Summer vacation for me began as a passenger on a road trip I loathed to take. Stuffed in the backseat next to my brother at dawn when our classmates were no doubt still sleeping, we were cursed to spend the next two days driving south on I-5 from Washington to California. Like the scenery out the window, the miles were mostly a blur, but I remember a few things after all this time.
Wicked waitress Wanda, worst bathroom contests, melted crayons on a car mat, a lost Curious George that found his way home, a little barfing and the awkwardness of those first miles after getting swapped out of our mother’s life into my father’s. Those stretched minutes as strangers got to know each other all over again.
As the child of divorced parents, I spent nine months in Washington and three months in California. The sort-of-fought-about-halfway point between the two cities where our parents resided was Klamath Falls, Oregon. If you’ve ever had reason to venture to Klamath Falls, then you know what a perfect setting it is for an emotionally charged hand off between a mother and a father. Like the dramatic scene in a play where everything comes to a head, the scenery grays to nothing, fades beyond recognition and then the act is over. What I remember most about Klamath Falls is the taste of blood in my mouth, where I chewed the side of my cheek to keep from crying as I said goodbye to one parent and hello to another.
The quest for the World’s Worst Bathroom kept the trips interesting. As the miles zipped past, we reminisced about the gas station bathroom that had no operable lights and two overflowing toilets, or the rest stop that we could smell from the car, or the one that had no toilet paper. As we lurched to a stop in front of a bathroom, our hearts raced with excitement and revulsion for what we might find behind the next stall door. We exchanged stories when we recommenced in the car, comparing the men’s room to the ladies’, ranking (literally ranking) the latest rest stop with countless others. It made us laugh.
I didn’t have the kind of family that thought to pack food in the car for the journey and for that I am grateful. Our food stops gave me a chance to stretch my legs and enjoy the pleasure of eating in a restaurant. My favorite stop was Bob’s Big Boy. I loved the chili spaghetti.
Often, though we stopped at local diners, each with their own unique menus and service. One summer, the summer my big brother was being coached to “maintain eye contact when ordering from a waitress,” we were introduced to Wanda. It was that awkward hour between breakfast and lunch when the contents of either menu are not ready and or available. It was a tricky time to eat and required a good deal of questions for our waitress, Wanda. While trying to maintain eye contact, my brother ordered breakfast with a glass of milk. Wanda was not pleased. Others at the table ordered lunch-type items and this made her even madder. After a few trips back to the cook, because the term ‘chef’ would be overreaching, Wanda put in our order. We received beverages, all except the glass of milk. Trying to make good eye contact, my brother asked Wanda again for his milk. She returned to the table, screaming over her shoulder to a coworker, slammed the glass on the formica table top, and thundered away, still yelling about the injustices of her life to said coworker. The milk splashed all over the table and Wanda, looked back over her shoulder and saw the mess. She screamed, “I quit!” and huffed out the door, tossing her apron to the floor.
Before Wanda, Wicked Waitress Wanda as she came to be known by our family, eye contact never came easily to my brother. But, after her, it was nearly impossible.
Often, we spent the night in Redding, California before tackling the last of the drive to my father’s house. One year I was having a borderline obsession with my Curious George stuffed animal. Of course when we stopped for the evening in a Redding hotel I brought him inside. And of course I forgot him the next day. Well, after two hours of driving I remembered him. I cried and fretted, being told we could not possibly turn around and get him. It would set us back hours. Ridiculous.
Not having my constant companion made those first nights at my father’s all the harder, but it was my own dang fault. A week went by and I had all but forgotten George, not really, but I tried to forget him. And then he showed up again. I thought I heard a knock at the door. I swung it open and there stood Curious George on the front porch with a tiny suitcase at his side. It was magical. He’d had his own road trip and was here to share his tale with me. We were both survivors, me and George.