This was the big one! Based largely on the success of the first trip to the west, I began planning for one that would encompass the major scenic and historical sites across the whole country. My Dad was retired, and Mom was the USA’s biggest booster; both of them were good travellers, and had taken a few group trips before I converted my first bus. I wanted to take them to all of the places they had spoken of wanting to see, and they were amenable to the idea of escaping some snowfall and slush. Getting away from New England for January to April is not an uncommon wish!
LEAVING WINTER WHERE IT BELONGS
After the Christmas and New Year holidays, we boarded my bus. It was cold and there was a lot of snow on the ground when we left from my sister’s house, heading south. We sped along the interstate highways to get closer to the moderate climate, making our first stop in Pennsylvania, near Gettysburg. Fortunately, my furnace provided plenty of warmth, because we needed it. It was frigid the next morning when we departed the campground. We saw some of the battleground sites, then headed out through Amish country, and south to Harper’s Ferry, for more delving into history. Down the rolling hills of Virginia to Monticello in Charlottesville….it was still very cold….this couldn’t be the South. It was sunny and much milder the next day, and my folks were also warming to the miles ahead
We slipped down into the Piedmont of the Carolinas, stopping at Darlington to muse on the sport of racing cars. That was a pretty mysterious attraction for Red Sox, Celtics and Patriots fans. As we approached Charleston through oak alleys, those fabled roads with over-hanging live oaks, centuries old, and evoking visions from “Gone With The Wind”, we wondered at the complete change of scenery. After meandering the grand streets of Charleston and then Savannah, we drove into Florida. Amelia Island, and down the fabled beaches …..I will forever have etched into my consciousness, the image of my parents ambling along the sands of Daytona Beach, rimming the edge of the breaking surf, sandals in hand. It was dream-like, a piece of time in a bottle. (I have planned a painting of that scene for years. Maybe I will get it done this year!)
FLORIDA-A STATE OF MIND
The Cape Canaveral wildlife refuge, with its winding trails and roads is my favorite place around Merritt Island and environs. My folks were awestruck by the Space Center, with its display of the Saturn5 booster, the Gemini capsules, and all the trappings of the moon landings. The vehicle assembly building was astounding in its immensity. We again camped on the ocean, and the next day we motored through canyons of ostentatious wealth in Broward county, and then into Dade. By the time we rolled past the Miami Beach hotels and checked out the art deco frontages along South Beach, my Dad was wanting to get away from the display of riches. He was a man of simple tastes and requirements. Although he enjoyed the pleasures of life, and enjoyed recreation like anyone else, he had an acute sense of the excesses,too. You would expect nothing less from the man who had struggled to raise a family through the depression, worked a second job loading freight cars at night in South Station in Boston, and was a rare sight during the week for his three kids. He never had a car until 1953. He walked over a mile to and from the railroad station each workday.He had his favorite charities, and gave his tithing to the church gladly. These extreme examples of prosperity were off-putting to his feelings about good taste and equality.
Shunning the touristy Keys in this state of mind, we opted to camp for a few days in the super-solitude at Flamingo, in Everglades National Park. Silence. Nothing but the sounds of hungry pelicans, and weird stuff out on the hammocks. After communing with nature and her wildlife, we got out on the Tamiami trail, and set off up the west coast to Marco and Sanibel Islands. When we got to Sarasota, I called my uncle, who lived on Paradise Key. He and my aunt picked up another of my aunts, who lived in a trailer community is Sarasota, and we all met at the Red Lobster for lunch. This was the last time my mother saw her only brother and oldest sister.
The glorious ride along the Emerald Coast was a high point of our Florida sojourn. We camped at Alligator Point and Pamama City, enjoyed fresh seafood in Biloxi and Gulfport, Mississippi (when casinos and riverboat gambling were but a notion), and drove to that incomparable divertissement…New Orleans.
THE BIG EASY
As a painter, I was captivated by the funkyness and rich cohesive nature of St. Cloud, and the streets of the Vieux Carre. Years later, when my daughter and I spent a week in the French Quarter, I couldn’t help but think of the trip when my folks viewed several Mardi Gras parades, up front, with only the expansive windshield between them and the jubilant marching krewes, and the fabulous gaudy floats! They were more comfortable not jostling with crowds, but I loved it. Andrea and I rode the St.Charles trolley into the Garden District (which is a lot like travelling on the T, from Cleveland Circle to Coolidge Corner in Brookline, Mass.) Mom and Dad revelled in the beauty from the front of the RV. Need I point out that all of this was before KATRINA wiped St.Cloud and the ninth ward off the edge of the city. Those are paintings I’ll never get to do; the rebuilding can never recapture that “” Je ne sais quoi!”
