Don’t know about you, but it’s a time like this when a tale of yore can bring on enchantment. Like a centering prayer, a review of the past can stitch a soul with the mystical values of curiosity and resilience.
Even a dropped stitch in retrospect can elevate past installments into valuable chapters of the sweeping saga that it is. So bear with the self-reflections of a road trip gone by.
The long and uneventful summer days of those born to the South during the late fifties or early sixties were passive but churning a vibe that was about to bust loose. The never ending hours of unstructured time and empty roads were standard to the landscape.
My appraisal began during a thumb twiddling episode that resembled the angst of youth. COVID restlessness propelled me to search through an inheritance of hoarding: inside an envelope, inside a folder, inside a box, inside a hidey hole. And that’s where I discovered a small black vinyl book entitled Auto Record.
I’m not sure how how its long-lasting security was managed: just another journal of documentation in my father’s beautiful hand, marking slices of time.
The title page reveals the family insurance agent: Ross and the make of the family car: a 1972 Chevrolet Caprice (white with a green top). God knows where that sacred vehicle is today. If I knew, I would make a pilgrimage and consider its magic carpet nature.
The Auto Record which resided in the glove compartment next to the American Express card read – The R.B. McKnight and Family California Trip 1972. I was a sixteen year old flibbertigibbet.
My father, “Bawb,” (as he was prone to self-deprecate) planned to mix the business of lumber mills and a summer vacation. He anticipated daily destinations with the aid of a beloved cache of maps and the Exxon Mobil Travel Guide (the only game in town). We would make for California and then by way of a wide U Turn, head back to Tennessee. The cost of newspapers, meals, coke stops ($1.50 for four), entertainment, a glass of wine hither and thither and board were noted along with the miscellaneous – laundry, cabs, cable cars and souvenirs for my brothe and me.
I reported to my friends that we would be on the road for a month. They said, “Peace out, home fry!”
We backed out of our pea gravel driveway (see Enchantment 16 ) at 5:30 a.m. on Tuesday, May 23. My parents were buoyant, and my brother looked at me with apprehension. It would be an epic backseat share. His stuff was neatly designated – mine already in chaotic piles. Supplies would include reading and drawing materials only. The radio was intermittent. Times were pre-phone, pre-electronic entertainment, even pre-sorted snacks though the McKnights were not snackers.
The first day we drove 496 miles to the Holiday Inn in Fort Smith, Arkansas. We had dinner at Emmy’s German Restaurant for $16.33. Still open today, albeit “to-go,” Emmy’s touts plates of grub from sauerbraten to schnitzel. Exotic. My first experience with foods outside a Southern palate – thrills and chills.
The next day we made dinner at The Big Texan Steak Ranch, a fairly new establishment, located on Highway 40 in Amarillo, Texas. I remember the ringmaster/owner’s challenge. Eat their specialty, the 72 ounce steak, and you’ll be immortalized in their hall of fame. This was my first introduction to the Texas ideal. My parents had warned us of cultural bravado while there.
The third day we proceeded in good humor for 288 miles to Albuquerque where we checked into another two double-bedded Holiday Inn extravaganza. We headed over to La Placita & Hacienda in “Old Town,” a dusty, non-glamorized version of what it is today.
My memories of the hot tamale platter still linger. “Bawb” paid the smoking hot tab ($6.78 for four). I told my party that I had been wronged by the canned version from Giant Foods. I was committed to more time in Albuquerque when I grew up. Still waiting. Before heading out of town, my parents bought brother Ben a pair of sandals for twenty dollars. I thought he looked movie starish.
During the fourth day, we plowed on at vacation pace to Sedona, Arizona. The guys bought a fishing license for exploratory purposes while my mother and I shopped turquoise. We hopped and skipped to Phoenix. From Phoenix to Flagstaff, another 141 miles, where Bawb noted that we would take another day.
The Painted Desert (fabulously red) and the astounding Meteor Crater were written in as accomplished sites, but I have no memory. I must have been holding out for the current tourist version which includes a fancy rim tour and a 4D experience room called Collision!
No rest for the weary we field tripped it “by way of the San Fransisco Mountains” to see the Grand Canyon. Memory holds that we parked at an overview and peered into the abyss. The site did yield some astonishment only to be overtaken by moody exhaustion. As a diversion from the visual deluge, I distinctly recall twisting my newly acquired shell necklace.
