November 4, 2009

Channeling Ken Burns -- We Saw the USA in a Chevrolet

Ken Burns recent PBS series on national parks spawned great memories of a family trip west in 1968. We toured Wyoming, Montana, and South Dakota in our 1965 Chevy Biscayne station-wagon.

From Indiana we drove west, stopping in Independence, MO, to see the Truman Library and somewhere along to way to visit the Agriculture Hall of Fame. Westward ho, crossing and recrossing the North Platte River through Nebraska on Interstate 70.

There were only two of us kids, and we could not and did not get along. One of us stuck a tentative foot across the imaginary line in the middle of the backseat to taunt the other. This is a game we referred to as "chicken."

“If you kids don’t get along I’m going to have to stop this car," came the voice booming from the front seat.

We might settle down for awhile, and then another tentative elbow across the Maginot Line of Vinyl. Screams. Giggling. More screams.

“One of you kids needs to move back into the back,” said the Voice from On High.

Well, if that just didn’t beat all, sitting in the reverse jump seat! What a terrible punishment that was. But it did mean brother and sister were then sitting back to back, butting head to head. Easy to start the game up again.

“Your head is on my side of the seat.” One eight-year-old hand grabbed an eleven-year-old shoulder across the rear seat. Wham. Smack. More screams.

“You kids are driving your mother and me crazy. Now simmer down or I'm gonna whop you both up side the head.”

After a picnic lunch from our red and yellow plaid metal picnic basket, we drove another 200 miles, always 500 miles in a day, and then checked in to the Holiday Inn of West Wherever.

To keep us occupied, my mother forever made up songs about things that were happening. When the picnic basket led fell off and apples rolled out onto the car seat, she sang, "The lid fell off of the apples, now what do you think of that?" An instant classic was born, and we sang in on every family vacation from then on.

Finally we arrived at Yellowstone Park, first passing through the amazing scenery of the Grand Tetons at Jackson Hole.

Seeing the 1960a footage from the Burns documentary was incredible, because our visit exactly mirrored what the series showed. Lines of sedans and station wagons filled with families, trucks pulling pop-up campers, Silver Stream trailers, all slowly crawling through the crowded, two-lane roads of the park, eager for that first glimpse of the paint pots or the Falls of the Yellowstone. Oh, and the best one of all, Old Faithful.

We checked into a little cabin that had one double bed and two twin beds, braided throw rugs, and a fly swatter. The curtains and bedspreads were made of the same heavy cotton material. Today I would dub it “western style” which could mean anything from Navajo turquoise to little Davy Crockett hats. The cabin had three steps to the outdoors, and the garbage cans were placed precipitously away from the door, for good reason. Every night hungry brown bears -- who had been trained by humans -- loudly ransacked the garbage.

We could not see them outside in the dark, but they sounded like really big raccoons.

As we drove through the park, we saw several brown bears trying to climb on cars. We saw elk, moose, and mule deer in the wild. Old Faithful rose on schedule, the paint pots bubbled in amazing sound and fury, and spectacular mountain scenery served as the continual backdrop. We straddled the Continental Divide, and threw snowballs at each other, a thrill in July.

As we slowly drove out of the park, we spied our Indiana neighbors arriving in their distinctive green station wagon, pulling a pop-up camper.

Next to Little Big Horn where Custer genjoyed Sitting Bull‘s revenge, then the Badlands, Mt. Rushmore and Mt. Rushmore Cave, and finally the Corn Palace.

Montana and South Dakota are difficult states for an eight and an eleven-year-old in a car with only AM radio and the temptations of bothering that other child. And the fear that The Hand will come over the back of the front seat and grab some unknown body part. Why did the trip home seem to last five times longer? Quoth the raven on the All-American vacation.