Our routines in visiting Hardy settled into regularity over the years. The drive down. Breakfast buffet at Shoney’s in Poplar Bluff, Missouri. Golf. Shopping. Rushing home so Grandma could catch her soap operas, or, ‘stories,’ as she called them. Her favorite was The Young and the Restless. Shooting pool at Perry and Dorothy’s. Swimming hole. Meeting Howard’s distant kin. Road trips to see Arkansas flora and fauna. Music at night. That isn’t to say, however, that these routines didn’t vary on subsequent trips, or even days. Nor does it suggest that these individual little moments themselves didn’t often bear the weight of some significant moments for me.
I learned there was no Santa Claus on one of the first trips down. Sitting next Pops as he drove, the girls asleep in back, I was learning to read the crisscross of highway maps in the passenger seat. I don’t recall why it had been eating at me, but I had to ask it.
“There’s no Santa Claus, is there?” More of a statement than a question. Pops flinched, turning his head to me with an awkward smile pasted above his chin. I was in 2nd grade, and from the look on my face, he must have noticed there was no reason to argue. A simple shake of his head.
“I didn’t think so,” I said. A little nod. That was all I needed. A chuckle from him followed at my left shoulder. From my tone, I may have been asking if it was going to rain later. Pops must have heard that in my voice, heard the resolve that my internal investigations had already prepared me for a crash that wasn’t going to be a crash at all. Back to reading my maps.
Little moments like these peppered our travels. Unassuming flashes that turned out not to be so unassuming. The drive down to Hardy had some the same staples, some of which I mentioned above. Drive the first leg to St. Louis. Spend the night at the Day’s Inn. Swim in the hotel pool. Leave early in the morning for Hardy. Stop at Shoney’s for breakfast. Minor details changed depending on the trip. We borrowed my maternal grandparents’ camper one year. Rented a van the next. Left at the wee hours of the morning one year. Drove overnight the next.
I remember the crunch of gravel as the wheels left the pavement, Pops jerking the car back onto the road. He was exhausted. He had worked a full 10 hour day. Packed the car. Inhaled dinner. Left a half hour later. Drove the entire distance overnight. Sure, he stopped for the occasional bathroom break or coffee. But by the time we crossed over the Arkansas state line, 4-lane highway became 2-lane country road. The landscape, the very trees themselves seemed to thicken around you at each mile marker. The streetlights and signs dotted the roadsides with less regularity. And the deepest breathing of sleep in the darkest hours of the morning made him keep the radio low for the four of us. Longer stretches between gas stations. Darkness must have been wrapping him in a warm blanket at that point. I can do this, he must have thought to himself. Almost there. And then the right front tire left the pavement.
Mom jerked awake. And so did I.
“Scott,” she whispered sharply, bringing him out of the fog. “You want me to drive?” It wasn’t a question. He’d argued with her, and himself, for the better part of 8 hours. But he’d run out of logical, supportive points to his argument. Although they were never that logical after a certain point. It was just difficult talking my father out of anything he’d already decided he was going to do. Definitely something I’ve inherited. But he was gassed. They swapped seats at a gas station that appeared a few seconds later. And Pops was asleep in less than a minute.
“Let’s take the scenic route,” Mom jabbed her index finger at the atlas on one of our trips to Arkansas. If any of us had been able to predict the future, we would have ripped that atlas from her grip, bound and gagged her, and continued with our usual highways and country roads in the quest for the black boot.
For years I wondered why I get the sudden urge to change my routines. There’s warmth, for me, in the comfort of altering things, relief in the adversity of chaos. Even if that makes no sense to you, I came to the conclusion years ago that the trait was inherited from my mother. I have rolled my eyes at her insistence at taking different driving routes to the same regular destinations in Rockford (her mother’s house, the grocery store, my sister’s place). My father sighs at the meandering way she drives, too. But don’t let him fool you. He has the same itch from time to time. Just ask him how many times he’s rearranged his living room over the course of the last 30 years. What bothers him most about my mother’s driving isn’t the fact that she changes things up. It’s because they aren’t in relation to an improvement in quality control. He rearranges the living room as a better use of the space. No need to accommodate for teetering grandchildren learning to walk? Let’s move the couches over here. Nowhere to set your cup of coffee? We need to move an end table over there. No, mom’s driving choices create frustration for him simply because they are never shortcuts, even if that’s how she labels them for her passengers. Winding roads that make you lose your sense of direction. Cutting through neighborhoods that make no sense driving through. Slower speed limits than main roads. But in a weird way, I get it. Even though it’s taken me years to realize it, I get the same urge to change things that don’t need changing. Because sometimes, the adventure itself outweighs the time I’ll save doing it more efficiently.
You just have to be prepared for when these adventures fail.
My mother knows this. She’s a woman who has mastered the art of laughing at herself, which puts other people at ease, makes her easy to open up to when you’re embarrassed about something you’ve done. I’m not there quite yet, still playing the balancing between my mother’s and father’s self confidence, between ‘you’re smart enough to do it better next time’ and ‘you’re smart enough to have done it right on the first try.’
Like I said, sometimes, the adventure goes awry. Or, in this case, makes you want to vomit.
Glancing through the atlas, mom had found it among the pages of recommended routes. Instead of the normal trip, which involved traveling south down Interstate 55, and then proceeding directly west to Grandma’s, we took a diagonal route through Missouri, approaching Hardy from the north instead.
“C’mon, let’s change it up a little,” I can hear her saying. My father, doing the calculations in his head, exhaling as he counted the minutes we would lose. He gave in.
If you get car sick easily, I’d recommend avoiding the Show-Me-Your-Lunch State altogether. To someone with an iron gut, the stretches of bare, rolling farmland, which gave way to clustered, rolling forest, it was probably breathtaking. For my family, the only taking of breath came in dry heaves. Honestly, I don’t remember ever being car sick in my entire life, except for that trip. And the worst part was, it just kept going. The names of cities and landmarks through the Missouri Ozarks were pleasant enough. Peace Valley. Mammoth Spring. Couch. Unfortunately, there would be no peace in the valleys of our stomachs. Almost 100 miles of ups and downs. And there was no way out. Long sweeping turns that offered pleasant views of the awful rollercoaster we’d just traveled, as well as the next one awaiting us.
It had started with my mother.
“You alright?” Pops asked her.
“Yeah. Just the road,” she whispered, hoping we wouldn’t hear. But my sisters and I were feeling the same escalating sourness from our bellies. A half hour later, we were in trouble.
“Just say it if you need me to stop,” Pops barked from the front seat, though there was nowhere to pull over. He’s a man who has battled car sickness for as long as he can remember, though rarely when he’s the one driving. Slowing down didn’t help. Focusing on the road didn’t help either. Just prolonged the nauseous rises and drops. Seriously, the last thing we needed was that smell for the final three hours of our drive.
I don’t recall Pops having to pull over. Particularly because I have a feeling that if one of us would have broken, we all would have broken. Fallen like queasy dominoes. No, I’m fairly sure we all managed to maintain our buffet breakfasts, but I asked this morning just to make sure.
“I was pretty f****** close myself,” my father laughed hard into the phone.
We hadn’t even reached Hardy, and we already had a story to tell. My father recalls Perry having one hell of a laugh about it when he retold the tale. Funny enough, the most scenic thing I recall observing during “The Scenic View” trip was the tops of my own shoes as I avoided the rise and fall of nature beyond my window.