grapevineOn the Roadgrapevine
or
"Tomorrow Singing from Around the Bend"


"Today there'll be a never-ending highway,
And yesterday a half-forgotten smile,
But I can hear tomorrow singing from around the bend...
It's just another dusty mile,
But I got dreams to spare
And time to spend..."

"It smells like vacation," I told "the mister" wistfully during a sudden January warm snap.

He was puzzled and asked what vacation smelt like, and darned if I could explain.

But let me see if I can explain.

As an adult, I hate summer, unequivocally and passionately. Bad enough the insects, the sun, the heat (and resulting smog), and the nuisance of an ever-productive lawn that grows despite not being watered, but there's the constant drone of the air conditioner that makes indoors bearable. A heaven-sent annoyance, but one nevertheless.

When you're a kid, it's different. Oh, it's still as hot, and bright, but the advent of summer means the death of the school year. And even in a school year where you'd had a good time, it was difficult not to fidget during those last few weeks when school windows tilted open brought in the delectable smell and sounds of grass, flowers, birds, and the inevitable motorcycles. On June 1 (the day I traditionally played "June is Bustin' Out All Over" from my mother's "Summertime" LP) you knew Nirvana was finally in sight.

Summer was sun headaches and sweat and sleeplessness on sweltering nights and skinned knees, but it was also the season of freedom: to play with friends, douse yourself in coolness under a sprinkler, eat a popsicle before the drips stained your clothes, gratefully drink a cup of Del's Lemonade, listen to the excited shouts of the guys playing baseball across the street, sit on the concrete wall of a friend's home kicking its solid sides and talking, ride a bicycle, eat fruit with an elderly neighbor, read a book, write a story. You'd walk to the grocery store every week with Mom and sit and talk to the butcher while he cut your meat, awaken to caps and firecrackers popping and snapping outside before all four major summer holidays (Memorial Day--by default, Independence Day, V-J Day, and, the saddest summer holiday of all, Labor Day, which meant school began two days later), and take the coveted trips "downtown" for Confession, breakfast, and bookstores.

(I cringe today when I see children's full schedules for summer: this club, that practice, this sport, that caretaker. I loved being home with my mother--we had lovely times together despite clashing over just why the house had to be dusted every day!--and having the freedom to choose what I wanted to do and the friends I could do things with.)

But the best thing about summer was a magic word with everyone in the family: vacation!

Back when Dad worked solo, we hadn't much cash left over after bill payments to go anywhere expensive. We'd end up taking most of the two weeks my dad got off from Trifari in visiting family in Massachusetts, my dad's brother and sister-in-law and son in Beverly (later Danvers), and my dad's sister and brother-in-law and daughter in Peabody.

Auntie Susie and Uncle Johnny's house was always fun. My earliest memories were of their house on Bridge Street, which had a very "British High Street" type entry, the front door opening directly off the sidewalk--no front porch, no stoop, nothing! Their land sloped back steeply from the street, so to get into their large back yard, you had to descend a long, long flight of wooden steps, built like an old-fashioned wooden train trestle. Plus, they had a dog, an English Springer spaniel named Jeff. Auntie fed him Cocoa Puffs for breakfast, which he adored. Oh, and they shopped at something called "the IGA," which sounded exotic, even if it was just a supermarket.

Their later house had a big woodsy backyard; when we hung the cage of Frisky, the budgie, under one of the trees, he learned to speak fluent sparrow in a week.

If I liked staying with Aunty Viola and Uncle Pete just a bit more, well, I must confess that the temptation wasn't totally the company--it was the big inground pool in the back yard. I couldn't swim a stroke (still can't) but loved the water and would paddle around like a puppy in a life jacket, as long as I was allowed. The house was novel in that they had heated floors instead of radiators, and their refrigerator was built into the kitchen cabinets. Open a door expecting cans of soup? Instead you found the milk!

The other attraction was Northshore, the local mall. We didn't have malls in Rhode Island back then. Northshore contained all those exotic Boston stores, too, like Jordan Marsh and Filene's. (Jordan Marsh dogged me throughout my life. My first and only tricycle came from Jordan Marsh, and later, when they moved into Warwick Mall, they gave me my first charge card [remember when they were called "charge plates"?].)

