06. July 2005 · Comments Off on On the Road, Again · Categories: Domestic, General, Memoir

I can’t recall the context now, but this week, I ran across a quoted axiom on the difference between the English and the Americans, to the effect that to an American, a hundred years is a long time ago, and to an Englishman, a hundred miles is a great distance. It struck me as apt, because it is in a fair way to being true. The single oldest house in the town where I grew up was a tiny frame cottage, supported on river-rock pilings, which just achieved 95 years before the Sylmar earthquake dissolved the mortar holding the rock pilings together, and the main floor collapsed to ground level, broken like a smashed dollhouse. But this was California— about par, actually. Our very oldest existing buildings were the missions, a chain of adobe and stone structures built by Catholic missionaries under Spanish and Mexican rule, at best a couple of centuries and change, pale and makeshift reflections of the great cathedrals of Spain. No, a hundred years is a long time, as far as domestic architecture goes… and a hundred miles is not a long way. At best, as we measured things in California, in driving time, that would be a two-hour drive or less— a goodish distance, not something you wanted to do every day (although now, many do)— but for a weekend, or a special event? No, a hundred miles was easily doable, and a drive of forty minutes, or an hour nothing special at all.

And so, we spent a lot of time in the family car, JP and Pippy and I, the commodious back seat of a jade-green 1952 Plymouth Station wagon. This would be the car that Dad bought slightly used when I was about two or three, and which my mother drove for thirty years, a great solid square of a vehicle, with a cargo area in back which could be increased by folding the back seat flat, and a gear shift lever on the steering column. Dad eventually bought, and dismembered another ’52 Plymouth station wagon to keep “Old Betsy” in parts— door panels, windows and engine parts and all, although the split windshield was inadvertently wrecked by Wilson the Horse, who blundered into the garage in search of his specialty horse-food, and stepped flat onto the glass panes.

Old Betsy got a new coat of paint every couple of years, of Earl Sheib jade-green ( the $30 special), and one of our best-remembered and most thrilling early road trips was when Dad took the three of us to Tijuana, to one of the cut-rate body and interior-work shops to get a new headliner installed. While Betsy was being worked on, we walked around to the shops in the vicinity, and watched a glass-blower demonstration, and looked at painted pottery and coarse hairy serapes and other touristy junk. We so wanted to go to a bullfight, the arena had the most interesting posters outside, but the timing wasn’t right. In a bakery-grocery, Dad bought us fresh, crusty rolls, and fresh fruit, and bottled soft-drinks, nothing that would tax our delicate, first-world digestive systems— we had been strictly forbidden to drink the tap-water. Our great adventure, and the first time we had ever been to a foreign country, the first time JP and Pippy and I could look around and think, “Not American”. Not American, maybe, but not entirely foreign, not as long as we were looking at it from the back seat of Old Betsy.

How many weeks and months of my life, total, were spent in the back seat of that car? Going to my grandparents’ houses, in Pasadena and Camarillo, going to the old church in North Hollywood, countless trips to school when the weather was bad, out to the desert with Dad for camping trips, to Pismo beach for a dune-buggy meet (with Dad following behind, driving the little red chopped-down VW he had made into a dune-buggy), to Descanso Gardens, to summer-camp in the mountains, to swimming lessons, on a long, barely-remembered trip into the Gold Rush country when JP and I were still quite small. How many weeks and months would that work out to be— JP and I on either side, and Pippy in the middle, she being the littlest, and least inconvenienced by the hump of the transmission in the middle of the floor? Looking out the window, daydreaming as the cityscape and the countryside swept by… hills upholstered in crunchy golden grass and spotted by dark green live oaks, watching for landmarks as the grey highway unspooled in front of us, the landmarks that let us know how close we were to… well, wherever. The mock-log cabin in Laurel Canyon, across from the ruins of Harry Houdini’s estate… Jungle-Land, in Thousand Oaks, the place where they shone colored lights on three large fountains (we called it “The Great Fizzies”), the huge factory in Fontana done in Babylonian motifs along the concrete walls, the orange groves walled in by straight lines of eucalyptus trees—before they were ripped away and replaced with straight lines of suburban developments— the old Greene Hotel, in Pasadena… all these places that we knew, knew from seeing them out the windows of the car, sweeping by.

I was apt to get car-sick; the most reliable preventive was to be amused, to have a window open and the fresh air blowing in, and to apply the usual solution: to sing. We had a wide repertoire of folk songs, of hymns, of campfire songs, all sung in tight family harmony… and we would talk. So many things we talked about— the back of the Plymouth is where we first heard that we were going to have a baby brother, where Great-Aunt Nan talked about her half-brother, so many family moments. The back of the car, on the way to so many places; that’s where family is, that’s the place that family memories happen.

The Road goes ever on and on

Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

JRR Tolkein

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