ROAD TRIP­PING WITH DAD

We’ve al­ways been a road trip kind of family. So after my mother died, my fa­ther and I jumped into a car and just drove.

Reader's Digest (Canada) - - Front Page - BY TIM JOHN­SON FROM THE UNITED CHURCH OBSERVER

IN JULY 2015, I was cruis­ing down the free­way on the last day of a tour of Cal­i­for­nia (I was cov­er­ing the area’s cul­ture and cui­sine for some travel mag­a­zines) when I re­ceived a dis­ap­point­ing phone call. I’d been look­ing for­ward to an up­com­ing ex­pe­di­tion to the Arc­tic, but the Rus­sian re­search ves­sel that was sup­posed to carry me from Baf­fin Is­land across the Davis Strait to the west coast of Green­land for my next as­sign­ment was stuck in ice. The trip had been can­celled.

In the back of my mind, I’d been con­struct­ing a vague itin­er­ary for a pos­si­ble ex­ten­sion of the west coast jour­ney I was cur­rently on, if some­thing like this were to hap­pen. But my plan would only work if my fa­ther, who’s now 68, agreed to join me—it wouldn’t be much fun oth­er­wise. I called him at home in Peter­bor­ough, Ont., with my last­minute idea: he’d fly to Cal­i­for­nia the day after to­mor­row; we’d rent a car and drive north, wor­ry­ing about the de­tails as we went along. “Yes, let’s do it,” he said, a crescendo of ex­cite­ment in his voice. “I’m in!”

Two days later, I met my fa­ther at San Fran­cisco In­ter­na­tional Air­port. We made our way to the car rental kiosk, set­tled into a white Nis­san Al­tima and drove along the in­ter­state to Fair­field, Calif., where we planned to stay for the night. The non­de­script town didn’t have many at­trac­tions, but it was lo­cated just off the high­way and more or less en route to the places we were headed, fur­ther north. As we crossed the road from our mo­tel to grab some fast food for din­ner, he smiled and said, “I love this. So many memories.” I knew ex­actly what he meant. THE JOHN­SONS HAVE al­ways been a road trip family. When I was grow­ing up in the 1980s and ’90s, the high­light of ev­ery year was a long car trek. We dili­gently saved up a por­tion of my dad’s de­cent but mod­est salary as a civil ser­vant, shun­ning lux­u­ries such as eat­ing at restau­rants or go­ing to the movies so we could blow it all on one big an­nual va­ca­tion. Even my weekly al­lowance

GROW­ING UP, MY FAMILY NEVER

FLEW ANY­WHERE. OUR AD­VEN­TURES AL­WAYS TOOK PLACE

VIA AU­TO­MO­BILE.

as a kid was tai­lored to these trips. In ex­change for do­ing a few house­hold chores, my par­ents gave me two dol­lars—one to spend on candy or other kid-ori­ented in­dul­gences, the sec­ond to put in a pickle jar I kept in a drawer, sav­ing up so that I’d have cash to spend dur­ing our get­away.

We never flew any­where. Our ad­ven­tures al­ways took place via au­to­mo­bile: first a cop­per-coloured Subaru hatch­back with no air con­di­tion­ing and a man­ual trans­mis­sion, then, by 1986, a two-tone grey Pon­tiac Bon­neville, a boat of a car that sailed us across the con­ti­nent and back sev­eral times. My dad was usu­ally be­hind the wheel, driv­ing for up to 16 hours a day. In Au­gust 1991, we spent five weeks on the road, me­an­der­ing di­ag­o­nally across North Amer­ica: tour­ing the Grand Canyon and Las Ve­gas on the way to Los An­ge­les, then up the west coast to Bri­tish Columbia to visit rel­a­tives be­fore turn­ing east and mak­ing our way home to Peter­bor­ough, Ont.

We made some of our family’s most trea­sured memories on these jour­neys. What stuck wasn’t nec­es­sar­ily the places we vis­ited or the things we did but rather sim­ple, ran­dom mo­ments: swim­ming in the lit­tle pool at the Golden Link Mo­tel in Kis­sim­mee, Fla., Mom and Dad watch­ing my sis­ter, Lisa, and me as we leaped off the div­ing board into the wa­ter; ar­riv­ing in Den­ver dur­ing a pound­ing rain­storm, Dad pi­lot­ing the Bon­neville through a for­est of or­ange con­struc­tion py­lons. Then there was the time all four of us broke into un­con­trol­lable fits of laugh­ter in a Pizza Hut some­where in the mid­dle of Ok­la­homa.

