Cross-country trip healthy for couple
VERMONT — The cross-country trip is 10,000 miles long, having wound its way to the northern Midwest, south to the Corn Belt, west across the plains to the Rockies, south through desert, and west again to the Pacific. We are off the road for a while in Santa Cruz.
The three of us, husband, springer spaniel and I, live in a twenty-foot camper van, roughly 160 square feet minus 50 for engine. If we were any larger than our slightly taller than average heights, or without slightly greater than average flexibility for people in their seventies, we would not be doing this. The dog at sixty-three in people years is a better age for it.
The trip has two tangible goals: to learn family history by spending time with relatives and to visit our son. It has a third goal, not so tangible: experience again a sense of fresh possibilities felt when we committed to being together forty-five years ago, the summer of ’71, and headed west on our first cross-country trip with pup tent and cook pot in a used Chevy Bel Air, top of the line in ’61.
But none of these goals turn out to be what makes the trip. John Steinbeck wrote of a voyage he undertook from a California port into the Sea of Cortez. (The Log from The Sea of Cortez). For a book collaboration, Ed Ricketts, marine biologist, and he would collect and preserve specimens. They rented a 75-foot fishing boat and hired the four-man crew.
Steinbeck and Ricketts put in long hours with little sleep, in cramped quarters and without enough food. The work became monotonous. What didn’t was what he called finding “the pattern of the trip,” the way personalities were “shuffled together, changing a little to fit into the box, yet bringing their own bumps and corners” with them.
Fitting into our 110 square foot box, we are discovering our bumps and corners, qualities that reveal themselves in this out-of-the-ordinary life.
Here’s a bump of mine. I am very slow getting up in the morning. This habit set in right after I no longer had to answer the alarm and rise early to get to school. What is new is because we’re all in one box, my husband can’t help but see me lying there, and I can hear every word of contempt. He feeds the dog and makes coffee. Sometimes I take so long to get up, I fall back asleep. The first shuffle of personalities begins this way each day.
Little bumps like this fill our box on wheels. Another one: I hate losing. My husband is a good sport, losing or winning with equal grace. Perhaps this quality, but something has made him a superior card player. His bump appears only if no one will play. Our road game is cribbage. With little access to other entertainment, there’s time for a game after dinner. I complain during the game as I fall behind, and when he wins, I softly mutter our compulsory “glad that you won” as he says “sorry you lost” with what sounds like real regret.
These are the bumps that arise but pass quickly like those digital signs overhead flashing warnings.
The corner that we must slow down to steer around, tack across or detour to avoid is my need to know ahead what the day may hold. I see now why I spent so much time writing lesson plans as a teacher. I like planning and letting ideas percolate awhile. My best ideas, like my part in making this a year of travel, bloom slowly after months in the making.
My husband jumbles directions and signage as we drive in new territory. That’s a corner that creates waves of distress and words of disdain.
The ways we navigate such bumps and corners create the pattern of the trip. Relishing little victories like finding the perfect campsite before dark also create the pattern. The changes do too. The three of us have given up wandering around at night between sleeps. We use more courtesy being forced to ask for items we can’t reach without making the other person move. We all relish the way the smell of bacon in the pan fills the space and the shafts of filtered light finally reach us from the lofty heights of the redwoods at mid-day.
Some of our 10,000 miles were on roads twisting up and down mesas in 15 mph switchbacks and on narrow roads winding their way from coastline to the deep forest with Sequoias at the edge. Years from now we will recall the roads, the sights, the smells, the light; but more importantly, we will recall the way we committed to the trip and kept our balance over its rough bumps and around its sharp corners.
Steinbeck’s wife was on his sea voyage in 1940. Unfortunately, the journey did not repair their failing marriage as he had hoped. Fortunately, our trip is renewing and refreshing ours.
Jill Vickers is a native of the Champlain Valley, a retired teacher of literacy and the founder of a video production company. Special interests include family history, travel and outdoor activities. She lives with her husband and their springer spaniel in Bridport.