LESSONS FROM LIFE’S DRIV­ING SCHOOL

Los Angeles Times - - ROAD TRIPS - By Catharine Hamm travel@la­times.com Twit­ter: @la­times­travel

My fa­ther was born in small-town Kansas and spent the rest of his life try­ing to over­come it.

He wasn’t sure what he wanted from life, but he knew he wanted to say good­bye to the Wal­nut River Val­ley and the sul­fury smell from the nearby oil wells.

Some say the odor of oil is the smell of money, but some­thing else tugged at him, telling him to get away, to have an ad­ven­ture, to find a life and live it with aban­don.

He found that life in travel. Small steps at first in the Mid­west. And then big ones: Aus­tralia, New Zealand, New Guinea and the Philip­pines, courtesy of the U.S. Navy.

By the time he was dis­charged in 1945, as thin as a rail and a whole lot tan­ner, he was ready to get in a car with his wife and daugh­ter (and later, another daugh­ter and still later another daugh­ter) and go wher­ever the road took him.

Even as a hum­ble fed­eral civil ser­vant, he man­aged to be king of the road, thanks to the U.S. govern­ment, which moved us every two years.

When duty called, he packed us up and pointed the car in the di­rec­tion of our new home. A “va­ca­tion,” he called it.

It didn’t oc­cur to me un­til I was an adult that nor­mal va­ca­tions do not be­gin with tears and say­ing good­bye to fam­ily, friends and the fa­mil­iar.

But wasn’t it a va­ca­tion to get in a new-model Chevy and drive from Vir­ginia to San Francisco on our way to Honolulu?

Per­haps, un­less that Chevy was a Cor­vair, which, with its rear-mounted, air-cooled en­gine, promised to be a dream come true but even­tu­ally in­spired Ralph Nader’s “Un­safe at Any Speed.”

It was a dream, but a re­ally bad one. As my mother said re­peat­edly, “We made lots of new friends on our trip. Most of them were Chevro­let me­chan­ics.”

Back seat diplo­macy and se­cu­rity

We spent hours in re­pair shops, which, on bal­ance, was bet­ter than wilt­ing by the road­side in New Mex­ico or Arizona while wait­ing for the en­gine to cool in the 100-de­gree heat. I had not yet de­vel­oped South­west sen­si­bil­i­ties so the land­scape looked to me like a whole lot of empty.

But our road-trip lives were rich and full. For in­stance, there were al­ways a lot of ar­gu­ments, es­pe­cially among the back-seat denizens about who had to sit in the mid­dle (al­ways me, be­cause I was the youngest) and who had to hold the bird cage.

Oh yes. Did I men­tion that Riot, the aptly named para­keet, was trav­el­ing with us? I loved our lit­tle blue budgie and fan­ta­sized, as trick­les of sweat glued the backs of my legs to the car seat, that I would open the door of his cage, then open the back door of the car and to­gether we would fly away as the car wheezed and sput­tered its way through the South­west.

I re­main grate­ful to my sis­ters for keep­ing me in the mid­dle and away from the door. They prob­a­bly saved my life, even if it was un­in­ten­tional.

You learn a lot about grat­i­tude from a road trip.

Re­spond­ing to dan­ger and anger

That first in­ter­minable trip was fol­lowed, of ne­ces­sity, by smaller ones. You can’t drive far when you live on an is­land.

My dad thought it would be fun to cir­cum­nav­i­gate Oahu, our new home. Just two years into state­hood, Hawaii still had un­paved roads that lacked the guardrails that would keep us from plung­ing to our death in the Pa­cific.

I held my breath for sev­eral hours that day. I am sure I re­mem­ber this cor­rectly be­cause al­most overnight I be­came a much bet­ter swim­mer. I also learned how to sup­press a scream. You learn a lot of new skills from a road trip. Some­times they are hu­man-re­la­tions skills. Our next road trips were in the Philip­pines, yet another new home.

In Manila, hu­mid­ity clings to you like plas­tic wrap, so we would es­cape oc­ca­sion­ally to Baguio City, a haven at 4,900 feet in north­ern Lu­zon.

But in the 1960s, every day of that 160-mile road to the hills was Car­maged­don.

First we drove to Que­zon City, which should have been a one-hour drive but was nearly three, thanks to bad roads and worse traf­fic. My par­ents laughed and talked and puffed on cig­a­rettes whose smoke made our eyes sting un­til tears ran down our cheeks.

But we en­dured be­cause we didn’t want to break the mood.

My fa­ther did that for us as we ar­rived in Que­zon City.

“Did you put our suit­cases in the car?” he asked my mother.

From the back seat, we saw her turn to­ward my fa­ther as if in slo-mo.

“No,” she said. “I thought you did.” That is how a seven-hour car trip turned into 16, the last 13 mostly in strained si­lence.

To­day you can make the trip in about four hours, es­pe­cially if you re­mem­ber to put the lug­gage in the trunk.

You learn a lot about for­give­ness from a road trip.

Lost? Don’t play the blame game

Let­ting go of anger is al­ways good. So is let­ting go of the no­tion that you will never get lost.

We could never quite get our bear­ings on our first road trip af­ter we re­set­tled in Vir­ginia. Maybe it was be­cause we weren’t mov­ing some­where.

In­stead, our va­ca­tion to Maine was sup­posed to help us es­cape the steam heat of a South­ern sum­mer, which we ev­i­dently hadn’t fig­ured out how to do even af­ter years in the trop­ics.

In re­al­ity, we were never go­ing to get our bear­ings be­cause we could never de­ci­pher a map. My par­ents and their chil­dren didn’t come wired with the di­rec­tional gene. Blame was point­less be­cause this de­fi­ciency was in­nate, not de­lib­er­ate.

But fam­ily fin­ger-point­ing had be­come our fa­vorite car game. Fur­ther, when the lights on our new car shorted out af­ter dark on a rainy road to Bar Har­bor, my par­ents, re­cent grad­u­ates of mar­i­tal glad­i­a­tor school, blamed each other, not the nitwit who failed Wiring 101.

The thing about be­ing a jerk on a road trip is that you don’t have any­where to go. You’re in a box on wheels and, un­like Riot, you can’t roll down the win­dow and fly away. You learn a lot about apol­o­giz­ing from a road trip. In a car, love means al­ways hav­ing to say you’re sorry. You have to mean it too be­cause you are still in a rolling box with all the same peo­ple — un­less you open the car door and push them out.

Fol­low the phi­los­o­phy of the para­keet

You could ro­man­ti­cize and dig­nify our fam­ily jour­neys by pre­tend­ing they were a paragon of this Amer­i­can road-trip tra­di­tion, but that’s putting lip­stick on a pig.

Th­ese trips oinked, and no first sight of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Halona blow­hole in Hawaii, the mist-draped moun­tains of South­east Asia or the ocean-chilled coast of Maine could change that.

On the other hand, as mo­bile uni­ver­si­ties, they rocked. They con­ferred upon us doc­tor­ates in co­ex­is­tence, a les­son then, maybe an even bet­ter one now.

Get­ting along some­times seemed im­pos­si­ble, es­pe­cially when you con­sider the best-be­haved mem­ber of this road-trip crew was the bird.

Riot, it turned out, was our role model. Even af­ter thou­sands of miles in an un-air-con­di­tioned au­to­mo­tive af­flic­tion, I never heard him say, “Thanks, but I think I’ll fly next time.”

If life some­how granted us a do-over, nei­ther would we.

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