The Final Leg of the Journey
Summertime is always so busy and often takes my mind away from my writing. However, my eldest who is also my only daughter, came to visit for a week inspiring me to get back to this project.
After our wonderful late-night parade, we traveled on without incident aiming for an herb farm in Western Pennsylvania. Paul’s sister lived there, married to the owner of the farm and had promised us some day work. We knew we were running low on funds, so we stopped in Illinois and played some music on the street which was fun but not very profitable and ate up too much of our daylight traveling time. We finally got as far as Ohio when the car broke down on the side of the highway in broad daylight. Ugh! What now?!
Our flywheel fix from the summit of the Rocky Mountains finally gave out, and our flywheel was shredded. As we stood there looking sadly at the engine wondering what to do now, a young man came by and offered Paul a ride to a dune buggy shop he knew of. The shop specialized in VWs, turning them into dune buggies and maintaining them. The shop was called Mud, Sweat and Gears. Then he offered to take me and our kids to his house. His parents were away and had left him and his sister home alone. So off we went. My kids were used to strangers and had grown up learning how to stay safe and feel out people’s vibes, so they were good to go. I always found that children seem to have a better sense about people than adults do sometimes and always listened to them if they felt uncomfortable around someone.
While Paul was off doing car business, we all showered, and I napped on a real bed while the younger folks played with my kids. The sister was making chicken and dumplings for dinner and invited us to stay. At this point, we’d lost most of that day already, so staying put with a real meal sounded good to me. Both kids were having a great time and also looked forward to trying dumplings for the first time.
Meanwhile Paul arrived at the car shop where the owner gave him three flywheels, just in case we needed them, with the understanding that the payment was to help out three people on the road in the future. Whew! That was easy. We did that all the time anyway. He made the repair, came back for a shower and dinner and announced that we could now travel at night and had better hit the road. The kids were disappointed but also anxious to get to our destination which was their grandparents’ house. We said a tearful goodbye and headed out again.
As dawn approached, Paul and I realized that we were never going to make it to the farm on the gas in the tank and also didn’t have enough money to make up the difference. We thought long and hard then made a detour to Wheeling, West Virginia to pawn his twelve-string guitar. He loved that guitar, having bought it in Santa Cruz many years before. We didn’t have a lot of choices left, so we left it in the pawn shop never expecting to see it again. Paul kept that ticket safe in his wallet for many years until he gave it to one of my uncles who had heard the story and decided to go to the pawn shop and see if he could retrieve the guitar. We assured him that way too much time had gone by, but he insisted. He actually got the guitar, drove it up to a cousin of his who was going to visit in-laws in Chatham, NY. My mother went to Chatham to pick it up, and Paul was reunited with that much-loved guitar more than 10 years later.
We arrived at the herb farm and breathed a sigh of relief, forgetting that Paul and his sister were like oil and water. The visit didn’t go very well, but we did work for a couple of days, long enough to make enough money to pay for the rest of the trip and even get a motel room, with cash this time, our last night on the road. We were exhausted by now and wanted to arrive in New York well rested. Plus, the kids had been such troopers, and a motel room was a huge treat for them.
We woke up excited, knowing that in a few hours our trip would finally be at its end. We ran outside to the bus only to find one of the tires not only flat, but with chunks out of it. So much for well rested and relaxed. Now even the kids, who had been totally engaged in the trip until now, were done with this adventure. We got the new tire and headed toward Albany, NY. We had been on the road for over three weeks now.
My parents lived in East Greenbush, a suburb of Albany. We got off the thruway in Albany and started heading east to cross the Hudson River when suddenly Paul jumped out of the driver’s seat and started running alongside the bus, trying to stop it with his feet and body. I thought I was watching Fred Flintstone for a minute, remembering the way Fred would drive his car with his feet on the road. Both kids started laughing, not realizing the dangerous situation we were in. I was sure that Paul had finally lost his mind and wasn’t sure what to do. Then he turned sharply into a Mobil gas station and crashed into a pilon, stopping the bus abruptly. Apparently, we had lost the brakes.
