Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Headed East

The summer I turned seven, my family came back from Bangladesh for a year and lived in Berkeley, California (talk about culture shock!!).  That was the summer of my first great American road trip, an institution I’ve grown to love more and more as I get older.

What is so vivid in my mind from that summer was that I absolutely fell in love with America.  I’d been here a handful of times prior, but I was at the age when I noticed things more.  Everywhere seemed amazing — not just your standard tourist destinations like the Empire State Building or Mt. Rushmore, but all of it.  I loved the rolling green hills in Wisconsin and the ranch where we spent a few days in South Dakota.  I was enchanted by the desert towns of the southwest and loved the time we spent with my aunt in Houston, Texas. 

But with this love came a heartbreak every time we had to leave a place to go somewhere new.  I had fallen completely for wherever it was that we were, and I didn’t want to move on.  My parents had to practically drag me away, literally in tears, then sulking, until we arrived at the next destination where I found a new adventure and fell in love all over again.  

Thirty something years later, I realized how little had changed, at least in some ways.

During our twenty years in the Navy  we were told where we were going and when.  Sometimes it was exactly where we wanted to go (like his junior officer tour when we lived three years in Spain), and sometimes it was a total surprise (oh hello, Korea!).  Most of the time, we didn’t have much warning at all. When we moved to Hawaii  we had less than three weeks between when he found out for sure he was going to be working there and when he had to arrive. 

But now, the decision is ours to make, and come to find out, it’s quite disorienting.  

Over the years as we bounced the idea of retirement around, we came up with certain criteria for where we wanted to live.  Unfortunately, though California is where much of our family currently resides, this criteria scratched it from the list.  We felt that Texas or east of it would be good.

But when I arrived in California from Korea and spent the month of August soaking in time with family (and “framily”) and spending time on the coast by Monterey which is a favorite place for us, it was crushingly hard to think about leaving.  Even as so much of the state caught on fire and ash fell from the sky and smoke choked our throats, I was just loving the familiarity and comfort of all the people I loved around me.  

Finally, after Matt had left Korea and was in Washington state doing his final checkout work, it was time to go.  I would leave the day after Labor Day so I could be with my sister’s family for my niece’s birthday.  My parents very graciously volunteered to come with us (though they would leave a day later due to appointments and catch up with us in Phoenix).  

The smoke had made the sky look orange all that weekend, and it was stiflingly hot (111 Fahrenheit) with threats of blackouts as California often does in the summer.  I mean, California could hardly have looked worse, but it was still heartbreaking to leave my sweet sister and her family.  

Okay, I’m trying to think of a graceful way to say this, but... “Staying home” was not an option for us since we had no home. However safety was a very high priority to us.  While planning the trip with my dad  who is in a high risk category if he catches Covid due to a few health issues  we firmly stated what we would do to stay safe and keep others safe as well.  I told him several times I could go alone if necessary, but he is used to traveling extensively every year, so he actually really wanted the adventure.  Our standards were much like what we were doing our final months in Korea — lots of hand washing and sanitizing, masks always at the ready and worn whenever we went inside or close to people , very limited inside time (for instance, just what needed to be done at rest areas, grocery stores, and gas stations — no dine-in restaurants), only activities such as hikes that lent themselves easily to social distancing, and because I’m a germaphobe since before Covid-times, I wiped down every surface of the hotel rooms we stayed in with disinfecting wipes.  Bottom line: we did the very best we could to keep ourselves and others safe.

Anyway. Now back to the story.

Our first night we spent at a hotel in Bakersfield.  I was most stressed about this night, one of two nights when I’d be traveling without my parents.  If you don’t know, Bakersfield is pretty high crime, and as I made the reservation, I read reviews that weren’t good.  It’s already stressful when you’re a woman traveling alone with kids, but my anxiety was high knowing I had to stay there.  I just couldn’t figure out another pet-friendly place to stay further down the road as options were extremely limited since I was traveling with my dogs and needed a pet-friendly hotel and many hotels were full of evacuees from all the fires.  

My fears were not unfounded.  I’m not going to say the name of where we stayed, because I don’t want my blog to be about that, but even though it was a 3-star hotel, it was absolutely terrible — literally drug deals happening beside my car in the parking lot as I loaded my car in the morning.  The whole day had a weird, eerie feel to it, like la dystopian movie, as I drove into the Tehachapi Pass through the smoke and south toward L.A. 

And as I’ve mentioned, not only was I traveling with four of my five kids (Jayna was starting college again) and most of the luggage we have (I did leave some at my sister’s), I also had my two dachshunds, Mabel and Milo.  Every stop we made was a choreography of logistics: who would go to the bathroom first, who would stay with the dogs, how we would get food.  We had unexpected delays and detours and couldn’t stop to eat anywhere due to the smoke, COVID laws, and dogs.  Every meal was eaten in the car and was a battle with gluttonous Milo who will fight you for your food and shamelessly steal from even the youngest member of your family.  There was so much screaming, yelling, and chaos.

Don’t judge, but dinner that night was hummus and carrot sticks and chocolate Frosties from Wendy’s.  I mean, sometimes you’ve just got to survive.  After the longest day of driving ever, we finally staggered into our hotel in Phoenix after 9 pm (this Red Lion Inn and Suites that I cannot recommend enough!) and upon learning that the pool was open till ten, we put on our bathing suits and headed out for a swim.  It was just us out there, and it was exactly what everyone needed after a long day in the car.

I finally got the kids settled down, and we were soon all fast asleep in our much more comfortable and safe hotel room.  In the morning, I was the first one awake.  I lay in bed for a while, thinking how hard it was to be heading to a place completely unknown.  Yes, I knew where I’d be going with my parents and what days we’d be there, but when they headed back to California, it was just us with an unknown destination and unknown date to meet up with Matt, probably in Austin.  For a few minutes, I squeezed my eyes shut and prayed, then got up with a shaky breath to work out and get started on the day.  

But breakfast was served safely and everything cleaned frequently and meticulously by the very kind hotel staff. I went out to load the car and there were no drug deals happening in the parking lot there, just a beautiful blue sky overhead with wispy clouds.  We met up with my parents with Thai takeout in a park, and everything felt exponentially better and better.  

That afternoon we ended up at Saguaro National Park and did a little hike before dinner in the picnic area at sunset.  We drove into the beautiful night and stayed in Sierra Vista.  The next day, we went to Tombstone for a little while, then drove to El Paso, where we stayed at this hotel which again impressed me with its cleanliness and safety standards. 

My dad, who loves to plan travel, had laid out our route days before, and it was absolutely gorgeous.  We turned off of I-10 at Van Horn and drove south through Marfa and Alpine.  

We spent that night in Del Rio, and then in the afternoon of the next day, drove into the Texas Hill Country toward Austin.  Dad and Mom took us on little driving detours through Bandera and Comfort, where we fell in love with the enchanting rivers and things like cowboy boots on fence posts and the charming downtowns.  That night we got to our hotel in Austin.  I didn’t have answers to all my questions about the future, and I still don’t have them all almost three months later.  But we’d had tons of fun.  We saw incredible beauty and blue skies, listened to good podcasts and The Secret Garden as we drove. My heart had craved the wide open vistas during all that time in very densely populated Korea.  I actually loved our roadside dinners in the picnic areas that Texas has along its roads.  It was so much better with the kids, letting them run around instead of asking them to sit quietly in a restaurant like we normally do on road trips.  I’m happy to report that my parents made it home safe and healthy.  I will always be grateful to them for coming along and for showing me, yet again, that wherever we go, adventure is waiting.