Paint Your Wagon

One of the grand traditions in the life of an American family is the cross country driving vacation. As far as I know, we are the only country in the world where people think nothing of spending 3-4 days in a car driving with Mom, Dad, Brothers, Sisters, Aunts, Uncles, and deceased Grandparents tied to the roof. (Wait, that was a movie. Never mind.) The Original Mr. 20 Prospect always had an affinity for Clark Griswold type excursions in the family truckster. I’ve written before of our Epic driving trips to Disney World in the mid-70’s. As the 70’s came to a close, and the 80’s began, my siblings began to leave home one by one, until it was just me living at 20 Prospect with my folks. I had two childhood’s, the one with the big brawling family of siblings, and the one as a spoiled only child. Well, to be honest I was spoiled no matter which one you picked. Being the baby has it’s privileges.

From the time of our last driving trip to Florida in 1976 until 1982, we didn’t venture more than a long days drive in any direction of Batavia. These were the years we went to Washington to take in the museums, to Pennsylvania visit my Dad’s childhood haunts in & around Pittsburgh, to South Bend, Indiana, and later to Boston, to see my Big Bruddah, to the Adirondacks to see my Bratty Big Sister, and finally our annual trips to Ohio. For some reason, Dad was always up for a trip to Ohio. I think we went there every year from 78′ to 82′, and saw just about all there was to see. The football Hall of Fame in Canton, the Wright – Patterson Airforce Museum in Dayton, King’s Island, Cedar Point, Sea World, Lake Geyuga, etc… For such a small looking state on a map, Ohio can take an eternity to cross. Which reminds me…

When I was traveling the country on business in the early 90’s, I always noticed that whenever we crossed a time zone, my watch seemed to be 15 minutes slower than the actual time. If I traveled progressively from Eastern Time to Pacific, I would be 45 minutes behind. Finally I discovered that the U.S. Government has been shaving 15 minutes off of the time zones, and hiding them in Ohio. This is why Ohio seems to take a full hour longer to cross in a car than it should. The missing 45 minutes are where they hide Bigfoot, UFO’s, Amelia Earhardt, Mothman and Jimmy Hoffa. Digressing…

So when the summer of 1982 rolled around, and we finally married off my Bratty Big Sis, there was little reason to stay in Batavia. Big Bruddah was back in town living in a dumpy apartment in East Bethany with some hippie chick, the Middle Child was in round #2 or 3 of her stints at the local Community College, and Bratty Big Sis was off to Florida on her honeymoon. So once the bills had been settled at the Moose Club, and the house had been cleaned up, we loaded up our 1982 Chrysler LeBaron K-Car, and pointed it west for my first trip beyond the Mississippi. As luck would have it, my parents had asked me if I wanted to bring a friend along on vacation, so I had asked my best friend Chris to accompany us on our adventure. Our destination… Colorado!

I had never seen “real” mountains before, and ever since my Big Bruddah had dropped out of the University of Notre Dame to hitchhike around the country and find himself, Colorado had figured prominently in his travels. In fact, the original Mr. 20 Prospect had dropped out of High School in the early 50’s and joined the Air Force, where he was sent to Denver for basic training. Little did I know at the time, but by 1991, I too would leave NY behind for the wilds of Colorado. It must be something in the 20 Prospect blood that calls us to the Rockies. Either that or its the Coors and John Denver.

Anyway, in the summer of 1982 we left Batavia behind and began our trek across this great country. I was a straight A student, and a bit of a geography geek, but I never had any real sense of the size of this country until the summer we drove across it. Holy Krep. It is a big, big, place. We left early in the morning on Day 1, as the 20 Prospect clan began every vacation hours before dawn to “beat the traffic”. All vacations began this way, as Mom & Dad roused us from our sleep, and we crawled into the back seat of the Chrysler as they drove around the block to pick up a dozen donuts, and a thermos of coffee at our Dunkin Donuts. Then we’d fall back to sleep as we headed west on the Thruway. Our first stop was always, ALWAYS, the Angola Service Center of the NYS Thruway. Notable in WNY kiddom, because the restaurant was in the middle of the highway, but the parking lots were on the side, connected by a glass walkway over the road. Semitrucks would boom by mere feet below your feet, as you walked to the bathroom. How cool was that? Hell, that excitement alone would have been enough to qualify as a vacation.

Next stop was always a rest area outside of Ashtabula, where they had honest to God outhouses, JUST LIKE THE PIONEERS!!!! Buzzing flies, and the smell of excrement, were the same sensory experiences that greeted all of those kids huddled in their Conestoga Wagons! This was LIVING HISTORY! Nightfall found us somewhere on the pan flat surface of the moon central Illinois.

Day 2 brought us to St. Louis! Gateway of the West! We had crossed the Em-eye-ess-ess-eye-ess-ess-eye-pee-pee-eye! The place where radio stations changed from call letters begining with “W”, to ones beginning with “K”! This was like a foreign land! Missouri brought hot, oppressing heat and humidity, and rolling hills of green, a welcome sight after the flatness of the I states. We crossed Missourra, and hit Kansas, and it seemed like we had finally found the West! Rolling hills of wheat, and prairie grass greeted us on our way out of KC. We barreled straight west across the plains of Western Kansas, racing big yellow Union Pacific diesel engines pulling mile after mile of boxcars. Chris and I entertained ourselves the only way two 13 year old boys know how, talking in code about girls, and snickering at every road sign that could possibly construe some sexual double entendre.

