Westward Ho the Toyota

The best memories my son, Christopher, and I share involve a car and a road atlas. He was probably 7 or so the first time we took off together, just the two of us. We were living on the farm in Door County, WI, and every summer we headed for my parents' place on Lake Benedict in Minnesota. My husband couldn't always get away from work at a convenient time but, as it turned out, Chris and I were generally happy to get away by ourselves.

We liked, even loved, my husband, but as I had discovered during our first long trip as a family, from Chicago to Dallas in a Volkswagen bus when Christopher was 2, Barry had no patience for the backroads. At that time, I had just discovered birdwatching, and I was certain that my only chance for a scissor-tailed flycatcher would be away from the interstates. I got my flycatcher, but not much else. Idling along a county highway at 35 mph was more than my husband could stand. Barry now has an "ex" in front of the "husband," and this may have been the first intimations that we would eventually get there. I digress.

When left to ourselves, I would draw a straight line on the map and we would follow that line wherever it led, taking whatever road came closest, from state highways to county roads, and at whatever pace suited us. No one was obliged to use the bathroom at the gas station, although I generally preferred inside plumbing. Probably having something to do with my own inside plumbing. But my son was not as constrained. I kept a book under the arm rest of whatever monster car my dad had recently bequeathed to me, and if he had to go, I pulled onto the shoulder and off he went.

We saw a black bear once, scrambling up the far side of a ravine where I had stopped to identify wildflowers. An entire acre full of forest animals is probably still somewhere in northwestern Wisconsin, visible from the road and somewhat startling until you realize that they are pieces of metal sculpture. On one return trip, we crossed an ancient bridge over the Mississippi and drove south from there to the confluence with the Wisconsin River at Wyalusing State Park near the Passenger Pigeon Monument.

One year, when his sister was a baby, the three of us took off south to visit my sister in Urbana, IL. At that time, Caroline would only stay still on someone else's lap so long as we were singing Hush Little Baby. Chris and I got mighty sick of that song, but we sang it all the way, down out of Wisconsin past Chicago, and through the humid soybean fields of central Illinois.

From my sister's house, we went east on county roads (still singing), surrounded by corn fields so high we could no longer tell which direction we were going until finally we crossed the Wabash and I knew we were in Indiana. There's a picture in my head of the view from the bridge deck, on a late summer afternoon, the water so low in August that a leggy teen-age boy could run across it. He's still there, forever caught, a silhouette against water and sky framed in an arch of trees.

An interstate took us north, then, to Michigan where my brother Dennis was going to school in Ann Arbor. Then we took the car ferry from Ludington, MI to Kewaunee, WI (it's no longer in service, as far as I can tell), huddled out of the wind in the bow of the boat watching the dark water and the stars overhead and the lights, as they appeared on the far side, growing brighter and brighter.

That may have been the last trip until 1985. I divorced the husband who, although perfectly good in so many other ways, didn't like to travel the back roads. My children migrated between us, until the migration included Seattle, WA. When Caroline got stranded on the other end of that route, her brother, now 19, and I went to join her.

I took only what I could pack into the latest car from Dad, picked up Chris in Minnesota where he had gone for the summer, and in September of 1985, we set out for an unknown future with no plans, no jobs, and little money. We rode south until we picked up I-90 West, detoured through the Black Hills and, later, over the Powder River Pass into Cody, WY. We drank wine and smoked hash in Custer State Park, sacrificing a little of each to a local river. Wyoming was dotted with pronghorns and mule deer clearly visible from the interstate. We ate steak at the Irma in Cody before driving through Shoshone Pass into Yellowstone, in an early blizzard. We stayed the last night of the season at Lake Lodge in a room with chenille bedspreads and a claw foot tub. Next morning, we were treated to a champagne breakfast that the lodge served to celebrate year's end, and drove north to rejoin I-90 through a buffet of buffalo with a sprinkling of mountain goat and a soup├žon of coyote. We camped in the snow near Anaconda, Montana, with a bottle of Jack Daniels and a jug of apple cider for steaming cups of apple jack. Then up and over the mountains and into a new life.

Chris returned to Wisconsin a year later, and found a wonderful life for himself. I did the same in Seattle. We've visited back and forth across the years, but never again did we take to the road as we had been wont to do. Until this year.

He had driven out once more, in 2006, in his 1998 Jetta, which he gave to me when he bought a new Toyota. This year, he bought a new Subaru, and told me that if I wanted the Toyota, well, I'd just have to come get it. No - he really didn't say that. But he did suggest that I fly east so that we could drive west together one more time.

We took the southern route. No hash. No Jack Daniels. No camping. But there were all the other important things. Steak in Denver and breakfast in country cafes, with bacon and eggs and home fries. Biscuits and gravy. HBO on the telly in comfortable beds with inside toilets and showers. Good music, good company, and great landscapes. Across the tall grass prairie into the short grass prairie, the Rockies, the high desert. From Salt Lake City through Idaho following the Oregon Trail, rolling along the Columbia and back up into rainy Washington State. Where Spring had been springing all the while. Where I was home again. For now.

I may be returning over the road in four years. There's a chance - a good chance - that I'll join Chris in Wisconsin for the remainder of my dotage. He'll have to fly out here so we can drive back together. Arthritis in my hands makes it hard for me to grasp the wheel for too long at one stretch. I know what I'd like to do. U.S. Highway 2 runs from just north of here all the way to Sault Ste. Marie. Hmmmm.....