Imagine you're a thirteen-year-old girl traveling across the country with only your sixteen-year-old brother as a chaperone. Now, imagine this trip starts in South Florida and ends a-a-a-all the way up in Washington State. Oh, and you're taking a Greyhound bus ... round trip!
Well, I don't have to imagine it, because I lived every single dreadful second of that road-trip nightmare!
It was late summer/early fall of 1975. Back when parents, apparently, didn't need to worry about sticking two of their children on a bus and shipping them three thousand plus miles away for a few weeks. Then again, my folks had six kids and probably weighed the risk vs. rewards of losing a couple and decided what the hell?
We were each given one hundred dollars and told to make it last. With excitement about our impending adventure coursing through our young bodies and the babysitting money I'd been saving tucked safely away in my wallet, we climbed aboard the bus, smiling and laughing about what fun we were going to have.
Reality set in the second the driver put the bus in gear ...
The first leg of the trip was from Fort Lauderdale to a small town in the northwest corner of Indiana. We planned to stay with some friends there for a night. The trip was somewhat uneventful, once we got used to stopping at truck stops and random gas stations at two o'clock in the morning.
There I was, a teenage girl, going into a truck stop in the middle of the night because their bathrooms were less gross than the one on the bus. To his credit, my brother did escort me in and waited outside the door. Some of the stalls had pay boxes on them, and you had to drop in a dime to unlock the stall. You learn a valuable, and disgusting lesson about always carrying a dime, the first time you have to crawl under the door.
One thousand three hundred and eight miles later, we arrive in the small town of Winamac, Indiana. My brother and I split up; he goes to his friend's house and I go to mine. I'm not sure what he did that night, but I thoroughly enjoyed a meal that wasn't from a greasy diner and had a fun slumber party with my friend.
The next day, my friend's mom gave me a shoebox loaded with sandwiches and homemade chocolate chip cookies for the trip, and we met my brother at the bus depot slash gas station. With much less enthusiasm than before, we stuffed our bags into the belly of the giant, steel beast, gave good-bye hugs, and dragged our butts onto the bus where we picked our seats. If the bus was crowded, we would sit together. If not, we would sit on opposite sides of the aisle and spread out across the two seats. Not much of a benefit, but better than falling asleep leaning against your brother, or vice versa. Ew!
We headed off across the northern part of the country; Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, then Washington State. I'm sure it was beautiful, but all I wanted to do was get off the damn bus.
All of them had bathrooms in the back. Convenient, right? Not so much. First of all, they were basically just porta-potties on wheels. Secondly, most of them had doors that didn't close. For thousands of miles, you would hear that stupid thing swi-i-ing open, then bang shut, swi-i-ing open, then bang shut, which allowed the stench to waft throughout the interior of the bus.
Also, back then, people were allowed to smoke on the bus. And a lot of them did. A. Lot. I told my brother I was writing about this trip and he reminded me that smoking was only allowed in the last ten rows. We laughed because, yeah, that makes a difference. *eyeroll*
So, there we were, trapped in a tube, cruising down the highway at sixty-ish miles an hour, and all you could smell was rank cigarette smoke, whatever-the-hell that stench was pouring out of the bathroom, and random pockets of B.O. from fellow passengers. Each mile we traveled, every small, nameless town we passed through, and with each piece of questionable truck stop pie I ate, I got sicker and sicker.
Two thousand one hundred and sixty-five miles later, we finally arrived at our grandmother's house FIVE DAYS after leaving home. I spent the first few days sick in bed, trying not to think about the fact that we would have to make that trip in reverse, to get home.
Our grandmother had planned a camping trip near LaPush, on the western coast of Washington. All I remember is, there were thick woods filled with massive trees. And, thanks to my over-active imagination, I was sure a million Sasquatches lurked there, just waiting to snatch up a clueless teenager from Florida. The ocean was nearby, and it drizzled or full-on rained the entire time. My poor brother had to sleep in a tent while my grandma and I were all nice and snug in her little camper-van. I still remember looking out the window at that little tent and feeling so guilty.
She had arranged for my brother to go salmon fishing with some of her buddies. They would come by the campground at the ass-crack of dawn and take him out on their boat, where he would spend the next several hours fishing. He was so proud, showing off his catch. Proud enough that he wanted to take one home with us. That's right, Jim packed one in dry-ice and stuck it in a styrofoam cooler and carried it on the bus. Let's just say, it did not end well.
Even though I'm sure she would've rather been fishing with the men-folk, grandma decided it would be "fun" (her word, not mine) if she and I took a little hike to the shore. She thought we might get lucky and find some driftwood we could use for a fire. Before we set out on our little mini-adventure, she handed me my grandfather's heavy coat, two pairs of thick wool socks, and his rubber boots. My grandfather died when I was about six ... so ... yeah ... there's that creepy little detail.
