(This is another special posting by Suzy. I hope you enjoy it.)
After we had returned to Pennsylvania in 2000, we convinced Walt’s Mother to come live with us. She was in her eighties and neither Walt nor I wanted to be flying from San Diego to Philadelphia every other week or more to be sure that she was doing well. Besides, she had lived in this area during Walt’s growing up and it would be, in a sense, a homecoming. As with all moves, the practical arrangements presented some challenges and some opportunities. I needed to find a house that would give Mother a degree of autonomy while providing us with the living space we desired, and would be within a reasonable commute distance of where Walt was then working. Mother needed to sell the home she had in San Diego and make arrangements to have the furniture and belonging she wanted to keep shipped to the place I found in Pennsylvania. It also meant that she needed to significantly downsize her belongings. Some things she gave away, some she sold, and some she just tossed. I found a place that fit all of our requirements within a reasonable distance of where Walt was working. After some effort on everyone’s part we decided that I would fly to San Diego in April of 2001 so that Mother and I could drive her Chrysler Concorde East. She had bought this large sedan less than a year before as she was the primary driver when she and her friends would go places and so she wanted to be able to seat six adults. I flew out a few days ahead of our planned leaving and was able to visit with friends in the San Diego area while she finished up with the moving people and saying her good-byes to friends she wouldn’t see for awhile. Those few days for me were a lark. I had no responsibilities, just a few friends to see.
We had thought to be on the road by lunch on the day the moving van pulled away. Unsurprisingly, we didn’t pull away from her place until mid-afternoon when we headed almost directly east on I-10 toward Phoenix just ahead of the day’s rush hour out of San Diego. The rainy season was over so we had greenery on the hills looking south to Mexico and water in the reservoir lakes. We were soon away from the built-up areas and made good time toward Arizona reaching Phoenix just at sunset. It was then that it dawned on me that this was not just a casual shopping trip nor an unstructured afternoon with my mother-in-law. We were two women, alone, driving across this vast country, and though I had a cell phone, at that point there were still many places with spotty coverage. Besides, I am still, at best, a reluctant user of that form of electronic technology.
Our first motel room was at an interchange of I-17 off the northwest corner of Phoenix where we thought that we were far enough out of town to avoid the morning traffic. We were correct, and got on the road before 8 AM for our first full day of driving. Not far out of Phoenix we began climbing the mountains to Black Canyon City and into a cloudbank. We had agreed to drive two-hour shifts, just as Walt and I do when we take road trips. Mother wanted the first shift so I had settled in to read our maps and enjoy the scenery. By the time we were in the saguaro cactus forest it was snowing. There were state police all along the side of the road helping people in cars that had spun out and flagging passing vehicles to slow down. Mother just kept on keeping on. She was getting more and more excited by the mile. This was the first she had driven in snow since she had moved to San Diego more than a decade before and she was having a ball. I was reading the owners manual to learn about this winter driving feature on her car called “Traction.” Traffic was thinning out rapidly. Many cars were spinning off onto the shoulder of the road. I remember thinking that snow just doesn’t look right on big, tall saguaro cactus. We were behind a semi-tractor trailer when Mother asked, “Shall I pass him? I don’t think I want to follow him all the way to Flagstaff.” I’m looking at all of the vehicles on the side and calmly replied, “I don’t think I would as he is leaving a nice trail in the snow to follow, but you’re the one driving.” No sooner was it out of my mouth than she accelerated, pulled out into the fast lane, and began pulling past the truck. I held my breath and tried not to squirm. The car behind us followed her into the fast lane. Having cleared the truck she pulled back to the slow lane and began giggling. “Wasn’t that fun?” she chuckled. “That felt so good, I wish there was another one ahead of us.” There wasn’t even a car in front of us. I waited a couple of minutes so as not to look anything but mildly curious, then turned in my seat. There was nothing behind us either. Just a snow covered road where ours were the only tire tracks. We didn’t see another vehicle until we got to the on ramp from the Flagstaff airport an hour and a half or so later. By then we were driving out of the snow and decided to stop on the south side of Flagstaff for gas and a change of drivers. While we were doing that, the cell phone rang and I had to remember where it was and how to answer it. I dove in through the driver’s door, across the bench seat, fumbled a bit and finally said hello. Walt wanted to know how we were doing. I told him Mother and I would have plenty of stories, but just now we were ready to head toward Albuquerque. And, oh yes, it was snowing.
By then, though the skies were threatening, and the snow began to change to a drizzling rain. As the rain slowed, the wind began to pick up. For the rest of the day we contended with wind and sand. At times the sand interfered with our visibility as much as the snow had earlier in the day. The motel where we stopped was a classic two-story with upstairs rooms off a balcony. We parked on the opposite side of the building away from our room, walked through the breezeway and upstairs. When we got inside I took a towel and stuffed it under the door to keep the wind out. At least, being on the lee side of the building, the car wasn’t having its paint sandblasted.
The next morning brought sunny skies, with a bit less wind, but it was still noticeable. Mother had only driven her car in the San Diego metropolitan area before we had begun out trip. To the east of Amarillo, Texas, I-40 has a large section of straight and level highway. Early in the morning we seemed to be alone on this wide-open stretch. Mother asked, what at first I thought was idle question, how fast I thought the car could go since the speedometer was marked to 120 miles and hour. Seriously, and foolishly, I replied that cars could often go faster than the speedometer was marked, but there was never need to go as fast as they were marked. At which point she began to accelerate. My eighty-three year old mother-in-law as attempting to see how fast her car would go. Mornings were becoming an interesting part of this trip.
In the afternoon, as we were heading north on I-35 through Kansas, the wind had begun to pick-up again. At one stop, as I was filling the car with gas and Mother was heading toward the building and the restrooms, a gust caught her. A man’s arm came out of the building and grabbed her, but not before her glasses had been blown off of her face. Fortunately, it was her sunglasses that had gone skittering; they didn’t break, and weren’t too badly scratched. After that we were both more careful both to hold onto things as we walked and to our belongings. That night we stopped near Kansas City, Kansas, where the motel clerk asked us why we would even consider traveling across the center of the country in April implying, not even subtly, that we were a bit daft. The following day, when we would change drivers, Mother would scoot across the seat, as I, holding onto the car, would walk around.
Since our eldest son had recently moved to Mankato, Minnesota, we had been going directly north so that we could stop in and see him and his new apartment. By the time we got to Des Moines, Iowa, there were still some piles of snow in parking lots. North of the city, the fields had melt puddles that were the size of respectable ponds. Two weeks earlier Walt and I were driving in the same area due to a business trip he had had. Then the fields had been snow covered, at least those we could see beyond the snow banks towering on either sides of the highway. Now the fields were mud soup and it was April. I began to wonder how people in this part of the world got enough growing season. The wind was still strong. Either we were becoming accustomed to it though because it didn’t seem to bother us quite a much. Maybe it was just subsiding a little.
After our visit we still had two more days before we got home. Spring was settling in nicely to this part of the country and the weather was all we could have wanted. Our jackets were thrown into the back seat. We no longer needed our maps to tell us how to get where we wanted to be. In Eastern Pennsylvania the dogwood trees were in full bloom. It was the perfect time to bring Mother home.
The last word:
We live in a beautiful country with lots of areas to explore. Every trip across brings new opportunities to meet new people and new sites, and have a little adventure. I highly recommend seeing it by car – there is lots to see in the “fly-over” States.
Keep your sense of humor.