. We opened the door to the sight of police officers shining flashlights in our faces. They were looking for a fugitive and thought we might be hiding him in the truck with us. After they went through everything, they left us alone but we were so shaken by the idea of an armed felon in our new backyard, that we got back in the front to drive to a place which was better lit and not likely to draw attention from law enforcement.
Our next choice campsite was the Southgate Shopping Center in Sarasota, still pretty close to Lido Beach, with the bonus of having easily accessible bathrooms when we woke up in the morning.We finally went back to sleep in the parking lot of this mall. When we woke the next morning, we found the public bathrooms, walked the dogs and made our breakfast on our little Coleman stove on the back gate of the truck. People came and went, running their errands, doing their shopping and looking at us with a mixture of curiosity and revulsion. By this time we were really enjoying ourselves. We were wearing our “outside the norm attitude” with pride. We knew how to make lemonade out of lemons.
We lasted three nights at the mall before someone informed the police of our presence. They politely asked us to pack up and leave. That day was rainy. We went to a Dunkin’ Donuts, treated ourselves to sugary delights and spent the afternoon reading Raymond Chandler mysteries and trying to figure out where to go next. By this time, we felt like guerilla warriors on a mission to squeeze a decent vacation out of corporate America on the cheap and love it to bits, no matter what the obstacles. Where could we camp and be left alone by the authorities? And then it dawned on me. The one place you could park 24 hours a day and be unnoticed. The airport.
A perfect location. Bathrooms. Constant traffic. No one would notice us. With great relief, we drove there and parked, close enough to the terminal so we wouldn’t have a long hike for the bathroom and far enough away so no one paid us any attention. The airport was close to several beaches so we sampled many of them. The relaxing days passed until trauma once again descended on our trip. About the dogs….
Mine was a border collie named Ribeye and Michael’s was an Irish Setter named Harpo. Ribeye was the smartest dog I ever owned, easy to manage, well-trained, an intellectual dog that Michael always accused me of favoring over a “dog dog.” Harpo was another matter. A “dog dog” all right. No intellect to worry about with Harpo. He was nice, sweet, handsome and dumb as a post. In the days before leash laws, we used to open the door in the morning and let the dogs out. After a bit, we whistled and they came back inside. At least Ribeye always did. Harpo, who seemed to be missing his sense of direction, often disappeared. He wore tags with our phone number, so eventually we would find him, miles from home or perhaps a few blocks away, having wandered into the wrong yard and plopped himself down, spent from his travels. And that is exactly what happened at the Sarasota airport one morning, when we let them out. Ribeye returned and Harpo didn’t. Poor Michael. How he loved that absurd dog. We ran through the parking lots, searching, calling his name. There was a highway not far from where we were parked and we had visions of him crushed on the side of the road. Sarasota was a busy city with lots of traffic. We felt terrible. Suddenly I remembered that we’d been listening intermittently to what could be described as an indie rock radio station. Between songs, there were announcements for happenings and events that seemed to be directed at the “alternative” community. And only a mile from the airport there was New College, possibly a place where some kind student types like us, might find a dog with out-of-state tags and call that radio station to do a public service announcement.
I got the call numbers from the radio, went into the airport, found a phonebook, phone booth and voila! It happened just like I thought it might. Someone on campus had found Harpo, called it in to the radio station and within a few hours, he was ensconced in the back of the truck with Ribeye, snoozing as if nothing traumatic had ever happened. Which it hadn’t, at least to him.
By this time, we felt like maybe we’d pushed this trip to its limit and decided to head home. We had almost no cash left and enough experiences to last awhile. We headed north, with fingers crossed that our “new” truck had enough life to get us back to Illinois.
Things went swimmingly, mile after mile until we reached Kentucky. Then those awful thunking mechanical noises started. We managed to get to a Chevy dealership at mid-day. Michael figured out that we had a bad alternator. This place had some dead vehicles in the back and the office people said he could go back there and look around to see if he could find a replacement. Off he went with his tools and fairly soon, came back, triumphant, alternator in hand. We asked how much they would charge for it and were told 10 bucks. Which, if we paid in cash would leave us nothing for the rest of the trip home. Michael asked if they’d take a check. The person working in the office informed us that the only person who could decide to accept an out of state check was the owner of the dealership. Okay then. Can we speak to the owner? Sorry. The owner went home and is taking a bath. Well, then. Michael went outside and swapped out the alternators. He came back in, hoping that the owner had returned from his midday soak. But, alas. We went back outside and although I tried to argue him out of leaving, Michael’s infamous short temper had finally asserted itself and he said he was leaving and hoped I’d join him. I got in the truck and spent the next hours craning my neck, looking behind us, waiting to be arrested for stealing the alternator. Michael was bemused as I imagined myself in prison stripes, trying to explain everything to my parents. We arrived home safely with this absurd vacation tucked into our memories. It became the stuff of our personal lore and we often thought about what a great time we had, despite every ridiculous event that happened. I guess the most important thing we learned was this trip was a metaphor for our life. Lots of wrenches unexpectedly thrown into our innocent plans, which we navigated without ever coming unglued. Best road trip ever, best life trip ever.