Summer 80 — Long Way Home

Saturday, September 1st, 2012

Memory is a funny thing. When thinking back on this family trip west, I recall we dropped my mother off at the Denver airport so she could fly home early, her vacation days from work having been depleted; today, however, she reminded me she left a few weeks into the trip, slipping away in the middle of the night to catch a bus to the airport while my dad and brother and I continued to hike in the Rockies. While the details are unimportant in this case, the effect was the same, as it was just the three of us guys that came back over the great plains on the drive home. It was a drive that took a lot longer than we expected — or planned.

The family station wagon that summer had logged in several thousand miles in several weeks, and the effort of crisscrossing the country finally proved too much. The car broke down twice in Kansas, and what was supposed to take less than a day — crossing the flattest state in the union — turned into three. Each breakdown required a part that wouldn’t be available until the next day. On one of the nights we ended up in a town near a theater that was showing “The Empire Strikes Back,” so at least we got to see that once again. And we made it to Topeka, allowing Marty to finally complete a long-time personal goal of photographing all 48 continental state capitol buildings … only to return to find a flat tire.

By the time we got to Missouri, we were never so glad to leave a state (at least until the time my wife and I got trapped in Connecticut, but that’s another story). And once we were past St. Louis and the Arch — had to go to the top of the Arch — we were more than ready to come home. We pushed hard to make it back before the car broke down again.

While those last couple of days were a blur of concrete and sky — did we stop to say hi to the relatives in Columbus? Don’t remember — it was the return home that struck me. After being gone for half the summer, we couldn’t wait to get back to see our friends, to plunge in the Caldwell’s pool again, or ride over to the Links to play games. As soon as we unpacked, my brother and I jumped on our bikes and eagerly took off … only to find the pool closed, our friends’ houses locked. As there was no email, no internet, no texting, it was over a week before we discovered they were all off on holiday as well. The disappointment simply added to the downer of the end of any adventure. (I’m sure too we were crashing  after several weeks of being light headed from the altitude.)

It wasn’t until much later I realized this speed bump at the end actually marked a major change in the status quo. Stuff was about to shift: big, dumb things like Reagan getting elected sure, but also small important things like the disruption of my core group of friends, and the patterns we’d established. By the end of that year, a great many of my assumptions were no longer operative and it took a long time to reorient myself.

I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. It wasn’t just those recent direct reminders of that trip. As it is clear now my parents will probably never travel again (and certainly never take another family vacation), as it is clear I am coming off another season where both actual and symbolic events have writ ‘Change is Coming’ in bright glowing letters, it is hard not to think of that summer 32 years ago and what it can teach me now.

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