Car trips and my love / hate relationship with the Internal Combustion Engine

I love tours in the van. I love them primarily because it means I don't have to pack light. Whatever I think I may need in the days or weeks I'm on tour, I can take. Not just the extra guitar to spare me from having to change tunings on stage, sending my left and right brain into a stuttering tug of war as I try to speak engagingly to the audience while I wrestle the frequencies into alignment; but also the extra shoes to spare me the heartache of inappropriate footwear, the extra books, coats, jeans, and snacks I MAY need.  

It’s exhilarating to pack for a road trip in the car. This summer it�s a road trip south with Julia, originally resulting from her wish to visit family. This includes my brother and sister in Portland, one of my sister's sons Brandon, (whose visit 2 summers ago inspired me to impulsively look for my own son), his wife Ann and their, now just 3 day old baby girl Ruby Lou, my brother Steve and his daughter Dara who has been exiled to Serbia with her husband and baby girl, but has escaped to Ashland for two weeks for a visit. Then there's the bonus family members in Eugene - her brother (my new-found son) Mike (truly the greatest guy I know) and his wife and daughter Ann & Abigail, all of whom we adore beyond words AND (are you still with me?) his adoptive mother Millie, whose become one of the most treasured people in my life. Even farther south we will head to Laytonville California - home of the Kate Wolf Music Festival. Mike and Ann and Millie were all going so we decided to join them - a funky camping festival with some of my favourite artists - Richard Thompson, Patty Griffths, Emmy Lou Harris, Ruthie Foster. (My first festival every as strictly and audience member.) So now this involves camping gear too! I guarantee the car will be stuffed. 

In 'the old days', we could load into the car with abandon and drive as far as we damn well pleased. Now we have 'eco-guilt '- that inescapable and insidious pressure to except personal responsibility for our contribution to the toxic haze that envelops us. Damn. I miss the old days. The days of ignorance and selfishness. The days of cheap gasoline. No indulgent summer holiday is carefree any longer. It's 3:00 am and my eco-guilt is tormenting me.  

When I was eight or nine years old, my family took a two week trip in our Plymouth station wagon, towing a classic hump of a small trailer - my father at the wheel, my mother in the passenger seat, and the three of us kids floating like zero gravity astronauts in the rest of the station wagon as we careened down the highway. I was usually flipping around in the very back, or on one special blistering hot day, between my father and mother in the front seat, listening to South Pacific on the radio and singing along. It's one of those Polaroid shots of my childhood that is seared into my memory. The trip was forever more in our family, referred to as "The Trailer Trip". The other random highlights that took seed in my memory were watching Old Faithful in Yosemite; visiting my father's home town - Two Dot, Montana - population 52, where we mingled with the most dirt poor folks I'd ever seen and shot a BB gun out back; and going to sleep in the trailer when my Mom and Dad were still up, by pretending I was asleep - I was amazed by how well it worked; Oh, and lying feverish in the back of the station wagon early on in the trip, with the blinding pain of one of the frequent earaches that plagued my childhood, and my father taking me out of the oven hot car into the blessed relief of an air conditioned store for a popsicle. 

It was classic family fun.  

A year and a half later the trip took on a whole new dimension of meaning when we realized my father took the trip because he was dying of cancer and, though were, and maybe even my mother was, blissfully unaware, he must have known. It gave the 'trip to remember' a whole new dimension.  

Having a foot in two countries has increased my carbon footprint considerably. When I first exited for Canada from the San Francisco Bay area at 19, I drove the family's Volkswagen Fastback, stuffed with everything I might possibly need to start a new life, including a book on how to build a Tepee, and another on how to homestead in the woods. I was headed to the wild wilderness of Canada, where, in my hopelessly undereducated mind there were no cities - just endless wilderness. Needless to say, I was dumfounded when I arrived in the thriving metropolis of Vancouver. I didn't have permission to take the car to Canada mind you. My mother was in Europe with 'Chuck', the family friend she eventually married after my father died. She was still in the romantic courting stage at that time which must have served to blind her to the possibility of her spirited daughter bolting from the country in the family car. I was embroiled in the Peace Movement on a college campus (College of Marin) when Kent State happened. I got scared and I ran. She was oblivious not only to my life, but to the signs that her pending marriage would put an end to the romantic and respectful courtship and sentence her to 20 years of servitude and verbal abuse. We were each on our course to our destiny.  

When she arrived home to find me and the VW AWOL, she was not amused. When I phoned home she demanded I bring the car back immediately. I was surprised by her uncommon parental declaration of power, and successfully scolded. I did as I was told, but I left my bicycle (my first - a 10 speed Peugot) behind. A few weeks later I hitchhiked back up to Vancouver and after a short visit, impulsively hopped on my bike for the trip back to Marin. But that's a whole other story - this is about car trips, and that was my one and only 'green' trip between Vancouver and California.  

In the mid-eighties I lived in LA for a year, which meant many many trips back and forth in my Honda Civic Wagon. My route was determined by the location of family members- Vancouver to Portland to San Rafael to LA. I loved and loathed it. Hated the death-defying feat of staying awake, one of my big challenges driving long distances, which required handfuls of No-Doze and rounds of cheek pinching and slapping when it became critical. Loved the exhilaration of careening down the highway with Boys Of Summer blasting from the Stereo - an intoxicating sense of hope and promise surging through me - though that may have been the caffeine.  

Road trips took on a new dimension when daughter Julia came along. As all parents of young children know, it requires a sophisticated bank of distractions involving toys, games, snacks and psychological manipulation of National Defence proportions. Of course, achieving nap status was the mother lode. Nirvana. Fortunately for us, cranky or crying spells were not her style, but bathroom breaks were. I recall on one long drive back from Portland, our beloved toddler requesting a pee stop, which of course necessitated finding an appropriate exit. Not yet having acquired the sophisticated timing instinct in such matters, and understanding these things required a certain amount of lead time, her one liner response to our repeated assurances that we were going to find a bathroom for her was, "Today??" We laughed all the way to the rest stop.  

This trip, she'll be driving a good portion of the way. The toddler in the car seat really doesn't seem that long ago. She assures me she' ready to go solo and allow me to nap while she drives, thank god. I'm working on being excited about the trip, though the truth is, these days I would always prefer to stay home. But I figure the days of my daughter wanted to go on a two week car trip with me are numbered. She'll turn 19 at the festival. Her first birthday spent with her brother. Worth the drive. 

Be safe out there - and wear your sunscreen!

Julia GraffComment