Those trips were deeply for­ma­tive ex­pe­ri­ences, fos­ter­ing a life­long love of travel. When I was a kid, our tat­tered Rand McNally road at­las was my most prized pos­ses­sion. I would study it like scripture, tak­ing it to bed and mem­o­riz­ing the cap­i­tal cities of prov­inces and states, trac­ing routes both imag­ined and real. Do­ing re­search in the pre-In­ter­net age, I would write let­ters by hand on three-hole-punched lined pa­per to city and state tourism boards, ask­ing them to send us in­for­ma­tion for our up­com­ing trip. It felt like Christ­mas when, a few weeks later, a big, brown en­ve­lope would ar­rive in our mail­box, stuffed with colour­ful brochures fea­tur­ing theme parks, shop­ping malls and steak houses.

WHEN I WAS A KID, OUR TAT­TERED

RAND McNALLY ROAD AT­LAS WAS MY MOST PRIZED

POS­SES­SION.

THESE AD­VEN­TURES con­tin­ued into my adult­hood. In 1999, the year be­fore my sis­ter got mar­ried, when I was 19, we took our last big family road trip as a unit—the four of us carv­ing 11 con­sec­u­tive days out of our summer sched­ules—to drive to Colorado and Utah. My sis­ter and I car­ried this pas­sion into our own lives: she worked for a while as a travel agent, and for the past decade, I’ve made my liv­ing as a travel writer, vis­it­ing 117 coun­tries in the process.

My folks were able to join me on some of those voy­ages. “When­ever you’ve got time, and wher­ever you want to go,” my mom would say, “we’re game!” When we weren’t trav­el­ling to­gether, my mother would send daily emails to up­date me on life back home.

Then, on Mother’s Day 2014, ev­ery­thing changed. I was in Aus­tralia, plan­ning to write about road trip­ping from Cairns to Bris­bane, when I got the news that my mother had suf­fered a brain aneurysm, was on life sup­port and would never re­cover. She had emailed me a few min­utes be­fore she col­lapsed, telling me that she loved me and that I was a won­der­ful son.

I only saw my mother one last time, via my mo­bile phone. It was an im­age of her ly­ing in a hospi­tal bed. I got on the next plane home, but by the time I landed on the run­way in Los An­ge­les, I’d re­ceived an email from my sis­ter: it was too late. With my dad keep­ing vigil, my mother took her last breath while I was high over the Pa­cific Ocean.

I’VE HAD AN ex­cel­lent re­la­tion­ship with my fa­ther for as long as I can re­mem­ber. And yet, though I con­sid­ered him both a friend and a par­ent, it felt as though my mom al­ways me­di­ated our connection, her per­son­al­ity an­chor­ing our in­ter­ac­tions.

After her death, the prospect of trav­el­ling to­gether was dif­fer­ent. My fa­ther isn’t nec­es­sar­ily an ad­ven­tur­ous diner, for in­stance, but he was will­ing to try lo­cal places, while my mom had been re­luc­tant to ven­ture be­yond a hand­ful of name-brand restau­rants. Even our sense of hu­mour seemed to change. Be­fore, it of­ten re­volved around my mom, who was the con­ver­sa­tional spark in the car; with her gone, we de­vel­oped our own in­side jokes and learned to ban­ter oneon-one. We had to find a new groove.

Within the first year after Mom’s death, we spent a quiet but en­joy­able week on the is­land of Ne­vis, sit­ting on our ho­tel’s bal­cony, look­ing out over the moun­tains of St. Kitts, soak­ing up the sun and chat­ting for hours. The pain of los­ing my mother was still fresh, but it was cathar­tic to rem­i­nisce and laugh about things she’d said and done, to re­mem­ber what she loved or couldn’t stand and even to muse about what she’d think of the things that had al­ready changed in the world since she’d left us.

In June 2016, we went to Cuba, a des­ti­na­tion my mother never showed any in­cli­na­tion to visit. As we were rid­ing into Ha­vana from the air­port, we stum­bled into a con­ver­sa­tion with a fel­low Cana­dian named Bobby.

He of­fered to or­ga­nize a tour for us in his cherry red 1957 Chevy, and we grate­fully ac­cepted. To­gether with Bobby’s friend Guillermo, a lo­cal, we drove along the fa­mous Malecón, fol­low­ing its lan­guorous curves as young Ha­baneros gath­ered in groups on the sea­wall. Later on, we vis­ited var­i­ous mon­u­ments and mu­se­ums around the great, crum­bling cap­i­tal.