It was as I got older that I started yearning for these two weeks ahead of time. The moment the wind came in from the west with that warmth that carried the scent of fresh grass, distant seashore, warm sun, and adventure, I was ready to go.

Uncle Pete's construction company was about to head south to Maryland (they eventually ended up in Florida, poor things) and put an end to the halcyon days anyway, but after Mom started working again in 1968, she and Dad decided we should do some further traveling than northern Massachusetts. They chose our first out-of-state destination from a suggestion from an acquaintance of Dad's at work.

Deep and many thanks go to the person who suggested it. I have been in love with Lake George, New York, ever since.

Years later, it's still a joyful jumble of happy memories: our tourist cabin motel (the "Fort Gage," long gone), the Howard Johnson's restaurant attached to the Northland Motel, another attraction now missing in action: Gaslight Village, the lakefront shops that sold cedar souvenirs (today the smell of cedar still makes me homesick for summer vacation) and sandwiches and drinks and spin art and tiny china nicknacks and t-shirts and the ubiquitous postcards and banners, Fort William Henry (home of The Last of the Mohicans), and my most favorite places of all, the miniature golf courses. I was mad for mini golf and would have played for hours had we the cash. There were two courses side by side, Around the World in 18 Holes and Around the USA in 18 Holes, a third small course inside--of all places--an arcade, and for a few years, a wonderful tri-level "professional class" Arnold Palmer mini golf course. The latter had no concrete dinosaurs, old mills, or chomping doors; instead, you needed skill to navigate the tricky greens. For years afterwards, when Dad said, "Where shall we go on vacation?" I would pipe up, "Lake George!" and one of them would be sure to say, "You just want to play miniature golf!"

Lake George back in the late 60s had a certain rustic charm that was sorely missed the last time I visited and discovered that the delightful, tree-and-brush lined country road between the lake and Glens Falls was now covered to the inch with "name" motels and sprawling, tacky outlet stores (but then I'm sure the 40s visitors probably mourned the loss of country feelings when they returned in the 1960s, too). Back when we first visited, many motels still had either overgrown concrete parking pads next to their courts or rooms or their parking area remained covered with gravel. Only one or two chain restaurants, like the HoJo's, existed; the rest were owned independently. Attractions gave you free bumper stickers, and these were wired on rather than stuck on in case you didn't want them on your car. Condos were yet to be born in that area and there were more open spaces. If you didn't arrive over Fourth of July week, the place could be more like a charming old tourist village than a bustling tourist trap.

Dad found his own sort of particular Nirvana in a motel that became our regular resting place: Lee's Motel some miles south of the lake. The owner was a stolid, mature German woman named Mrs. Guseck who had been living in the old country at the time of World War II, when my dad served there in the Army. He loved to talk with her about the old landmarks he remembered, for, although he hated the Nazis, he was quite fond of the neat German people, and would always recall how clean their forests were. Lee's had one further attraction: it was within walking distance of Rocco's Italian restaurant. Breakfast at Howard Johnson's and supper at Rocco's are among my best memories of Lake George.

Another delightful memory, although it was probably Daddy's least favorite, was the wonderful back road that led from Lake George to Fort Ticonderoga. While I-87, the Adirondak Northway, was just another freeway, and Route 9 just another highway, 9N clung to the sides of the mountains in a way that made my mom clutch the seat but which I adored. Dad navigated the switchback turns with our lumbering Chevy Impala without a twitch, though he sighed in relief when it was over.

(In those days before seatbelts were mandatory, the best part of the trip might have been saying "I'm lonesome" and being allowed to sit on the big bench seat between Dad and Mom as we clambered up that road. It was a place of warmth and love.)

On our first trip to the Adirondaks, we followed "the Mass Pike" and then the Northway to Lake George. Later on, someone tipped Dad off on a route through "the back" and we took that thereafter: it tacked north into New Hampshire then made a gradual "left," turning west and crossing the border a few miles from one of the loveliest places on earth, "the Grand Canyon of Vermont," Queechee Gorge. Especially in fall, the combination of forest and river made for a beautiful, refreshing stop shimmering with dark scarlets, pumpkin oranges, and glowing golden yellows. This country way proceeded then past Killington and Pico Peak and the beautiful town of Woodstock.

