As we were leaving Salt Lake City, Paul and I realized that the trip was going to take a lot longer than anticipated unless we could figure out a low to no-cost way to repair the bus. Now, we were really glad that we had made a stop in Reno before hitting Salt Lake. We both knew before we left Oregon that this journey across the country would require more resources. When it was just the two of us, we could go hungry for a day or two, hit grand openings to get a free buffet and jump at opportunities, even if they were a little risky. Now we had two kids to care for and keep safe. We’d planned lots of stops into our itinerary for running around and seeing some sights, had packed what food we could and budgeted money for more supplies and a couple of meals out. When we went through Nevada, we saw billboards advertising an all-you-can-eat buffet for $2.99 (and kids eat free) in Reno. What a great opportunity. There were four of us, and we figured we could take a doggy bag or two or four. We didn’t realize at the time how important that stop would become.
So far, the flywheel was still holding out from it’s first repair with the barn nails and the old leftover brake part. In spite of the stop for that repair in the mountains, we’d made pretty good time. We arrived at “Circus Circus” in Reno, paid our $6.00 and walked into a huge place with flashing lights, lots of noise and various circus performers all around. Both kids were awed, though Justin, at 3-years old was mostly wide-eyed and slightly scared. It turned out that the money was for admission to this extravaganza, not just the buffet. Of course, this was Nevada, and they were counting on everyone gambling. They could afford to give away food and entertainment when you were losing so much money to the games. We dragged the kids away from the acrobats overhead and entered the dining room. I could not believe how long the rows of tables were. They ran the entire length of this huge hall with an amazing assortment of all kinds of food available. Then, there was another smaller room with desserts and beverages. There was food for any type of meal, too. You could eat breakfast, lunch, dinner or a light snack.
After eating, Paul suggested that we hang out for a while and let the kids have some fun. Maybe we could spend enough time to have a second meal. Finally, someone from security told us that we really had to spend money to stay. Paul went over to a slot machine in the gambling room and lost a few times. He grumbled about wasting our time here and suggested we leave. I reminded him that I hadn’t had a turn to try and wanted to have a little fun, too. He shrugged and agreed to hang out with the kids while I hit the slots, and I agreed to only spend two dollars. Justin still didn’t like being away from me, and minors were not allowed in the gambling areas. Paul, who didn’t ever do much of the childcare, carried him off to see the clowns. Justin loved clowns and was fascinated by them. Jessie, however, was frightened of them, well maybe more like terrified. I knew that Paul would have his hands full but thought I’d have my quick turn and we’d resume our trip. Then, I won on my first try and slipped another coin into the machine. Wow, I won again and again and again. I was smart about keeping my winnings in a different pocket but just kept winning again and again. I didn’t lose once. I’d started out playing the cheap machine, but it was starting to add up, and I was afraid to go to a different machine and ruin my streak. I also wanted to keep an ear and eye out for my family, but the bigger winning machines were further in the interior of the beast.
Pretty quickly, Jessie had enough of feeling terrorized by the clowns and wanted to go back to the jugglers and acrobats who were near where I was working. As soon as he spotted me, Justin broke away and came running over, hanging on to my leg and crying. Paul whisked in, with Jessie right at his side, and dragged him off of me taking him back out into the hall. It didn’t last long though. He soon broke away and was back at my side. I was starting to get annoyed. This seemed like a prime chance to fill our coffers for the long saga, and Paul couldn’t seem to keep Justin away. This went on for a little while until the same security guard, who had been watching us the whole time, told us we had to leave. Apparently, the manager had noticed because we were causing such a scene. I realized that it was over. Justin was pretty upset by this time; Jessie was bored; and Paul was frazzled. We figured that we had gotten our money’s worth and it was time to move on, so we did. We had spent $6.00 to get in and left with a little over $50.00. We didn’t realize at the time how much we would need every extra dollar. Now, as we were leaving Salt Lake City, having successfully traded for a motel room, we also realized that we were going to have to stop every night around dusk, making our trip brutally long. This extra money would help, but maybe not enough now to make it all the way to upstate New York. We’d researched what towns allowed busking, but there weren’t very many along the way. We’d have to get creative. At least we didn’t have to worry about high peaks any more.
Many people believe that the mid-west is flat, and I guess it is compared to other parts of the country. They often complain about the tedium of traveling across such flatlands, seeing nothing but fields and farms. If you have ever driven through that part of the country in a VW Bus, you’ll know that it’s not as flat as it looks. We breathed a huge sigh of relief once we passed through all the western mountains until we realized that the bus slowed down slightly on every rise. It didn’t look to us like we were going up or down hill, but the bus certainly always let us know. And, the road just went on and on. Even though we managed to stop at rest areas or truck stops before dark most of the time, it felt as though it took forever to cross the Great Plains.
In general, we really liked driving through Nebraska. For the most part, the people were friendly and helpful, and Nebraska had the best rest stops for children. There were always playgrounds, picnic tables and lots of shaded areas to run around and play. One evening, as it was just starting to be dusk, we decided to try to go a little further and get off at the next exit to find a place to spend the night. Unfortunately, the next exit was closed, and the next one was too many miles away, so we were finally forced to turn on the headlights as the dark settled, slowly coasting to a stop on the shoulder of the highway. We sat on the side of the road, hoping in vain 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 yelling, “There are kids in the car!” The troopers slowly walked forward and patted Paul down, then shone their flashlights into the car. They made both of us get out and yelled at us for what seemed like quite a long time telling us both to never jump out of the car or rummage around again when stopped. To them, it looked like we were up to something. I never forgot that lesson.
Eventually, they asked why we were stopped and if we needed help. We told them about our car issues and started explaining 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, certainly not enough to pay for the tow and the rest of this ill-fated journey. We were trying to get to Pennsylvania, where we had the promise of some day-work at an herb farm owned by Paul’s brother-in-law. I had been growing an herb garden and using them medicinally since 1975. I was looking forward to doing some work there.
The police didn’t seem interested in my hobbies and weren’t feeling very sympathetic to our plight, but I’d always taught my children to be friendly with law enforcement. They always waved when we passed them, and Jessie often engaged them in conversation if we were stopped for any reason. My kids helped me get out of a lot of speeding tickets back in my younger days. I know that they helped immensely that night, too. All of the volunteer firemen who had stopped were enjoying hanging out with them, asking them about their trip so far. Luckily, the kids were also street wise by now and knew what not to say to officials. After going round and round with the police, begging and arguing, with the eventual support of the volunteers, and the pleading eyes of our children, they finally agreed to give us a jump and let us drive in the dark without our headlights while Paul and I held flashlights out the windows with the emergency vehicles in front and behind us with their spotlights and flashers on. The flashlights were the cops’ idea, which I thought was more than a little silly, but we did it anyway. The kids loved being in their own parade! Somehow, we were always able to spin difficult events into something fun and exciting.
When we got to the truck stop, the volunteer firefighters handed us money to buy breakfast “for the kids” with enough left over to fill our gas tank. They had taken up a collection. 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. For her, it’s a fond memory. She remembers the big puddles on the ground under the swings and her dad pushing her on the swing while trying to avoid those puddles. It's always interesting to me how people in the same family, experiencing the same things, remember them so differently. For me and Paul, the "responsible" adults, it was incredibly stressful. For the kids, it was fun and exciting, an adventure to be remembered and treasured.