From Flagstaff, on Monday, May 29, we booked it for 265 miles to the Desert Inn in Las Vegas. Pre social media, my mother would have been intrigued to know that Howard Hughes owned the iconic hotel and lived there until not long before when he was carried out as a withered-hermit a la stretcher.
My thoughts of our 2 day stay there focused on the intel that we got from someone my mother referred to as “a lady of the night.” Questions about the breathtaking spectacle of her personage ensued. “It involves a lot of money,” is all Mother Mary would say.
That night after taking in Glen Campbell’s live show and dinner for the golden deal of $51.95 per person, we followed up on the intel that Elvis would be arriving through the front door of the Las Vegas International Hilton. After the show my brother and I sat dutifully on a stuffed velvet settee and waited for the King. We did so as long as our road weary eyes could support the stalk and then shuffled off to bed.
The following day we tooled around and took in all the Mexican food possible. My father noted that he gave my mother 20 dollars for gambling which he line-itemed: “Mary’s Money.”
The next night we made Carmel after a stupefying tour of the Hearst castle ($4.00 per person/$25.00 today) and miles of the stunning Highway 1. We had never seen a display of wealth such as San Simeon. When my family toured again many years later, the focus was on the woman architect who designed the site not the movie star who lived there which were bragging rights during my first visit.
Before we arrived in San Jose my father stopped for a call to my Aunt Karin Griffith and alerted her to our arrival. We had not seen my four cousins in many years. I missed their presence in the South and were mystified by adult dealings and their subsequent move to California. My memory of the visit was of my beautiful girl cousin and the lemons that grew on their backyard trees.
On the eleventh day, June 1 we checked into The Fairmont Hotel in San Fransisco. For two days we inhaled the smells and flavors of the dreamiest lifestyle that I could imagine – perpendicular streets, gardens, the Iron Horse, Oreste’s Italian, and Fisherman’s Wharf. I’m sure dim sum and sushi were there, but our tour guide could not see that far. While Bawb lunched at American Forest Products, we checked out Ghirardelli Square and I. Magnin.
I was fully awake but to what, I wasn’t sure.
We ate at the revered Empress of China, Chinatown’s most iconic space ($27.61 for four) The spot was known for its tuxedoed waiters and sweeping top-floor views. Empty since 2014, it will soon hopefully reopen as Empress by Boon. Parental updates on the dangers of MSG were table talk.
The next morning a cable car ride presented us with two men sitting near by. As they debarked, they gave each other a long kiss. I was intrigued though my mother shrank and barked to my father that those people did so intentionally. It was my first internal conflict with a parent. My mother who preferred the movie version escorted me away in a flurry to buy a wardrobe for my senior year.
On the thirteenth day, June 4, we catapulted into mill trip mode arriving at the Eureka Inn which he noted as “plush.” We pursued a head-scratching trail from the US Plywood Guest House in McCloud, California, to a night in Portland, Oregon and then Boise, Idaho and on to the much anticipated Day 17.
Wednesday, June 7 (17), we rolled into Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Road weary we lodged and dined at the Jackson Lake Lodge within the Grand Teton Park. When seated for a meal, absurdities took my brother, mother and I apart with hysterical laughter. My father who could take no more left the premises.
We went to the room and collapsed into deep sleep. When I walked outside the next morning, I was gobsmacked by the beauty of the earth.
The entrance fee that day for Yellowstone Park was 2 bucks for the 4 of us, today it’s thirty dollars for a car load. I recall sitting on a stump awaiting Ole Faithful to blow. The park guide was bored and influenced our underwhelming response. Another night in Jackson Hole we previewed the chamber of commerce “comic gunfight and hanging on Main Street.”
On the way to Laramie, Wyoming, we stopped to eat at the still-open today, four star Outlaw Inn ($5.87 for four) and then onto Estes Park. Without fan fair we must have made a mad dash for home because Friday, June 9 is the final entry in both sections of Auto Record: Plans and Accounts.
Mapquest now informs that it is a 19 hour trek from his last entry back to Columbia. I have faint echoes of “keep on truckin,’” a reflection from a patch I bought in California to sew onto my jeans. In total the trip covered 5,984 miles. Gas was 34 cents per gallon.
I remember that when I got home to Tennessee all fuzzy-headed and other worldly, I went to dinner and a movie with my long time boyfriend Bob Ross. Somehow he was not as intriguing as before.
Under my new shag haircut, possibilities were off the hook. My understanding of the world and our place in it had been reshuffled with each night out in the hinterland. I would never take anything at face value again.