When I look back, I realize that my life has been marked by a series of road trips. My first paralleled so many westward stories. In 1984 my parents decided to pack themselves, their three children (ages 9, 6, and 4), and the contents of their two-story Victorian house in New Jersey with a wrap-around porch and a garden in the back and head west. There was no way for me to understand that this particular road trip would segment my childhood into the time before the move to California and the time after. California was a dream that my parents shared with generations that came before them. It looms large in the American psyche, as though in some metaphorical way, the streets there are paved with the state’s namesake and like the fireflies we leave behind the ghosts of the past won’t make it past the desert.
My memories from that move are vague, it’s hard to separate truth from what has become part of the family folklore. I remember being confused by the words that a friend of my parents had written in the cab of the truck that read, “California or bust!’ Three years and 4th grade history later, I would become obsessed with the gold rush and the idea of Manifest Destiny, but on that day, in a truck still parked in a suburban driveway, I had no idea what lay ahead or the irony of setting off in a white station wagon.
For 3,000 miles, my mother drove the wagon and my father the yellow Ryder truck that carried all our possessions. In those days before cell phones they had purchased “Walkie Talkies” and like truckers, we communicated through the heavy September air. We took turns riding with my father (it was the 1980s, parents weren’t as concerned with seat belts, and we all made it out okay.) I remember sitting high up in that cab with no siblings to elbow with only the open road before us and the songs on the radio. It was somewhere along that route, sitting in that cab with my father, that I first felt the magic of being on the road
We made the trip in a miserable 5 days - sitting on pleather seats in a car without air conditioning - how my mother didn’t loose her mind I’ll never know. We felt like we had joined the ranks of the settlers, though we were probably closer to dust bowl refugees who arrived in broken-down jalopies. The only landmark I have any memory of is the arch in St. Louis and an almost landmark - the red rock my father bought at a truck stop just outside of Grand Canyon National Park, now in a box in my mother’s garage. A lost totem. Eventually we parked the truck and the station wagon in front of the small, Spanish-style house in Glendale, California with the white stucco walls and the terra cotta tile roof, the perfect symbol of our new lives in this golden land.
Looking back on it with decades of hindsight, I see that like so many migrants before them, my parents were desperate to start over, to become different versions of themselves. I also understand that my own decisions have often followed a similar path. My search for myself has often led me to new places in the hope that the new me would magically be the person I wanted to be. But I didn’t know that then and those illuminations would require different road trips.