We briefly discussed what to do. We were so close to the end of our journey now. We decided to go on, as slowly as we could, using our gears to slow us down when necessary. We made it to my parents’ house, pulled into their driveway, making a huge entrance by crashing into their stone wall. I sat silently in the passenger side of the bus watching the stones come down like dominos as my family came running out of the house to see what all the commotion was about. There were no cell phones back then, and they had no idea when to expect us, although I did call a few times from a pay phone so they wouldn’t worry. I wish I’d had a camera to take pictures of the looks on everyone’s faces, or maybe I’m glad I didn’t. Anyway, seeing their grandchildren made everything a little less intense. A journey that should have taken less than a week, took us more than three. The kids were thrilled to be there; My parents were thrilled that we had finally arrived safely; and the next day, Justin, who was 3 ½ years old, decided to “fix” the bus for us. He found a can of oil and poured it all over the engine. The engine in those old VW buses were in the back, easily accessible to a 3-year old, especially if the hood is not attached securely. Luckily, the only harm was the smoking as the oil burned off, and at that point, all we could do was laugh.
Crossing the Great Plains
Many people believe that the mid-west is flat. They often complain about the tedium of traveling across such flatlands, seeing nothing but fields and farms. If you have ever driven through that land in a VW Bus, you’ll know that’s not true. We breathed a sigh of relief once we passed through all the western mountains until we realized that the bus slowed down on every slight rise. It didn’t look like we were going up or down hill, but the bus felt it. It seemed like it took forever to cross the plains. We managed to stop at rest areas or truck stops before dark for most of the time.
In general, we really liked driving through Nebraska. Nebraska had the best rest stops for children. There were playgrounds and lots of shaded areas to run around and play. One evening, it was starting to get dark, so we had decided to get off at the next exit and find a place to spend the night. Unfortunately, the next exit was too many miles away, and we were forced to turn on the headlights to see, slowly coasting to a stop on the shoulder of the highway. We sat on the side of the road, hoping that no state troopers would come by. However, they soon did. As they pulled up behind us, Paul started rummaging around for our registration and hopped out of the car as they were starting to walk towards us. Suddenly, both cops crouched down with their guns drawn and Paul immediately threw his hands up and yelled, “There are kids in the car!” The troopers slowly walked forward and patted Paul down, then shone their flashlights into the car. They yelled at him for what seemed like a long time telling us both to never jump out of the car or rummage around. To them, it looked like we were up to something. I never forgot that lesson.
We finally got around to telling them about our car issues and the reason why we were sitting on the shoulder when the volunteer fire department showed up. Now there were four emergency vehicles surrounding our little family. The troopers were insisting on calling a tow truck to get us out of there, and we were protesting vehemently, explaining that we had little money left, not even enough to pay for the tow let alone the rest of the ill-fated journey. We were trying to get to Pennsylvania, where we had the promise of some day-work. I’d always taught my children to be friendly with law enforcement. They always waved when we passed them and often engaged them if we were stopped for any reason. They helped me get out of a lot of speeding tickets back in my younger days. They probably helped that night, too. All of the men who had stopped loved them and spent time asking them about their trip so far. Luckily, they were also very wise about what not to say to officials. After going round and round with the police, begging and pleading, they finally agreed to give us a jump and let us drive in the dark with Paul and I holding flashlights out the windows and the emergency vehicles in front and behind us with their spotlights and flashers on. The flashlights were the cops’ idea, which I thought was a little silly, but the kids loved being in their own parade! Somehow, I was always able to spin difficult events into something fun and exciting.
When we got to the truck stop, the volunteer firefighters had taken up a collection and handed us money to buy breakfast with some left over for gas. We were so impressed with their kindness. I even cried a little. We ate breakfast at around 3 or 4 am then took the kids out to the playground, swinging on the swings and sliding down the slide until the sun came up. As we headed down the road, Jessie exclaimed that she’d had the most fun ever. She was totally impressed by not only the parade but also with being able to play outside at the playground in the dark. My ulterior motive was that they would sleep in the bus, giving us more time and distance on the road. She still remembers it fondly. It's always interested me how people in the same family, experiencing the same things, remember them so differently. For us, the "responsible" adults, it was very stressful. For the kids, it was fun and exciting.
The plan to make the best time we could went slightly awry when we made a necessary stop for gas and bathrooms and inadvertently left our cat at the truck stop. We realized as soon as we got halfway up the entrance ramp, which was very long and curvy. There was no backing up, and the next exit was very far. Jessie cried the whole way, certain that Autumn had run off when we left her. We finally made it back, and she was sitting in the parking space we had vacated, just waiting for us. We scooped her up and went on our way, stopping at dusk, just to be sure, and made it all the way to Ohio before our next challenge.