Cajun country, the magical timeless area south of Interstate 10, gave me a great fondness for jambalaya, gumbo and crawdads. Shrimp right off the boat, boudin and andouille sausages…….Whooooeeeee! Makes me want to pirogue down the bayou with a fruit jar of dirty rice. Then to Avery Island, home of Tabasco Sauce. I took my compliant travellers to see where all that red potion begins. Neither one of them had an appreciation of that which singes the tongue and burns the eyes. Maybe the cradles really were switched back at the hospital. My daughter, her husband particularly, and most of our extended family like it hot!
WARMING TO TEXAS
We camped on the beach at Galveston, Texas. The next day we passed through Corpus Christi, and onto North Padre Island National Seashore. Rolling over the hard sand, like on Daytona, we went on for a few miles. After a couple of days of hearing nothing but surf, we took the 10 ton vehicle back up the beach, so as to head for the Mexican border. One thing about the beach at Padre Island…there were many clods of hard oil that had drifted on the currents from off-shore oil rigs and oil tankers. One should think about this, and the possible marring of pristine swimming beaches, before drilling any offshore sites that will do nothing about the current energy crisis. Big oil, and the Bush administration, could care less about possibly sullying the silver sands of Florida.
At Brownsville we stayed at a popular “snowbird” campground, with tons of activities and cliques. Not our kind of place; we moved on to South Padre Island….the more popular one…as well as the more populous. Nah! We weren’t looking for resorts. We were resorting to seeing the countryfolk that didn’t just arrive from where we had started. We walked across the border to Matamoros, shopped for trinkets and souveniers, then went back to our pied -a- terre with our treasures, and drove on to McAllen for the next night. The aroma of orange blossoms and sweet acacia was heavy in the air, and it was a great way to fall asleep.
A couple of years later, I had my daughter fly down to San Antonio, where I met her in the RV. It was the spring school vacation, and it seemed like the kind of adventurous diversion that she might enjoy. We took our bus down to Aransas to see the whooping cranes nesting, and to Brownsville. Andrea and I remember the camp we were in, and our late evening swim in the pool that was supposedly closed. It was dark, we had it to ourselves, and night air was redolent with that same scent of acacia. We then repeated some of the ride along the Rio Grande to Laredo. This time Andrea popped onto the back of my Kawasaki bike, and we were off to Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, to pick up a couple of serapes, and turquoise rings.
I drove Mom and Dad to Langtry, Texas,next. We visited the home and courthouse/bar room of the legendary Judge Roy Bean, who dispensed justice west of the Pecos. Our next stop was at Fort Davis, a former cavalry post which gave one a real sense of history. Hidden speakers played the sounds of the troops “falling out” and forming up on the parade grounds. Then came the hoofbeats of the units moving out through the gate….all very evocative of the west we only read about. My Mom was no fan of great heights, but she relented, and we drove up the 7% grade of Mt. Locke, and visited the observatory there. She was terrified on the way down, not being as trusting of the air-brakes as was I. We camped at the base that night, and in the morning we found ourselves surrounded by buffalo! Try to find that around Boston. I’m certain that one of the memories that my parents relished in the remembering was that of the profusion of wild flowers spread out for miles in all directions in west Texas. Avid gardeners, who knew the Latin names of so many plants and flowers, they were in awe of how the desert can bloom.
El Paso, Las Cruces, NM, and through former Apache strongholds to Phoenix. You can imagine how my folks enjoyed walking through the great botanical gardens just west of the city. Every imaginable cactus and desert plant can be seen. On the way to Quartzite we took a side trip to poke around one of the many ghost towns in AZ. Some of these have become art colonies,but not the desolate place we went to.
CA TO NV
California seemed “a place too far” for this particular trip, but we did go across the Colorado to camp on its shores in Earp, CA. We made the run through the joshua tree forest into “the meadows”, as its Spanish name would have it.