Anyway, I aggressively knocked the boots together many times to ensure no spiders had taken up residence inside, wore both pairs of thick wool socks to keep them from falling off then pulled on his coat. Oddly enough, when I did that, I swear I could smell my grandpa. I never even knew he had a smell! It was the oddest thing since I hadn't even seen him in about eight years, during which, my memories of him had, sadly, become very vague.
We set off on our little trek to the beach. We're trudging along and she's identifying all the flora and fauna, including those weird things that grow on the sides of trees. All the while, I'm wondering how much farther we have to walk. Seriously, it felt like miles! Remember, I'm wearing a grown man's rubber boots.
I start to hear the surf crashing against the shore. Yay! We're almost there! Suddenly, the trail we're on becomes a tad bit steep as we head down to the beach and I'm slipping and sliding all over the place. Then finally, the dark sandy beach appears before us. HALLELUJAH! We made it!
We walked along the dark coastline looking at all the gigantic pieces of driftwood. Whole trees were piled one atop the other in an impressive display of the ocean's immense power. Even though it was gray and drizzly, it really was an incredibly beautiful sight.
I decided I was going to walk in the water. Why not? I have rubber boots on, right? Wrong. Unbeknownst to either one of us, they both had splits in the rubber where the heel met the boot. They had been sitting unused for years, after all. The freezing cold water of the Pacific Ocean saw an easy target and squeezed right through and proceeded to soak both pairs of wools socks. My feet were now wet, cold, and they weighed about ten pounds each.
That's when grandma decided it was time to go. We loaded up our arms with driftwood and headed back to the trail-from-hell. About fifteen minutes into our hike, arms laden with wood, I'm tripping over roots and falling down, and I made the grievous error of complaining.
Here's the thing about our grandmother; she was a tough old gal, a definite alpha female. She was a retired social worker who got enjoyment from standing in freezing cold rivers and fishing for Steelhead, a very powerful fish. She was a competitive archer who spent most of her time hanging out with guys, especially after my grandpa died. And she hated whiners. Hated them. And here I was, her thirteen-year-old granddaughter wearing her grandpa's too-large rubber boots with soaking wet socks and having the audacity to gripe about how her feet hurt.
She spent the rest of our ridiculously long walk back to the campground, lecturing me about complaining and how, if she'd complained as a kid, her dad never would've taken her camping with him. The entire time I was thinking to myself, sounds good to me! Of course, I dared not utter those thoughts aloud.
Finally, FINALLY, a few days later, we were done camping. We packed everything up and made the three-hour drive back to her house. I was so excited about not being cold anymore that I didn't even mind the long trip. I'm pretty sure I was passed out the entire time anyway. In my defense, I was exhausted because I didn't sleep much ... I was too worried about a Sasquatch sneaking up on us while we slept. And, yes, I acknowledge that I might have an irrational fear of Sasquatches.
We spent the next few days at her house with no television and a ridiculously early bedtime. Bedtime? Seriously? To break up the monotony, I would bribe my brother to drive us to the local Dairy Queen. His payment? The ice cream of his choice. Money well spent, as far as I was concerned.
Then, the day came for us to get back on another friggin bus to go home ... three thousand four hundred and twenty-two miles away. I know that now because I googled it. Had I known that at the time, they would've had to pick me up, carry me onto that stupid bus and strap me to the seat.
The return trip was a bit of a blur. Though, I do remember my brother carrying that little styrofoam cooler onto the bus, putting it in the overhead rack, and hoping it made it all the way home. FYI - it did not. Seems styrofoam does not respond well to dry ice. Who knew?
Eleventy-million days later, we pulled into the bus station near our house. I couldn't tell you what time of day it was, or who picked us up; whether it was one of our parents or our older brother. I just remember getting home, dropping my bags, attempting to shower off the smell of cigarettes, then crawling into bed for about a month. To this day, the smell of cigarette smoke and porta-potties transports me right back onto one of those friggin buses. *shiver*
I've often wondered if my grandmother was disappointed in me back then, and what she would think of me now. Because, the truth is, though I grumbled and rolled my eyes the whole time, her lecture about complaining and being tough really did have an impact on me. Maybe not right away, but certainly over time. She was one of the first examples of a woman living her life her way, and not the way "convention" dictated. I wish she would've been able to see me become a mom and meet her great-grandsons. They would've loved her. Unfortunately, a couple of years after our trip, she died in a tragic car accident on her way to compete in an archery tournament. I've always gained a small comfort from knowing she was on her way to do something she loved. Jim and I matured and proved our independence during that trip. I'm not sure it brought us any closer, after all, I was still his pain in the ass little sister. But we now share some pretty funny, odd, and yes, wonderful memories that none of our siblings share. So, there's that. And, hey, we made it home, safe, and reasonably sound. I'm still uncertain about how our parents felt about that part.