According to MapQuest, it is one thousand nine hundred eighty six and a half miles from my parents’ home in Boulder, Colorado to the farm in Bradford, Vermont where we spent our summers when I was a kid. According to that web site, it should take about thirty-one hours to drive the distance.
We made the four-day trip to Vermont at the beginning of every summer vacation and returned each fall. The trek, in most cases with all five of us in the car, was a part of the rhythm of my childhood, just as much as the start of new school semesters or the changing of the seasons.
Though I will turn forty years old next month, I distinctly remember being carried as a small child to the car long before dawn so that we could get an early start on the day’s drive. I remember the smells: of the tarpaulin that covered the possessions on the top of the car (its flaps sewed down by hand in those days before bungee cords) and of the very dense Boston brown bread that we brought in a cooler with other homemade food.
My parents took turns driving and managing the three kids in the back of car, something that I recognize now as no small challenge. A driving day was typically five in the morning until dinnertime, a long time in a confined space.
I remember the games we played to pass the time: super ghost, contests like the counting of uHauls, clicking numbers in sequence on a calculator, Rubik’s cubes, spotting animals on the sides of the road. I remember the miles of Iowa cornfields, sighting down endless rows as they flashed by.
The trip was also a concrete lesson in geography, making real the places on the map as we passed them on route 80. I remember how we celebrated the passing of each state boundary, and how I came to understand just how very large our country is, and how much more dense with people it gets as you move east.
In the early years, we parked at night and the kids slept in the back of the station wagon. (I think our parents used a tent.) In later years we settled for Holiday Inns. There we got to see the Muppets on TV and sometimes even to use a swimming pool. On the last night of the trip when heading east, we always stopped at one of the grandparental houses in New York state, either in Brooklyn or Utica.
I also remember some unusual events, like the time I stepped on a nail when running barefoot through the grass in a rest area in Nebraska and drove the nail so far into my foot I passed out and threw up and we had to detour for a tetanus shot. Or when, also in Nebraska, we drove the length of that very long state on a day so hot (no air conditioning in the car) that it killed off all eighteen warts on my brother’s hand. Or my sister attempting a dive at a motel swimming pool and hitting her chin on the edge. Or waiting extra days in Utica one year when we had carburetor problems.
Sometimes we did some sight-seeing along the way, like the time we went across South Dakota and visited the purple and orange Badlands, Mount Rushmore, the well-advertised Wall Drug, and the Black Hills.
Mostly, though, the trip was about predictability and patience. Waiting for the miles to click by, living in the zone of detachment that you learn to enter when undertaking a trip of that sort, divorced from everything else going on in the world. Spending intensely family time with brother and sister, mom and dad.
I also remember the wonderful sense of triumph that came with conquering all the miles, arriving at last in Vermont, winding the last three or so miles down the dirt of South Road, full of anticipation. I remember being finally free to run up the knoll in front of the old farm house, hearing the honking of the geese, seeing my aunt and uncle, and enjoying the clear air and palpable beauty of that place.It is not an easy two thousand mile trip from Boulder to Vermont (and back), but having made that journey so many times, it has become part of me. It is one of the many bonds that I share with my family, a way we know each other, a common experience to which we can refer. When I think of it this fine morning in Washington, DC, I think of my sister in Alameda, my brother in Lyons and my parents in Boulder, and I know they understand what I cannot capture in words.