It was now late in February, and we were in Las Vegas. Sin City was something to behold. Could that be MY mother with her cupful of pennies, feeding the slots like some automaton in a dress? We did the buffets and late-night steak dinners. They are mostly a thing of the past. The buffets are upscale now…and uppriced, as well. We stayed right on the Strip in front of Ceasar’s Palace, in the parking lot they used to have there. Vegas mostly discourages motorhomes, now. Many hotels and casinos that had campgrounds are gone, the new edifices are looking for different kinds of “rollers”…..high ones!
CAMPS ON LAKE MEADE
Today, my preferred camping in the area is at Las Vegas Bay. You didn’t picture a bay when you thought of Vegas? Just 20 miles to the east is Lake Meade, and one of the prettiest places you can imagine for spending some nights, instead of some chips. That is if you don’t mind sleeping under palm trees in an oasis. This is one of the campgrounds, operated by the Lake Meade Authority, that rim the lake from Boulder to Overton. No hookups, but they are inexpensive. Callville Bay has showers, but most lack any facilities except for toilet houses, which they all have. I used to camp on Sunset Mountain, in dry camps (NO facilities) where you could see the spectacle of Las Vegas at night spread out before you. And a billion stars to rival the sight. Then the Bureau of Land Management posted signs,NO CAMPING! They stated that these areas were now to become models of land reclaimation. How about model houses? Sunset Mountain is now fully developed, as is almost all of the rest of Las Vegas.
UT TO AZ
Leaving Las Vegas, we headed northeast through the Valley of Fire, through the nascent town of Mesqite, into the Virgin Gorge. The Virgin River flows through this canyon to its confluence with the Colorado. We stopped in the “radio-active” city of St.George, Utah (atomic testing was just down the road a-piece), on the way to another canyon. Zion National Park is my favorite for magnificence….well, maybe tied with Grand Teton. We stayed in a beautiful site along the river, and the next day found us wending our way up from the floor of the canyon, through rock tunnels, to the top, then down to Kanab. We viewed the Vermillion Cliffs on our way to the Colorado River. We spent the evening enjoying the panarama from the Navajo Bridge, and settled down to sleep in a rest area there at the edge. When we woke, we were surrounded again! This time by Navajo indians who had already set up their displays of turquoise rings and jewelry, basketry and other objects of their culture. When we closed up for the night you would have thought there was not a living soul within 50 miles of the place.
After stopping in Cameron, AZ, to pick up mail that had been forwarded, we went west one more time to the Grand Canyon. No words are necessary, or sufficient to describe this place. From Flagstaff we looped through the Petrified Forest and the Painted Desert, and then began the return to the east in earnest. One offshoot to the Meteor Crater and a night in Albuquerque and it was over the Continental Divide, to the side where water flows to the Atlantic. We found a church supper in Shawnee, OK a day or so later. Nice town. We passed along the Arkansas River toward Little Rock, but took a sharp turn north through the Ozarks and Lil’ Abner’s Dogpatch to the Bull Shoals. We were cruising, not fishing, so we continued on up into Missouri, entering the state near another nascent spot called Branson.
Mom was getting edgy about this time; she had seen plenty, and wanted to be back with the family. She had lost her appetite a few states back, but there wasn’t any sign that she was unwell. At least I didn’t pick it up. But she was.
Our last sightseeing was at My Old Kentucky Home, and Lincoln’s log cabin. We passed through Lexington, Louisville and Cincinnatti before skirting the mountains of W VA, on a fairly straight course toward Massachusetts. We arrived back to great fanfare in late April.
THE SAD PART
A friend and business associate of mine, who was converting a bus at the time, was planning to attend a conference in Blacksburg, W VA. He convinced me to make the trip in my RV, with him riding shotgun, so to speak, and getting the feel of RV living. Andrea had missed out on the epic journey, so this seemed a good way for her to see some of the sights on a piece of the same route. Paul, his wife and two kids, joined Andrea and me in the RV, and we made the trip. When we returned to my folks house three weeks later, we were greeted by my Dad at the curb. Mom was in the hospital, gravely ill with cancer, with no hope of survival. I only spoke with her once or twice. She slipped into a coma, and after a few grotesque weeks, she was gone.
I think….I hope, that our odyssey was a good thing for her. She had been given a clean bill of health before our departure, but her doctor screwed up BIG TIME! I could not reminisce with Dad about this trip. There was too much pain for him. The trip did fuel a fire in me for the continued RV lifestyle….. thirty-two years later I’m still out there.