I can remember writing this first chapter sitting in the grass at a YMCA in WV while my kids participated in a homeschool PE class. This is not typical blog writing, it is long and winding, and for that I apologize.
Have Peanut butter, will travel part 1
Kissing my husband goodbye, the children and I climbed into the car. My stomach was in knots. I was embarking on a journey, following my dream, and yet this morning I felt sick and lonely. Ever since I was a little girl I had wanted to drive across the country like my dad had done with his school buddies, like John Steinbeck in Travels With Charlie, and now I was pulling out of the driveway. My husband followed in his car, but he was heading to work like every other day. My teenage son Joseph had a cold and he rested in the back seat. Beside him was my youngest, Laura, eager to play with the toys and crafts I had collected for the trip. In the front was my middle daughter Anna, her eyes gleaming with excitement for travel. I had spent half a year preparing for the trip, planning my way out west with stops, hikes and campgrounds. I hadn’t given one thought to the way home. Also, I would be away from my husband of 21 years for 6 weeks, the longest we had ever been apart.
Soon we were at the intersection where Kevin turned right and drove on to work. We turned left towards Chattanooga. Within the first 15 minutes Laura had tried out all of her crafts, looked at every toy and each book. We had only travelled 45 minutes of all the 2,000 miles planned and she was already bored and tired of the trip. The other kids were deep into their books and didn’t want to be bothered to entertain her. I wondered, and worried. Was I insane to want to travel across the country with only three kids, two of which were teenagers? Maybe I could turn back. What would my husband say when he came home from work, to find me there unloading the van. Knowing how much I wanted to go on this trip, he would call me a coward. All of my friends would call me a quitter. I drove on. Maybe I could turn back after the first night. Maybe I would keep going.
For lunch we stopped at the Tennessee welcome center, pulled out our sandwich things, chips and drinks. We ate, sitting around a picnic table in a field of grass watching the trucks and cars whiz by. Free from the car the kids cheered up. I began to get a little excited. We were really on our way, but I began to wonder, did I really want to cross the entire USA on highways? Would I get to see any of the country? I had our trip mapped out, dinners planned, and after dinner activities researched. I knew how long each section of the trip should take, and I had all that information in a notebook. For our first night we were sleeping in Memphis. We had a campground picked out, and after a supper of homemade chili I had brought from home we were going to walk along the Mississippi, pass by Graceland, and explore an island nature preserve. While the girls climbed on rocks in the field I looked over the map. I showed the map to Joseph. “Look, I could stay on two lane roads and go more directly to Memphis through Alabama.”
“I don’t know,” Joseph warned. “Highways are usually faster.” He sounded just like my husband.
“Yes,” I agreed, “but this way is so direct, I bet it will be just as fast, and we could see more scenery”
I was sure we would arrive earlier than my planned 6:00. Six months of planning and half a day into the trip I had abandoned my plans. A feeling of freedom swept over me. The trip had really begun now.
Back into the car we swerved away from the 4 lanes, crossed mountains and headed west into Alabama. I allowed Laura to choose the music. Her latest obsession was the Phantom of the Opera, and as the Phantom blared through the speakers we drove in a sea of kudzu. Alabama was beautiful, the two lane road was much more pleasant than a highway, and soon I fell into the rhythm of driving. We stopped for ice cream and gas around 3:00. The drive seemed to be taking longer than it should have. The weather was still beautiful, warm and sunny. I turned on the radio. A long storm was crossing the plains and it was expected to hit Memphis after supper.
“We should have our tent up before then,” I said in a hopeful voice. Joseph was asleep. I sped up slightly. Suddenly a road sign announced, “You are entering Mississippi.”
“What!” I hollered. “Mississippi!”
I must be very lost. The road was of a poorer quality, and side roads were of dirt. I imagined we had turned way south. Joseph woke up to my shouts of confusion. I tossed him a map. “Somehow we ended up in Mississippi. Help!”
He rubbed his eyes, took the map and laughed. We were at a corner of Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee, right where we should have been. A little knowledge of geography would have kept me from panic. I drove on and soon we had returned to Tennessee. The storm and I were on a collision course, and the epicenter was our Memphis campground. The sky was blue, but I could see the clouds in the distance moving closer. As we reached the outskirts of Memphis the clouds turned the sky dark. It was rush hour and traffic was heavy. Joseph read instructions to me, I dodged cars, and rain pelted, making vision difficult. Finally we reached our exit.
We found ourselves in a dubious looking industrial area, then after a few turns we were deep in woods. The rain slowed, then stopped. We were starving and tired as we pulled into the small campground. We were ready for the chili. As we drove slowly looking at the individual campsites I made plans.
“Joseph and Anna, you two set up the tent quickly before any rain comes back, and I’ll heat up the supper.” Just as I spoke those hopeful words thunder rolled across our van, a heavy wind beat at us, and the rain fell. Rain fell like I had never seen before. The noise of it filled the car and we couldn’t hear each other. Vision was gone. I just stopped driving. We were the only crazy people in the campground anyway. In a small break of the rain I saw, out my window, a huge snake crossing the road through a river of water.
“Kids, I am calling a hotel.” I pulled out the cell phone and my AAA books, and tried to call a couple of numbers, but I had no service. The kids were just hungry. The rain slowed some more. I could see a covered picnic shelter near the bathhouse. I backed the van as close as possible and under the cover of the tailgate we found more lunch supplies. Instead of our warm home cooked chili we had peanut butter and jelly, pudding snacks, chips and apples. The rain was still falling and the air was cool. With food my sense of adventure returned and I had a plan.
“Why don’t we put up the tent under here, cover it with the rain fly and then walk it out to a campsite.”
“that won’t work,” said one. There isn’t room under here with all the picnic tables,” said another. “We couldn’t carry it, the poles would bend.” Said the third.
“I have to go to the bathroom,” That was Laura, my youngest.
In raincoats we ran to the bathhouse. Wet grass tickled our legs and our toes in the sandals. When we left the bathhouse the rain had stopped. Laura and I walked back to the picnic shelter. Joseph and Anna were missing. Nervously I looked around and saw them over at a campsite, quickly erecting the tent.
I had a new feeling; I was no longer a lone adult traveling with her children, but part of a team.
We enjoyed a walk as the sun set, then began the bedtime routines. Toothbrushes in one hand, flashlights in the other we marched to the bathhouse. A few other campers had arrived after the storm passed, including a lone pick up truck with no tent or camper. Sitting in the front seat was a man, dressed nicely in a business suit. He didn’t seem to fit what I was used to seeing in a campground. A twinge of fear seeped in, and I wished my husband was with us. Should I worry? I was almost too tired to care. Back in the tent I held a flashlight in one hand and my key fob in the other. If he was a crazy camping family killer and he came after us, I could hit the panic button, beat him with the mag light and scream.
Exhausted I lay in the sleeping bag, listening to my kids play UNO by flashlight. These were the memories I wanted them to have, a cozy game of cards in a tiny circle of light in the tent as we drove across the country. I was too tired to join them, but listening as I drifted off to sleep was pure joy.