The summer after my junior year in high school, my parents let me take a trip by myself to California ON A BUS. Trailways, to be exact. I left from a tiny town in the TX Panhandle (the nearest bus stop). Destination: Barstow, CA, where Aunt Pat and Uncle Dall would pick me up for a month-long visit.
I can still taste the spirit of freedom and adventure from that long-ago time. I can’t remember ever being afraid or intimidated but I surely must have been or else I was too young and naive to know what lurked beyond my small-town world. And indeed, nothing terrible happened. Instead, I remember gazing out the window as the flat lands of eastern New Mexico whizzed by and thinking – If I wanted to, I could completely reinvent myself and no one would be the wiser. I could make up a new name and an entirely different background. I could even spin a yarn about why I was on the trip and what awaited me at the end of the road. Even then, my imagination ran away with me as I pondered who I might be in this imaginary life that would span a sum total of less than twenty-four hours.
In the end, I kept my own identity, struck up a friendship with a boy who was a year younger than I was and who became a pen pal for a time. What I also kept were the memories of the smell of the bus exhaust, the rumble of the tires on the highway, the screech of the door when the bus stopped at a crossroads in the desert and picked up an Indian mama with her papoose strapped to her back. Near the end of the first day, the lights of Albuquerque twinkled in a purple dusk, the town itself nestled in the arms of the surrounding mountains. After disembarking for food and a short layover, it was back on the bus. Smells of sweat and cigarette smoke came from the other passengers, sounds of muted conversations, a baby’s cry, a mother’s soft shushing, the crinkling of magazine pages, the creamy glow illuminating overhead as darkness enveloped my fellow travelers and me from the outside.
I probably slept or read a book. I don’t remember, but I do remember the desert at dawn, as if I’d passed through a portal into another world. The morning sun shimmered across miles of sand and rocks and hills, punctuated only by Joshua trees, those spiny, alien-looking creatures that rose from the desert floor, arms outstretched welcoming me to the next leg of my adventure.
It was a grand summer, one of the best I’d ever had. My aunt and uncle and tiny cousin Carl (who was just toddling) met me on schedule and whisked me off to their home further along in the desert. My aunt, a former teacher and lover of books and history and cooking, was a wonderful hostess and introduced me to scalloped oysters and blueberry muffins and took me on mini-tours around town and to visit her friend who lived on the nearby Naval testing station base. My uncle, a mathematician with a high-security job on the base, took note of my interest in math and taught me how to use a slide-rule (that’s a throw-back tool that’s been long forgotten). He was a huge baseball fan, and that summer I fell in love with the Boston Red Sox. It was the year that Carl Yastrzemski won the Triple Crown, and I took home a heart full of great memories. I also gained a life-long love and admiration for my aunt and uncle, a couple I would’ve only known from the occasional family get together or Christmas letters were it not for the invitation to come for the summer.
Both of these dear ones have been a great encouragement to me in my writing journey, and it’s because of treasured memories like these that I long to tell stories.
All this to say that this summer, when I heard Pat and Dall (along with their youngest son and his family) were coming to visit my dad, it was my pleasure to once again take a solo trip (this time with me behind the wheel) to catch up with them and remember the times we shared together. And what a sweet time it was, swapping stories, shoe shopping with my aunt in town, checking out the barns and the tractor with my dad, and feasting around the table. I’m glad I went, just as I’m glad my parents dropped me off at the bus stop years ago. Love you, Aunt Pat and Uncle Dall! And kudos to Curt and Lucy for bringing their kiddos for a taste of life in the country.
What sort of childhood adventures do you remember? Would you put a kid on a bus today and send them halfway across the country??? I’m blessed to have parents who let me spread my wings and gave me an adventure I wouldn’t trade for the all the world.
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