We came home from Lake George that first year, and then many years thereafter, via Vermont and New Hampshire, where we visited caverns, the Flume at Franconia Notch (so blessedly cool on a 90 degree July day), and of course the Old Man of the Mountain. Daddy considered motoring up Mount Washington, but in those days--perhaps still now--they advised you only do it if you had manual transmission. The view would have been splendid, but Daddy didn't risk it.

As on all our trips, we stayed at neat, no-name motels. Today teenagers would scream at some of them. They often had no swimming pools, and cable didn't exist then in 98 percent of the country (where it did exist it was known as "pay TV"). Since we were in the country, invariably there were only the three network stations--if you were lucky, that was! One motel in Maine received solely one CBS station, period. I didn't mind. I always had a book, or we'd go out for a walk, and there was always my diary to catch up on. We would eat at a Howard Johnson's or local restaurants. I remember with pleasure Angelo's in Concord, New Hampshire, a flavorsome Italian place we once drove fifty miles out of our way to have dinner at, and a hole-in-the-wall breakfast/luncheonette in Skowhegan, Maine, I don't even recall the name of. The clapboard was peeling, the place set on a dirt parking lot, but all the local population ate there, and they served the best--and first--"Texas toast" I had ever eaten.

For our next foray into vacationing, we left the country. Although it wasn't overseas, it certainly was French: we went to Montreal. Not that we saw much of Montreal: we went to what was left of Expo '67. I remember little about it except we rode a subway to get there, it was so hot the milk sold on the fairground was sour, and we saw Michaelangelo's Pieta. This was only a few months or so after it had been repaired after it had been attacked with a sledgehammer by some crazy man.

Our other Canadian forays were more fun. Quebec brought a total immersion in French, and we quickly learned the essential vocabulary of the road: "Sortie," "Est," "Ouest," "Sud," and "Nord." The critical moment, in those days when we were undergoing the change from leaded gasoline to unleaded, was which gas pump to use. Astonishingly, it was science class that finally saved the day: "Sans" was French for "without," I knew from my reading, and "plumb" was the Latin for "lead" (it was on the periodic table in Mr. Plummer's Earth Science classroom). Voilá (yet another French word)--we should use gas "sans plumb"!

We had no other language bobbles save the moment Dad panicked and drove down a narrow cobbled one-way street the wrong way, with a man chasing us shouting "Non! Non!" We fell in love with the impressive and massive stone Citadel with its daily Changing of the Guard, the lovely stone Parliament buildings surrounded by flower gardens brilliant with red, yellow, and blue flowers, the green-roofed Chateau overlooking the St. Lawrence Seaway, and, most lovely of all, down in the narrow cobbled lanes of the old city, the beautiful Cathedral of Ste. Anne de Beaupre. Despite the soaring walls, the complicated and delicately worked stained glass windows, and the lovely, mysterious chapels, the fact that enchanted me most was that each pew had an animal's head carved at each end--and the dog was a collie!

During the Bicentennial I was determined we go somewhere "historical." We ended up in Colonial Williamsburg, but the delight of the week, for Dad even more than I, was "the Old Country," Busch Gardens in Williamsburg. It remained his favorite theme park along with EPCOT. It was there we encountered one of the oddities of science, the late-night "skip" radio signal: even after having occasionally received Chicago on the AM band during a snowstorm, we were astonished to discover that station we had tuned in upon leaving Busch Gardens was WBZ from Boston!

All his life, however, Dad had harbored a secret wish: he wanted to see California. My mother's nephew lived out there to boot. But he could never overcome her fear of flying.

My learning to drive eventually solved the problem: we would drive cross country!

We did it twice and to this day, after two road trips from Rhode Island to Florida and two Christmas motoring expeditions from Atlanta to New England, those trips have been my life's biggest adventure. We would rise before dawn on traveling days, watching the sunrise as we ate breakfast, sometimes driving until sunset painted the west rich reds and purples and oranges. We woke to frost in late June, to black buttes silhouetted against a sunrise, to flatlands stretching treeless and golden from wheat or green with corn from horizon to horizon. In western Nebraska we experienced our first tornado watch, in Los Angeles we saw the infamous smog first hand, in San Francisco we were wrapped in a cold fog despite the fact that it was 78 degrees just north in Marin County, in Las Vegas we walked in 100 degree heat with minimal perspiration.

