Nothing is worse than a road trip gone bad. Not flat-tire bad or wrong- turn bad or blown-carburetor bad. Not running-out-of-money bad or food-poisoning bad. Not crummy-motel-with-mice bad. This is all the stuff of hilarity years later, the ‘remember whens’ of family dinners and scrapbook reviews.
The killer of a fine road trip is unhappy people. There are no hours longer or more tedious than those spent in a car with people who have decided to stop having fun.
There are few memories as vivid as the back of my mother’s head from my perch in the backseat of our ’48 Ford. Always slightly turned to the window, she might have been sightseeing, appreciating the view of the mountains in Colorado or the Pacific Ocean along the coast of California. But she wasn’t. Her unhappiness had made her blind to the vistas.
Always unpredictable and sparked by offenses no one could see or discuss, my mother’s silent treatment episodes were epic. On our long road trips, engineered by my father who wanted to see everything and drive everywhere, my mother could fall into silence any time and stay that way until trip’s end.
While she sat with a fixed stare out her window, my father spotted something of interest every few miles. ‘Hey kids, look at that.’ ‘See that – it’s Pike’s Peak.’ He would drive on but look back at the point of interest every few seconds for what seemed like forever until, even at age 5, I thought ‘if he looks back at Pike’s Peak one more time I’ll scream.’ It never occurred to me he was taking extra looks to make up for her taking none.
Our trips weren’t ruined by the silence my mother imposed although when one parent doesn’t speak, the other family members tend to cut back on the happy talk. We followed the form of our trip. We saw the sights. At mealtimes, we hauled out the Coleman stove where my father would fry something in the iron frying pan. I still keep a can of Spam in my pantry as homage to those roadside breakfasts, lunches, and dinners.
In the silence of our car, I learned to pass time, to think of things in long detail, to count telephone poles, and to rejoice in the sight of a Burma Shave sign. It was in the backseat of our car that I first had the thought that other families were happier than ours. When we passed cars on the two-lane highways we traveled, I’d look inside and see people talking, sometimes the kids were fighting in the backseat. It looked noisy and busy. Not like our car where the occupants were silent and motionless, each one worried about making my mother’s silent treatment deeper and longer.
At the end of the day, my father would pull up to a motel and ask my mother to go ‘check it out.’ Silently, she’d get out of the car, be gone for a few minutes and come back and say, ‘it’s all right.’ We’d unpack the cots and settle in for the night. My father would study his maps and my mother would do her crossword puzzles and we would all have a quiet evening.