Last week I did my Mother’s Day post but today is the official day so I’ll offer one more story about my mother and traveling. Mother had wanderlust in her. She loved to travel. Part of her traveling was to see and experience new places and people. She loved to meet people and loved see what was just “over the mountain.”
One of the first songs I recall her teaching me to sing in the car went something like this, “Oh the bear went over the mountain
The bear went over the mountain
To see what he could see.”
Mother was part mamma bear – God help anyone who came between her and her kids and she just couldn’t stand not knowing what was on the other side of the mountain. Sadly the other reason she traveled was to escape, from life, from a difficult marriage – well she had problems that I won’t discuss here.
Every summer, just after school let out, mother would pack up her three sons into a beat-up 1961 white Chevy station wagon and we’d head off into the sunrise. Her habit was to leave about 4:00 am and drive to Los Banos where we ate breakfast at a little coffee shop before heading where ever she had in mind. We camped so the station wagon was packed with camping gear – often with a wire roof rack covered in a WWI surplus tarp (I meant world war ONE – we had a lot of WWI surplus items, tent, tarps, canteens, etc that grandpa had given us. The WWII surplus equipment mother had she call ‘the new stuff” including all the Army blankets).
We must have been quite a sight. I suspect people often viewed us as that “poor woman with the three boys” and most likely thought we were a group of refugees or gypsies – likely checking to see if they still had their wallets after we passed. Certainly most wouldn’t have viewed it as I did – a big adventure to see the world.
A big part of the adventure was that old chevy. You couldn’t tell from day to day whether it would make it or not. The engine overheated regularly, burned oil – 1 quart for 2 tanks of gas – and the tires had just enough tread to be legal. At every gas station stop my oldest brother Bill would give the car a good once over and the gas station attendants always gave a bit of a worried look as they pumped the gas, cleaned the windshield and checked the oil. We kept a tool kit on the back seat and all of us boys knew how to change a tire.
I remember one trip in northern California when I was eight (‘68 if you must know). We were traveling on a lonely back road somewhere off the map and far from the well traveled tourist areas. I don’t exactly remember where but I think it was south of Mt. Lassen. We had stopped for a picnic lunch at a National Forest campground next to a river. I remember mother calling Bill over to look at the engine as it had started to overheat before we stopped. Bill found a small leak in a radiator hose.
Let me tell you something about my brother Bill. He has cerebral palsy that affects his right side. At the time, he could walk with a bit of a stagger over level ground but had little control of his right arm so mostly he did things with his left hand. He is the eldest and at the time would have been 18 years old. He was our mechanic and the only one in our little troop who knew anything about cars and how to fix them. At home he was the neighborhood bicycle mechanic and nine year olds would flock over to our garage on a summer afternoon to get Bill to fix things.
My other bother, Rick was 16, physically fit, a member of the track team, smart, a natural observer of life and totally disinterested in the internal workings of a car.
Mother called us all together and gave one of her, “I don’t know what we’re going to do but we can’t wait here for help,” speeches. This wasn’t the first time we’d had this kind of problem and we knew the drill – mother did the panicking and worrying and we boys figured a way to get help.
Bill studied the leaking radiator hose for a long time and then decided that he could do a patch that would be good enough to get us into the next town. Rick looked at the river, grabbed all the canteens and water containers and went off to fill them up. My job was to read the map and the AAA book and figure out where the next town big enough to have a gas station was.
Yup – at eight I was expected to be able to read a map. Everyone in mother’s car read a map, mostly out of self defense. Mother read the maps but normally turned left when we were suppose to go right. U-turns were mother’s speciality…
We were in luck because I found a small town about 40 miles away that had a motel. Where there are motels, there is gas or so my eight year old brain reasoned. I was also hopeful that it also meant there’d be a store where I could quietly guilt my mother into buying me a large ice cream cone.
Bill got an old tee-shirt and a roll of black electrical tape and did his best to patch the leaking hose. Rick filled the radiator and all the water containers he could find while I showed mother what I found on the map. The good thing about our route was that it mostly followed the river so we’d have plenty of water to keep the engine cool. Then we were off.
Mother drove slowly – keeping it under 25 miles per hour and kept a close eye on the temperature gauge. When it started to climb, she’d find a wide spot in the shoulder to stop. Then we boys would jump into action – Bill would check the patch, repairing as needed, while Rick and I scrambled down from the road to the river to fill the canteens.
Back at the car we’d wait till the engine was cool enough to add water, fill it up and off we’d go again. I guess we stopped three or four times, each time we got better at the drill and mother just let us get about our jobs without much comment other than the occasional, “be careful boys.” We were the only people on the road and never saw another car.
I remember it was late afternoon when we finally pulled into a gas station in a little town with the hose dramatically blowing out a burst of steam just as mother turned the engine off. Our entrance attracted the attention of the station owner and about half the population of the little town. I can only speculate about what they were thinking of our little band. Some where in northern California is a gas station owner with a story about this crazy woman and three boys in a broken down Chevy who drove into his station one day.
The mechanic opened the hood, saw Bill’s patch and said, “That patch isn’t going to hold any longer. Who put that on for you.”
Bill tried to tell the mechanic but Bill had a speech impediment and when he got excited few outside the family understood what he was saying so I took over in my role as Bill’s interpreter and pointed to Bill and said, “He did. He does all the work on the car. And Bill says that the engine needs two quarts of oil. 30 weight please,” then I add a request of my own, “You got a coke machine?”
The mechanic had a very surprised look and turned to mother when she asked, “Do you have the parts to fix it?”
“Yeah, I can fix it. It’ll take about an hour,” he then looked at me and said, “Coke machine’s in the back. Help yourself.”
Mother took Rick and I to find the coke machine and she bought us all a root beer. I could have held out for an ice cream but the day was hot, the root beer cold and mother had her change purse out – best not mess up a good deal. Then she went to the little store to buy ice and milk. Bill stayed with the car and watched the man change the radiator hose. Rick and I drank our root beers and then went to climb on some rocks behind the gas station.
We were back on the road by late afternoon and found a small camp ground with a working water faucet just as the light of day was starting to fade. Rick and I quickly setup camp – getting the stove, ice chest and other cooking gear out first and then turning our attention to the tent. Mother got the hint and took out two boxes of hamburger helper for our dinner. Yes, Mother was a great cook – there wasn’t any kind of canned or boxed food she couldn’t open and heat up. Yum.
As night settled around us Rick lit the campfire and Mother asked, “So what do you boys want to see tomorrow?”