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.
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
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
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.