With both of our parents being teachers and having every glorious summer off, the crowned jewel of teaching benefits, they took us kids on countless summer camping trips. On one trip, we brought along a very pregnant cat named Tilly. Mom was worried that Tilly would give birth while we were gone, so she insisted we bring her with us. We kept her in a box with the top open to keep her safe and comfortable during our trip, and in hopes that that’s where she would have her babies. After we’d arrived at our camp site and all the tents were set up, Tilly decided it was time to give birth and she did just that, on the floor of one of our pup tents. My brother, my sister and I watched as she gave birth to four tiny kittens. That was pretty cool.
One of my favorite camping memories is when my sister, Becky, and I had constructed a trap near our campsite so we could catch chipmunks. I’m not even sure what we used now, but we propped up the basket or box with a stick which had a long rope tied to it. We’d lure the little chipmunks into the trap with some bread or breakfast cereal, pull the rope from where we were hiding, keeping a close watch, and we’d catch it. We did this for hours and caught several of those little critters, too. My sister was actually able hold one of those chipmunks in her hands. It was so exciting for both of us since that was our main goal in catching them in the first place. However, the chipmunk wasn’t having it and soon darted right out of Becky’s grip, leaving its tail right there in her hand. It was hilariously entertaining, although I think Becky felt horribly about the rodent losing its tail.
Our father was nuts for “the old west,” and in the summer of 1970, I believe it was, that is exactly where we were headed. Dad built onto a wooden utility trailer modifying it into the perfect tag-along for transporting all of our camping gear and our luggage, etc., and we began our westward journey. I can still remember how bored I was through Indiana and Illinois. It was nothing, I mean nothing but corn! Throughout this trip, whenever it was time to fill up with gas, we would hear Dad exclaim, “There’s my price! Twenty-nine point nine.” Can you imagine gas being 29.9 cents a gallon?
It seemed that the further west we traveled, the stronger the winds became. Perhaps it’s due to all the flat open land out there. Dad did most, if not all of the driving and fighthing those strong winds really irked him. He’d yell, “Damn wind!” And, if he and Mom were having difficulty finding a route he’d yell, “Dammit,” followed by, “Where’s the map?!” He’d get so frustrated. “Damn wind!” Ooooooh, how many times we heard that as we traveled further west. We must’ve heard him say, “Dammit” a hundred times along the way, too.
Now, with three kids in the backseat of a small VW car, well, it gets a lil bit tense back there. Due to my being the smallest child, I was sitting in the middle seat, “the hump,” of that VW squareback, and in every VW vehicle my parents ever owned thereafter. Always on the freakin’ hump! It is NOT fun sitting in the middle, on a hump, between two of your older siblings. If you are one who likes to sit comfortably in your own space, without your arms touching the skin of another human being, especially on very long car rides, well…you couldn’t have endured the hump seat. I barely did myself.
With no air-conditioning in the car, the windows were always open and the breeze was kind of nice, at times. However, with that lovely breeze also came my sister’s very long hair which liked to blow across my face, tickling my nose and basically just getting on my nerves. All of them. “Get your hair out my face,” I’d say. She’d retort with, “Move over!!” Our brother would shout out, “Mind your own business!” As you can imagine, after a few choruses of “Move over,” “Mind your own business,” and “Get your hair out of my face,” Dad would chime in with, “Get the switch!” That was Mom’s cue to grab the fly swatter, turn around in her seat, glare at each of us with her deep, dark, brown eyes, and threaten us with the butt-swatting of our lives if we didn’t “simmer down” back there. If memory serves, it usually worked, too.
We made it to the big state of Missouri and finally saw something interesting in the distance. Our parents simply had to check it out. Looking back, I wonder if they’d known all along that we’d be stopping to see the St. Louis Arch and were just making it more exciting by letting us imagine and guess what it was when we saw it in the distance. Once there, all five of us piled into one of those tiny elevator cars and enjoyed the bumpy, rickety, noisy ride to the top of the arch so we could look out the observation windows. Definitely more interesting than miles and miles and miles of corn.
Mom would always keep a dampened wash cloth handy, which she kept in a plastic baggy stored in the glove compartment. She’d use it to wash our hands and our faces as needed while we were on the road. I can still feel the warmth of that damp cloth on my cheeks. We didn’t do much restaurant dining on our trips. Our meals were cooked by our mother either on a Coleman gas stove or we’d roast hotdogs over a campfire followed by the roasting of marshmallows, of course. For those long car rides, Mom would make sure to pack snacks for everyone, too. My favorite was the Underwood deviled ham on saltine crackers. She would pop that little can open, get a knife and she’d start spreading that deviled ham on crackers and be handing them out one at a time to her hungry crew as quickly as she could. I thought it was the best snack ever and could barely wait until it was my turn to get another one.
