Summer still smells like gasoline from unfamiliar stations and my view of those worlds is streaked with droplets squeegeed away, line by line, until clarity returns.
Every summer, dad loaded up our 1987 Winnebago with boxes of strawberry unfrosted poptarts, propane bottles for the tabletop Coleman, beef jerky, granola bars, Nalgene bottles, the Avon sunscreen that was also bug repellant, flashlights, sleeping bags, the flat pillows that smelled like campfires and dust, and for me, enough books to last the weeks we’d spend in the confines of each other’s company.
Mostly though, I spent those highway hours staring out the window as corn fields, mountains, coastline flashed past, dreaming about what life must be like in the places we escaped to. Wondering whether they spent their summers running to our home, like everybody’s doldrums were someone else’s fantasy.
My father is a banker with an eye for detail. He gets it from his father, a meticulous mechanic who famously made my grandmother wipe her shoes before getting into his car on their first date. All winter, dad spent evenings with maps and guide books spread out over the formica countertops.
“If we take this route,” he said one year, tracing a sharp pencil across the Midwest, “We can hit seven national parks in three weeks.” His eyes gleamed as he paged through glossy books with photographs of mountains’ majesty, fruited plains and the Corn Palace of South Dakota. William and Clark couldn’t have planned it better.
Dad had four pairs of shoes throughout my childhood: one pair of dress shoes for work, sneakers for mowing the lawn in, inside shoes that looked to me like dress shoes with softer bottoms, and hiking boots. Summers, he lived in those hiking boots, as we trekked across America with pilgrim determination, as if it was our mission to see it all before the leaves turned.
And wasn’t it? On the back of the camper door was a map of the United States, with stickers for each state. The idea was, we earned a new sticker for every state we visited, and seeing it from gas stations and behind open windows counted. My brother and I bickered over who got to place the next one, each time we achieved a new territory. Imperialism was in our American blood, and we felt a sense of ownership over each new state we earned, as if by driving through them, we’d made them more real.
I learned a lot about America, those summers. I learned that bison are much larger than they look on TV and that they will gore you to death, according to gruesome videos of just that at the Yellowstone National Park’s visitor center. I learned that Wisconsin is peopled by immense plaster animals, leading us to dub it “Land of the Giant Livestock,” but there are also breathtaking sunflower fields that still wave Technicolor in my memory. I learned that a dozen eggs crashes spectacularly across carpet older than me, if the camper takes a sharp turn and the fridge isn’t properly latched, and that tumbleweeds really do meander across New Mexico deserts with a laziness that feels like desolation. I learned that the ocean makes me feel both insignificant and tremendously alive and that family, no matter how we bickered in our tin can palace, is a force that holds the universe together, drawing constellations over us like curtains of stars.
But most of all, those family vacations imbued me with a drive to leave. Every year, as the mercury rises, the road shimmers like an incantation and my head fills with fantasies of missing my highway exit that leads to my office. Of cranking down those windows, turning on my dad’s favorite classic rock station and driving off into the blazing day. If the road trip is the American way, then my primal urge to take to the road each July is my last vestige of patriotism. It’s a need to escape the everyday, prove to ourselves that the grass is really greener, to follow in the footsteps of our forefathers who were drawn across prairies in covered wagons, then railroads, then cars. The roads my imagination draws me down are older than pavement, and they wind across a country I love not for its politics or the ever-shifting morals it stands for, but for its deep-seated sense of adventure.
I smell gasoline and wiper fluid and I hear my dad’s voice in my head: “Everybody, get in the car. It’s time to hit the road.”