We found out to our intense delight that "when God was giving out scenery, eastern Pennsylvania got in line twice"--the farms set among the lush green valleys along Interstate 80 were breathtaking. (Later at the rest areas we would find one of our favorite restaurants, Nickerson Farms. They made some of the best chicken soup!) We managed to make it to the crest of the Wasatch and look down upon the sprawling valley of the Great Salt Lake exactly as the Mormons had a hundred years earlier and could understand why Brigham Young said "This is it." We saw snow at the Donner Pass and in Vail, Colorado, in July. We wound through the majesty of Zion National Park with great granite and sandstone rock edifices soaring above us at every turn. We watched the crashing surf at San Simeon and toured Hearst Castle, navigated the switchback turns of Lombard Street and rode the cable cars in San Francisco, "did" Disney and Universal Studios, explored Meramac Caverns in Missouri, and waited for the animals to come out of their cool dens into the summer heat to no avail at the San Diego Zoo.

The trips were not without small crises: a careless Nebraska mechanic didn't tighten the plug after changing the oil in our car and we had to get the oil changed yet again at the next exit, and we failed to make room reservations in Arizona (we never made reservations at all) so that all we were able to see of the Grand Canyon was an hour's view from one overlook. This, incidentally, was a bad habit of Dad's; we also ended up not getting a room in Nevada on the first outbound trip due to Friday night rodeos booking the local motels solid and were required to navigate the four-lane highway that wound through the Donner Pass on a pitch black evening before we found a motel in eastern California.

The most infamous incident occurred on our second trip: the night before we left Mom cut one of her fingers and had to have stitches. The doctor said she must travel with the hand elevated vertically, bandaged the finger and gave her pain medication, and told her to have the stitches removed by a doctor in California in a week. Unfortunately, it was her middle finger she cut, and she was hurting so much initially that she didn't realize until we'd reached Nebraska that she was traveling across country giving a rude "one-fingered salute" to anyone who passed us!

Besides, the silliest "bobble" revealed to us one of the most breathtaking sights we had ever seen. Now, in four weeks in two different trips we saw all sorts of lovely sights both natural and man made, from the rolling hills of Iowa to Hoover Dam. It looked as if our brief glimpse of the Grand Canyon, however, would be the one big loss of all time.

As we drove further and further away from the Canyon, fruitlessly seeking out a place to stay, the hours grew later, the road grew starker, longer, darker. The great stretches of road were broken by only an occasional gas station, and always when we found lodging somewhere, even an expensive hotel we were determined we'd take, it was full.

By the time we passed Lake Mead, Dad was exhausted. I was sleepy, too, and he wouldn't allow me to drive in the dark in any case. He and Mom decided we should just find somewhere to stop and sleep in the car for a while. So we found a deserted parking lot, tugged out traveling pillows and blankets, and prepared to do just that.

It was after he turned off the headlights that I looked up.

The parking area we had found was not illuminated; it looked barely used. We were miles from the usual trappings of civilization: lighted parks, food sources, gambling, any highly traveled area. Wilderness bounded us as far as the eye could see. I would not have been surprised to hear wolves howling or owls hooting.

But there were stars singing.

It was as if the entire night sky had come down to that high elevation to visit. Each star--and there were thousands of them, not just the scattered constellations we saw at home--had an individual edge against the endless depths of the black sky. It was as if they were divers small diamonds, each individually illuminated, scattered across a thick ebony velvet display cloth in a sumptuous galactic jewelry emporium. Between the diamond stars, a scattering of what looked like snowflakes were cast; it was the Milky Way.

I was supposed to be sleeping, but the sky held me spellbound. It was so majestic and breathtaking that I silently began to cry.

Paradise always comes to an end, it seems. We'd hardly settled before a policeman came by and told us we couldn't park there. So we returned to the road and eventually, by midnight, reached a motel with vacancies, but stars remained in my eyes.

And so when that warm wind blows smelling "like vacation," carrying the scent of open roads and wide fields, sea, surf, mountain grass and prairie earth, despite the heat and the sun and the interminable buzz of insects, the old longing is awakened once again and I yearn for the highway, if only to see and hear the stars once more...

"See the countryside unreeling,
Watching all the stars--
Nothing I know beats this feeling
Of not knowing where you're going
And what you're going to find..."

 

* Quoted verses 1972, Wes Stern, "I'm on the Road," The Partridge Family Album

 

pointer graphicReturn to Linda's Nostalgia Place