I attended a memorial service in central California for the mother of my friend, Barbara. It involved a three-and-a-half hour drive south and east from the San Francisco Bay Area, the beginning of a trek my family and I used to take a lot.
We started doing this back in the early 1970s. One sister attended the University of California at Irvine. Coincidentally, the following year, my other sister was offered her first teaching job in nearby Huntington Beach. Two years later, for reasons I’m not sure I remember clearly, I ended up at UCI as well (that was where Barbara and I met). Among the three of us kids, that translated into a lot of 500-mile drives between northern and southern California.
My father had a 1968 Chrysler Imperial, a behemoth of a vehicle (see photo). As a real estate agent, he used it to transport clients to open houses. It had plenty of room in the trunk for luggage, and the back seat was roomier than most of today’s aircraft. Anyone who spent a summer vacation elbowing and poking siblings who were crowding them would have loved this car.
When we first started making the trip, Interstate 5 wasn’t even finished, and frequently we would take Highway 99, the asphalt backbone of the California’s agricultural heartland, along which the cities were few and far between. My father liked to drive at night to avoid traffic. Rocketing through the darkness in that comfortable car seemed like space travel.
Another time, my mother let me borrow her station wagon. After picking up Barbara in her home town of Visalia, we headed south, again in darkness. Somewhere in the night, we picked up the transmission of one of those old-time radio mystery shows. We listened raptly, disappointed when we lost the signal somewhere around the little town of Castaic. It had run uninterrupted, without commercials or even station identification, and I’ve always wondered whether it was a contemporary broadcast, or one from the 1940s that had bounced back to earth from somewhere out in the stratosphere that one special night.
Eventually, my sisters and I left southern California, all for different reasons, and returned home. This made my parents very happy. The drives to southern California became rare, a vestige of a time that becomes foggier as I grow older.
I guess families still get into their minivans, stock up on snacks in a hamper in the front seat, and head off to Disneyland or grandparents’ or somewhere else special on a regular basis. Without children, and with family all close by, I have no driving need for road trips. And yet, I remember those days and nights on the open road, the hum of the asphalt under the wheels, the excitement of new vistas and destinations, and I have to smile.
It was nice to be on the road, to set the cruise control, and watch the agricultural wonderland of the central valley roll by again. But it was even nicer to head back home.