At ev­ery turn, my fa­ther pointed out clas­sic cars from the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, show­ing a re­mark­able abil­ity to iden­tify the make and model of ev­ery one, each time at­tach­ing a re­lated story from his child­hood. “Un­cle Harry had one just like that, ex­cept it had run­ning boards,” he’d say. Or, “See that old ’51 Pon­tiac? We got one of those used—it al­ways acted up in the win­ter, but it got us all the way to Caron­port when we dropped Aun­tie Joyce at school.” I learned a lot about cars—but more about my dad. I’d al­ways ap­pre­ci­ated his sense of hu­mour, but in Cuba, I de­lighted in his wry per­spec­tive, his mock­ery of pre­ten­sion, his hearty guf­faw at a good (clean) joke.

NOW WE WERE mak­ing our way up the coast of north­ern Cal­i­for­nia, my dad usu­ally at the wheel, just like old times. We de­toured from the in­ter­state to visit Red­wood Na­tional Park, walk­ing through its fa­mous tree, so mas­sive you could fit a car into a hole in its base.

We drove through the moun­tains of Ore­gon, tak­ing a cou­ple days to tour Port­land, where Dad par­took in what was likely his first-ever ve­gan meal. He and I are both big­time car­ni­vores—Sun­day af­ter­noon ham­burg­ers on the bar­be­cue were a hal­lowed tra­di­tion in our house­hold. Dad be­gan his plant-based repast with an at­ti­tude of, I’d bet­ter be will­ing to try any­thing once, but wound up rel­ish­ing ev­ery course, including the ed­i­ble flow­ers.

As we racked up kilo­me­tre after kilo­me­tre on the Al­tima, we re­lived family-trip high­lights: the time we flew over the Grand Canyon in a small plane and my mom forced her­self to come with us be­cause her fear of miss­ing out trumped her ter­ror of heights; the days we saw the sun rise and set dur­ing a long road trip to Yel­low­stone Park; the treks to Walt Dis­ney World when Lisa and I were lit­tle kids and rode Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride over and over again. Laughs came eas­ily.

TRAVEL, I’LL CON­TEND, IS TRANS­FOR­MA­TIVE.

BY EX­PE­RI­ENC­ING NEW THINGS TO­GETHER, MY FA­THER AND I

CRE­ATED NEW JOY.

There were also som­bre mo­ments. Dad shared with me what it was like to live alone in our family home, now mostly filled with bit­ter­sweet rec­ol­lec­tions. He said the house seems strange when it’s so quiet, but at the same time, stay­ing there keeps him con­nected to all those years with my mom, when the halls were alive with family en­ergy. I told him about the times when I’d be trav­el­ling in some far-flung place and a flashback of Mom and all of us to­gether would hit me. I had a hard time hold­ing back my emo­tions. To­gether, kilo­me­tre after kilo­me­tre, we healed.

We un­wound in the evenings, stretch­ing out in our shared mo­tel rooms—some of the same drive-upto-the-door vin­tage I re­called from my youth. We’d chat about the day’s high­lights and re­flect on family ad­ven­tures in West Yel­low­stone, Mont., or Moab, Utah, or Barstow, Calif. The con­ver­sa­tion would con­tinue after we shut off the lights, then I would lis­ten to my dad’s steady semi-snore, the same sound I heard ev­ery night on the road all those years ago.

Travel, I will al­ways con­tend, is trans­for­ma­tive. Yes, our con­ver­sa­tions were cathar­tic. But it was more than that. By ex­pe­ri­enc­ing new things to­gether, we cre­ated new memories, new joy. And that, in turn, con­trib­uted to a new bond—forged through new jokes, new con­ver­sa­tions, new sto­ries, new hope—that will keep us close as we jour­ney for­ward to­gether.

We fin­ished our road trip in Seat­tle. The Mariners were in town that last night, and we de­cided to go— base­ball be­ing one of our favourite ac­tiv­i­ties. We had side-by-side seats close to the field, be­hind home plate. We cheered for the home team, and they won. It was a ju­bi­lant fin­ish to our trip, and it felt right—joy cut­ting through the aura of grief that stayed with us in this new, still uncertain re­al­ity. But it was just the be­gin­ning, too. As we made our way back to the ho­tel, we vowed to hit the road again. Soon.

The John­son family dur­ing a 1991 road trip, at the Crys­tal Cathe­dral in Gar­den Grove, Calif.

The au­thor (right) and his dad by the fa­mous tree in Cal­i­for­nia’s Red­wood Na­tional Park.

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