My father lived for roadside attractions along the rural byways of America. He loved to take Sunday afternoon drives and he loved to take long trips across country.
Born in 1930, he was a member of the Silent Generation. He grew up during The Great Depression and hated the Interstate Highway system because he believed it killed off America’s small towns and businesses. When our family went on cross-country trips, he avoided the Interstate at all cost. It didn’t matter if we were driving a gas-guzzling clunker with bald tires in the middle of summer — or winter — we were not going anywhere near an Interstate.
Financially, this made no sense. We broke down on the side of the road and ran out of gas so many times. We relied on the kindness of strangers, which distressed everyone, especially my dear mom. My early exposure to horror movies like The Last House On The Left and The Hitchhiker didn’t help my psyche. In fact, the residual anxiety they created in me was not unique, but prevalent among Gen-Xers who grew up during the 1970s when the horror genre was popular.
News stories about child abductions also contributed to my roadside fears. Many of these stories haunt me to this day, but one that especially bothered me was the abduction of Russell Goudy. He was a 14-year-old boy who attended Los Altos High School in Hacienda Heights, California, where I lived from 1967 to 1974. Russell was born the same year as my brother Billy, 1962. In 1977, Russell was abducted and killed after hitchhiking home from Huntington Beach, a place I visited many times as a little girl.
Today, despite the stress of our wayfaring, I cherish my childhood road trips and all that I learned along the way. In addition to frequent stops at Stuckey’s, there was the occasional sighting of an iconic, roadside attraction. These included the Cadillac Ranch outside of Amarillo, all of Tucumcari, New Mexico, and the Blue Whale in Catoosa, Oklahoma.
Riding in the backseat of my dad’s jalopies, I killed time reading ‘TEEN Magazine. There were two special editions that came out in the early 1980s, and I read each one until the pages were smudged with my fingerprints. My daydreams were formed out of articles about how to rinse my hair with rainwater or pull it back with colorful combs. I loved the dreams adolescence ushered in, and they became my soul occupation during humble expeditions across America.
I may have been held hostage by my father’s convictions, but nobody owned my mind. I lived inside my thoughts, my head, and even when he insisted I put down the magazines and enjoy the ride, nothing could stop my preoccupations.
Still, the Mother Road, Route 66, made her impressions. One afternoon while winding through the Heartland, I looked up from my magazine at just the right time to catch a glimpse of a giant Blue Whale. It was the Blue Whale of Catoosa and it caught me completely by surprise.
“Did you just see that!?” I exclaimed from the bench seat as we trotted along at 55 mph. “We just passed a giant blue whale! Did you guys see that?”
My father glanced at me through the rear view mirror. “Sure ‘nough?” he replied, and kept on driving.
He had missed it. A giant blue whale structure on the shoreline of a swimming hole. There would be no additional look-see. Decades passed before I saw it again.
This story kind of reminds me of a story my college pal Joanna told me in the early 1990s. Her father had taken the family on a grand excursion from Arkansas through the Badlands to see Mount Rushmore. After 14 hours in the car with several siblings, they finally made it to the national monument. Upon their arrival, her dad told them all to look up. “There it is,” he said. And, he turned the car around and promptly headed home. If they’d blinked they would have missed it.
My daughter Bridgy and I took a road trip recently to Missouri for the Miss Maple Leaf Baton Twirling Competition in Carthage. Is there anything more American that Carthage and maple trees and baton twirlers? Bridgy took 2nd place in the mini pageant! The entire experience was a perfect slice of Americana that helped me reach beyond the rancorous disputes that pervade our world on and offline.
On the way home, we decided to take a side trip to see the Blue Whale in Catoosa. It was her first time to see it and it was just as amazing for her in 2017 as it was for me in 1982.