Road Tripping "Back in the Day"
For Memorial Day weekend, here's a blast from my past
I’d endured a cloudburst fifty miles back, so I wore my motorcycle rain gear just in case the skies broke open again. As long as some wind came through my helmet’s face shield, I could manage Atlanta’s midsummer heat and humidity. I throttled up and watched traffic thicken from all directions as people got a jump on rush hour. Suddenly, traffic came to a standstill. Of course it did.
I didn’t dare dismount and peel off the outer layer for fear someone with road rage would plow into me, so I sat, and sat, and sat. My gear became a terrarium, producing a microenvironment as hot as any steam bath. The blood pounded in my temples and my vision swam. Instinct took over as I throttled up and wove between cars and tractor-trailers, making my way to the shoulder. Just as I got my helmet off and took a deep gulp of air, blue lights lit up in my rearview mirror. Busted.
Lucky for me, I’d learned how to deal with law enforcement from Dad forty years earlier.
I was raised a road warrior. Growing up near Mom’s family in Ohio, we drove to California every other summer to visit Dad’s. That’s 4400 miles round trip for our family of five on a two-week vacation allowance.
For obvious reasons, Mom and Dad came up with ingenious ways to maximize speed and minimize motel expenses, beginning with transforming our Vista Cruiser station wagon into a rolling flophouse by folding the back seats down and installing a mattress. Our long hauls always started after dinner so my parents didn’t have to deal with a full day of back seat bickering. We usually fell asleep before Indianapolis and hit a waffle joint in the morning, then kept trucking until we hit Oklahoma City, the halfway point, within the first 24 hours. From there, we faced a couple of days in the scalding desert with an underpowered air conditioner—a motivation for night driving. One parent drove, and the other slept.
A CB radio made our 1975 trip easier and added some entertainment value as we listened for reports of speed traps, road construction, and other traffic delays. We even called each other by our CB handles. “Hey, Stagecoach, when can we have a bathroom break?” Stagecoach was Dad, and I was Buckskin.
“Next town is 23 miles, Buckskin. I’ll pull over then.”
Our favorite song, Convoy, featured a CB radio, and it reigned on America’s Top 40 as a rallying cry against Nixon’s national 55 mph speed limit. I was thirteen that year, my brother ten, and my sister was eight, and we listened to the song so often that we picked up trucker talk like, “10-4 good buddy,” and “put the pedal to the metal.” Nobody said “okay” when they could say, “10-4.”
When we finally stopped at a motel, Dad took us kids to the swimming pool, where we worked off our back-seat leg cramps while mom whipped up some Hamburger Helper in the electric frying pan that she’d packed in the storage compartment beneath the mattress. In the morning, we’d choose our favorite sugary cereal from a multi-pack of single-serving boxes. They were a marvel in package design, cleverly perforated so that the box doubled as a cereal bowl. Dad actually liked the dreaded Raisin Bran, so it worked out to everyone’s satisfaction.
While we had the occasional backseat squabble, our parents kept us busy playing license-plate BINGO and competing for the honor of spotting the most roadrunners before lunch, which was invariably baloney and Kraft American Slices on Wonder Bread—with mustard, because it didn’t require refrigeration.
We always stopped for dinner at the iconic Big Texan Steak Ranch in Amarillo, Texas. The Big Texan is still home to the 72-ounce steak challenge—anyone who eats the entire steak plus a roll, salad, shrimp cocktail, and baked potato in one hour gets the meal for free. Even as a teenager, I couldn’t stand the spectacle of competitive eating, so I’ve pushed memories of the steak challenge aside to make room for what was on offer at the Big Texan gift shop. I still own their little 1975 ponytail holder adorned with a set of plastic pistols in tiny leather holsters. Today the gift shop may or may not have a rattlesnake behind glass to entertain tourists, but I remember feeling sorry for the one I saw there as a teen. Wild things deserve to be wild.
After dinner, we were like a family of sated snakes ready to nap. Running Deer (Mom) drove into the big desert until she was ready for a break, then Stagecoach took over. A night owl myself, my job was to keep him talking and awake. In CB jargon, I was “runnin’ shotgun.”
With my little feet propped up on the dashboard and the air conditioner blowing up my shorts with the force of a baby’s breath, Dad told me stories of growing up in the Mojave Desert. The one I remember most was the day he took his boxer, Lady, into the desert for one last romp. She had cancer, and an appointment at the vet the following day. He suspected Lady knew it was her last excursion, because she rambled like a puppy, chasing lizards that had come out after a rare desert rain. That story still brings me to tears.
Well into the night, Stagecoach spied a patrol car parked behind a low billboard. “Hey Buckskin, wanna report the bear?”
Did I ever! For two days, I’d been listening to CB reports of “smokies” and “bears” as they nicknamed any patrol car. Stagecoach grinned in the dashboard’s glow. “You know what to say?”
I pushed the talk button. “Breaker 1-9, this is Buckskin. We spot a smoky behind the Coppertone sign.”
A man with a smoker’s rasp replied. “Breaker 1-9. Got a directional and a mile marker there, Buckskin?”
I had no idea how to answer that question or a dozen others that came my way through the night, so Stagecoach fed me my lines. Upon my warning, CB operators would immediately conform to the speed limit, leaving the uninformed drivers to be swept up by law enforcement. It thrilled me to change interstate behavior with my eagle-eyed reporting. The power of broadcasting!
“This is Smoky the Bear”
One eastbound morning, Stagecoach was at the end of his night shift, and I was dozing in the front seat. Dad picked up the CB handset. “Breaker 1-9, this is Stagecoach. I just passed a bear in the median at mile marker 65.”
The next voice we heard was a great baritone. “Stagecoach, this is Smoky the Bear. Pull that Vista Cruiser over to the shoulder. We’re gonna have a conversation.” Blue lights lit up in the back window. Evidently Smoky had seen Stagecoach bring the handset to his mouth as we passed.
We’d never had a run-in with the law! Was Dad going to jail? How would we get home? Running Deer deadpanned, “That’s gonna be an expensive ticket, Stagecoach.”
We kept the windows rolled up and did our best to hear what the cop said. Dad received the message with a hangdog look. When he got back into the station wagon, Stagecoach repeated the lecture. “Kids, police officers do more than hand out tickets to speeders. Sometimes they chase and catch bad guys who rob banks and kidnap children.” That hit too close to home. We sat up straight.
“When the bad guys hear us broadcast where the cops are hiding, they might escape. We can’t report smokies anymore.”
And we didn’t. But Stagecoach never stopped listening to others’ reports.
With his pedal to the metal. 10-4.
Stagecoach’s luck rubbed off on me. Turns out the Atlanta cop had done fourteen years as a motorcycle officer, and recognized my impending heat stroke. I’m not sure if he appreciated my hangdog look but it couldn’t have hurt. He let me stay on the shoulder and recover. In exchange for a warning instead of a ticket, he extracted a promise I wouldn’t pull a stunt like that again.
I’d love to hear your road trip stories. Let’s chat in the comments.
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