Route 66 – just the name conjures up visions of flashing neon motel signs, convertibles filled with carefree travelers, Jack Kerouac-like adventures and John Steinbeck writing odes to a dog. Route 66 connotes movement toward unparalleled scenery, unexpected miracles and dreams come true.
My best friend Sally and I heaped all those expectations on our own personal journey down Route 66 – the road Steinbeck dubbed the “mother road.” I’m sure the author never envisioned “mothers” such as us hitting the road to discover our own meanings of life. When our grown daughters decided they wanted to join us on our journey, we welcomed them aboard. From the beginning, I heaped plenty of expectations on that glory road. I’d been numb for five years, and I suspected my daughter lived in the same limbo. With Sally and her daughter, Ramona, as our companions, I hoped CC and I would be able to peer into the abyss of our sadness created when my son Sean died five years earlier. Whatever happened, I knew with a certainty my life would change during and after this trip. I never predicted it would turn all four lives upside down. It’s probably not surprising – the path Route 66 followed carried many lost and broken souls from the displaced Native Americans on the Trail of Tears to the Dust Bowl victims of the 1930s. Even Jack Kerouac faced his share of demons while traveling the Mother Road.
The road’s original goal – to link Lake Michigan to the Pacific Ocean 2,400 miles away – still remains, even though most of the original road does not. The four of us raced toward the charm of Route 66. We yearned to discover its magic as the glory road leading to salvation and the Shangri-La of America – California. We found the road paved, not in gold, but in broken pieces of asphalt and towns killed by the interstate. But amid the actual reality of the road, we found moments of inspiration and serendipity.
After months of planning, we flew from our homes in Florida to Chicago in early June 2007. When we landed at O’Hare Airport, I looked at my daughter CC with her backpack and sleeping bag on her back, torn black T-shirt advertising Eraserhead, dyed-red and spiked hair, and I knew the years had sped by faster than I ever knew possible. Recently divorced from her father, I was beginning a new era in my life as a 50-year-old single woman. I stared at CC, attempting to put it all together in my mind. Even though I didn’t look it, I felt as if I was the same age as my 25-year-old daughter waiting for her luggage to appear on the carousel. Was this really the baby I nestled at my breast all those years ago?
“Mom, watch out,” CC said as I almost backed into a stroller being pushed by a toddler. I looked down into the face of a tiny baby sleeping peacefully as the older sibling attempted to maneuver around the people waiting for the bags.
“I’m sorry,” I said to the mother walking behind the stroller and watching both her children carefully. “I wasn’t paying attention.”
“That’s all right,” she said. “I really shouldn’t let her do it, but she insists on doing everything herself.”
“Really? I wonder what it would be like to have a child like that,” I said as I pointed my thumb at CC. “This one has always done exactly what I have said.” I rolled my eyes.
The mother smiled at me, and then took in CC’s hair and torn shirt. She quickly looked down at her own daughter and then at the baby sleeping in the stroller.
“Enjoy them now,” I said. “They grow up so fast you won’t believe it, and then they’re gone.”
I turned away quickly so she wouldn’t notice the sudden tears forming. The words slipped out of my mouth without thinking much about them. Only when I heard them out loud did I realize what I’d said. CC was right next to me, but her brother Sean was not and never would be there again. I wanted to chase after that mother and tell her not only to enjoy, but also to hold onto them for as long as she could. It could be over in the time it took to tie their shoes.
“You OK, Mom?” CC asked. She was looking at me intently.
“Fine, fine. I was just remembering you and Sean at that age. It’s over so quickly.” I was fighting to keep control there in the middle of the airport.
“This trip is going to be good for all of us,” she said.
She gave me a quick hug, unusual for my daughter who usually abhorred physical displays of emotion. Luckily one of our bags appeared right then, and the moment passed.
Sally and her daughter Ramona stood on the other side of the carousal. I saw Sally’s bag with the pink ribbons on the handle go by. It was a gorilla of a suitcase – very hard to miss. Sally said she’d rather have one large suitcase rather than the smaller two or three bags the rest of us carried. Problem was she couldn’t get it off the carousal, so Ramona was left to recover it while her two bags passed by unnoticed. Thank goodness the gorilla had wheels.
Once we picked up our rental, a red mini-van, we loaded all of our belongings in the back. CC was the packer in the crew, and she told Sally that her bag would always have to go in first because it was too big to go on top of any of the other bags.
Sally took the driver’s seat – she always drove, and I never argued. It was her way of maintaining control. I took shotgun with the maps and directions and Route 66 books. It actually worked out better this way. I liked giving directions as much as Sally liked driving the engine. Ramona would be our tour guide as she read from the Route 66 books we’d been collecting over the past year of planning for this adventure.
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