We stopped for the night just across the border in Colorado. Out on the flat expanse of prairie in Burlington Colorado, at a little motel just off of I-70. After dinner Chris and I took our soccer ball and headed out through the wheat field to a little town park about a quarter mile away. We spent about an hour playing on the playground equipment, and kicking the ball around, when the dark clouds began gathering off to the west. We watched them roll in for what seemed like over an hour. As tongues of lightning began to lick the prairie from the massive wall of brooding clouds we headed back to the motel. Mom was happy to see us, and we sat in the lawn chairs in front of our motel room door watching the awesome light show of a thunderstorm rolling across the plains. The nice thing about the great plains is that there is nothing to get in the way of the scenery.

After the storm had passed we put on our swim trunks and went for a swim in the pool. Day 3 found us on top of Pikes Peak, an honest to goodness mountain, after a long ride up on the cog railway. I’d like to say the view was breathtaking, and in a way it was, but I spent my time on the summit heaving my guts out into a toilet with altitude sickness. That was the first, but not the last time that I learned to spend night #1 in Colorado at 5,000 feet, before venturing any higher into the mountains. Jeez, but it can play havoc with my joints.

We spent the next few days exploring Cripple Creek, the Garden of the Gods, Denver Zoo, Elitches Gardens, and driving up to the Berthoud Pass and all the other places my Dad remembered from his time there in the 50’s. We spent our nights at Howard Johnson motels along the front range, and had the strange fortune of running into a girl our age at the HoJo’s for 3 consecutive nights. She was greatly entertained by our “New Yawk” voices, and kept asking us questions, wanting to know everything about NYC despite the fact that neither of us had been closer than 5 hours to the place in our entire lives. That was my first realization that everywhere I would ever travel, as soon as I mentioned being from NY, people would immediately think I sprang from a Woody Allen movie.


After a while we gave up trying to explain, and just started making up stories based on the episodes of Barney Miller, and Welcome Back Kotter that we had seen. A strategy I continue to employ to this day.

Our time in Colorado came to a quick end, and before we knew it we were headed back across the ungodly expanse of Nebraska, and Iowa. Two days later, and we were home again in Batavia. In time to see the finish of the 1982 World Cup on TV, and finish out our seasons of summer soccer. But a seed had been planted. Somewhere deep within me, the memory of those wide open skies would call to me, and enter into my dreams, promising a glittering world of purple mountains majesty across the fruited plain. It was a call that I would never be able to say no to. And when my opportunity arose to hit the open road and explore the American West I seized it with both hands. The result was 3 of the best years of my life from 1990 – 1993, kicking about the country diving ever deeper into myself, to discover the wilderness within, and the silent strength of a granite spine of mountains that I never knew lay buried within me.

Eventually, my travels would bring me to Minnesota, and into the arms of the woman who has been the center of my universe for 18 years. Time has passed, and aside from a couple of trips back to the front range, I have not laid eyes on the Rocky Mountains in over 15 years. That is all about to change. This summer we will be passing along the tradition of interminable car trips across this vast country to 20 Prospect Jr. and Lil’ Miss 20 Prospect. I can only hope these memories ripple out through their lives the way that waves do from a stone dropped into a deep and silent well.


12 thoughts on “Paint Your Wagon

  1. Are we there yet? Ah, the road trip. You should start making your mixed tape now. Can’t hit the road without it!

    This line — “diving ever deeper into myself, to discover the wilderness within, and the silent strength of a granite spine of mountains that I never knew lay buried within me” — is amazing.

    • I had the exact same thought on the drive to work this morning! I had the Replacements turned up to 11, and when the CD ended I switched to the radio just as Queen, and BTO were coming on. I surprised I didn’t get a speeding ticket.

      (PS- Thanks for the praise. It is like Nutella for my ego!)

  2. How I love hearing about Colorado from your perspective. Being a native myself, on occasion I find myself forgetting what a beautiful state it is. However, when I drive west towards the mountains (especially in the mornings when the sun is just hitting the peaks), I have a swell of beauty before me. You are welcome here anytime!

  3. I have always wondered why the time zone changes didn’t sync with my watch. It was great to find out that other things were hidden in the lost times. And it was great to find out where the pioneers went poop. Another mystery resolved!

    Just like westerners think everyone from NY is from New York City, easterners think we Californians are all from Los Angeles. One time I dialed a wrong number and had a long, fun conversation with a woman in Manhattan. She really thought I was kidding about the snow and the good skiing.

    As always, thanks for the great read, Tom.

  4. I love road trips, which is curious. Because looking back on them they all come out like this little post. They are absolutely horrific and punctuated by the lies we tell ourselves to feel better about it, “Just like the real pioneers!!!!”
    Despite my new found realization, I can’t wait! Horror aside, roadtrips are my very favorite.

  5. I passed out on the top of Pike’s Peak after an eventful but slow trip on the Cog railway. I was also chased by a mountain lion while on horseback during a ride in the Garden Of The Gods not ten minutes away.
    The headlines in Colorado Springs that week read; “East Coast Moron Wears T-shirt to Ascend Mountain Then Tops Off Trip Out West By Bringing Medium Rare Burger in Back Pack During Horseback outing.

    • How did this comment get into this post? It’s like you KNEW what I was going to write about before a wrote it! I knew it! You’re just a figment of my imagination! One of my multiple personalities!


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