At one of the campsites on this westerly trek, my sister and I had had a fight wherein I visciously scratched her arms. That tended to be my fighting tactic, my only tactic, since she was much bigger than me and I didn’t stand a chance physically. I believe I’d yelled and screamed at her, scratched her, then cried myself to sleep that night. When I awoke the next morning, all my fingernails had been clipped off. Every last one was clipped to the nub. Can you guess who did it? I’m sure you can.
We continued our journey and saw all the major tourist attractions along the way: The Grand Canyon, cave ruins, Mount Rushmore, Old Faithful, Bear Butte in South Dakota, old abandoned western towns, the Pacific Ocean, the steep streets of San Fransciso, the Golden Gate Bridge, the painted desert, the petrified forest, Yellowstone National Park with its bubbling (boiling) mud, the actual Salt Lake and Salt Lake City, and I’m sure many more. It truly was a remarkable summer adventure. We even drove through Hollywood and saw the sign way up on that hill. I remember spotting the sign for Rodeo Drive, which I pronounced like the horse and cowboy event, not the proper way of “Roe-day-oh.” We didn’t see any movie stars, that I recall, but the Hollywood Walk of Fame was something worth seeing.
We arrived at the Rocky Mountains in Colorado where Dad was determined to drive way up as close to the top as he could muster. We were on a road that seemed to go in constant loops and turns which Dad called “hairpin turns.” If I was to ever experience motion sickness, it would have been on this drive up the mountains. Thankfully, that wasn’t an issue for me. We reached a high enough elevation to actually see snow. All of us in our shorts and tank tops and we were playing in the snow. So fun! My father’s initial goal for his first trip to “the old west” was to drive across the U.S. to California, and then on up to Alaska. We went as far west as California and as far north as Montana before my parents felt the need to head back home based on their travel funds.
I don’t remember if it was on our way out west or on our way back home, but for one night we got to stay in a motel. This was a very big deal for us because I don’t think any of us kids had ever stayed in a motel. It was after dark, our parents were tired from the miles we’d spent on the road that day and they just wanted to go to bed without fussing with tent poles, pottying in the woods and such. There up ahead, shining in the beams of our headlights was the Cornstalk Motel. I kid you not, that was the name of it. It had a bright yellow, very shiny cornstalk right on the sign. Although we all had enjoyed camping, it was a nice treat to sleep inside, on beds. Oh, the memories.
In 1976, when I was 14 and the only kid left at home, I went out west with my parents for the last time. For this trip, we were traveling in my mother’s butterscotch yellow Vega, with air-conditioning! I had my own pup tent and would set it up and break it down by myself at every campsite. We returned to Bear Butte in South Dakota and we all liked that campground so much, I think we spent two, or three, full weeks there. We would gaze up at the stars each night which were so incredibly bright and clear out west. When I wasn’t gazing at the stars, I was watching the park ranger whom I’d had a serious crush on at the time. At night, I’d lie on my stomach with my head facing out the tent opening, my chin in my hands, watching him as he sat under a light pole looking through his log book or whatever it was he was doing.
On my fifteenth birthday, we were traveling on a long, straight highway somewhere in Arizona. The day before I told Dad that all I wanted for my birthday was for him to not say “Dammit” the entire day. Well, that worked out really well. Along that hot, dusty Arizona highway, with the temperature about 119 degrees in the shade (if you could find any), was where, as luck would have it, the Vega up and died. I don’t think my father said “Dammit” as many times in one day in his entire life as he said it that day, my birthday. My parents ended up buying a used Jeep Wagoneer for $500.00 and towed the broken down Vega behind it for the rest of our trip. (Funny, after we returned home, the Vega was sent to a mechanic for diagnosis and treatment where it was discovered that a $10.00 part would have fixed it.) Since we’d already had an exhausting day with the heat, the dust and being stranded on a road somewhere in Arizona, my parents decided it might be a good idea to get a motel for the night and take it easy. Wouldn’t you know it — we came across the Cornstalk Motel again. The same place we’d stayed for one night during our first trip out west!
Earlier that day, my mother had purchased a Pepperidge Farm frozen chocolate cake for celebrating my birthday. Oh, but it was completely thawed out by the time we checked into the motel, all the icing having melted off the cake part and sufficiently pooled in the corners of the box. Mom had also gotten some fresh hamburger to cook for our supper which, by the time she got it out of the cooler (where there had been no ice for hours) had turned to a lovely, brownish color. Determined not to waste food, Mom proceeded to cook our hamburger supper on a hot plate right there in our motel room.
Although I’d been a bit concerned with the burger having that brownish tint and all, it was the yummiest hamburger I’d ever had. The cake too, even with its melted icing, was absolutely and incredibly delicious. I really enjoyed my 15th birthday celebration in the Cornstalk Motel! Dammit, anyway!