Road Trip with My Mom

Some people ask how I became a world traveler.  I guess I got it from my mother.  She never told us to be curious or to seek out new places, but she made anything possible. 

I was the youngest of six kids.  My dad left to marry our neighbor five doors down when I was in second grade, so though he was nearby, he wasn’t really part of my everyday life.  He belonged to my best friend now. My older siblings had the advantage of summer road trips taken in a fancy greenbrier van or later in a camper. Though it was all work and no play for my mom, she looked forward to seeing new places.  After my dad left, it was just herself at the wheel, so we packed the trunk with brown grocery bags filled with clothing and supplies, and went tent camping. Often we’d visit relatives along the way.  

Mom was a generous soul who rarely raised her voice, though she was an expert at guilting us into good behavior.  When she’d cry, we felt terrible and would fall in line. She’d always take a couple extra kids along on our trips.  She probably thought it was better than hearing me fight with my brother. The summer I turned thirteen, we went to visit my adult sister and her husband who were living in the Washington DC area. By now, all the older kids were living away, except for my brother who was just a year older than me. Two of my teenage cousins came with us for this weeklong adventure from Chicago. It was one of those rare occasions where we kept a journal, and rarer still, I found it years later.

This was 1975- long before cell phones, GPS and mandatory seatbelt laws.  We’d call dibs for the front seat, or lay across the back seat on the floor covered in pillows.  Sometimes we’d travel through the night singing show tunes from My Fair Lady or Carousel to keep my mom awake because the radio lost reception. There were no CD or DVD players. We packed sandwiches in wax paper bags, or would pick up doughnuts at gas stations and call it a “meal”.  She was a sucker for a roadside fruit stand and could spot a Dairy Queen from five miles away, though she would often ask for help reading ordinary road signs. We learned to read maps at a young age and could find our way to a campground no matter how rural the area. 

Day 1. We drove through Indiana on county roads.  At a gas station off the beaten path, my mom noticed a terraced garden with beautiful flowers.  She decided we should go talk to the homeowners. When I think about how we must have looked- a middle aged woman with four teenagers in crumpled clothing walking to their door, it surprises me that anyone opened the door. But they did. And we had a narrated tour of their garden- a 20 year investment of time and money.  When we reached Ohio, we stopped at an estate sale where my mom thought we should buy a case of mason jars for ten cents apiece.  Now it strikes me as odd we did this, as I had never seen her can anything in my lifetime. She also bought doilies.  One can never have enough doilies. This I learned when we moved her to a nursing home later in life. She had dozens. Maybe even hundreds of crocheted doilies.  They made good packing material for the mason jars on this trip. And then there was the turkey roaster.  It seemed like a good price for something so shiny and large, so we found a place for it among the sleeping bags in the trunk. My mom thought it a piece of luck that we found a fruit stand just a few hundred feet from the estate sale.  We bought blueberries, which lasted us for two days.

It was on to Lake Erie from there, where we took a swimming break, in spite of the dead fish along the shore. My brother collected beer cans at this stage in life, so he walked the beach looking for something to add to his collection and found plenty. We were supposed to visit my mom’s great uncle that night, but as I said, there were no cell phones and mom hadn’t planned ahead to make sure he’d be home.  We waited in his driveway for an hour eating cold ham sandwiches and Fritos, but left in the end to find a campsite.  It was a long time coming.  By dark, many campsites were already filled to capacity, and we ended up going to Catawba, then East Harbor, Ohio to find a site. We finally pitched our family style canvas tent in the dark.  My brother made instant pink lemonade in the bathroom, which was nicer than most I had seen on the trip. There was even a laundry room. Tucked away in our tent, we could hear rain as we fell asleep.  My mom could feel it too.  We must have missed a loop around one of the side poles, causing rain to puddle around her head.  

Day 2- We broke camp early, probably because my mom was unable to sleep at all. Our big event that day was a visit to the Blue Hole.  It was a large blue green lake with no bottom in sight, apparently fed by an underground river.  It was a weird tourist attraction back then, but has since closed and is now part of a fish hatchery.  We bought postcards here and headed to Thomas Edison’s home.  Again, with no guide book or Tripadvisor app to consult, we got there on a day when it was closed so we just took turns standing on the front step to be photographed. Lunch was fancy. Burgers at a local drive-in and then we were on to “Wild Wonderful West Virginia.”. We must have thought it odd to see kids being hauled in the back of a pick-up truck on more than one occasion because it was the only thing written in our journal from this state.  Pennsylvania was full of hills.  Again arriving after dark, we set up a tent in a campground where the tent was on a 65 degree angle. We nearly slept standing up and awoke to heavy fog.

Day 3- We drove through the Allegheny mountains, and made stops to admire views at places like the Grand View Ship Hotel on the Lincoln Highway. It was the only ship in the mountains and had been made into a hotel where early motorists like Thomas Edison and Henry Ford stayed overnight.   Then it was the battlefields and museums of Gettysburg.  Our trip was certainly full of historic sites, but there were stops for fudge and fruit stands too. We made it to my sister’s place before dark.  

Because the real trip lies in the journey, not the destination, I won’t go on with our daily details.  I’ll just add that we had a lot of fun in Washington DC viewing museums and monuments, but we remember most the driving we did with my mom.  On the way back we visited Amish farms in Pennsylvania, stopped a few times for ice cream, and even picked up a hitchhiker named Tom in Ohio.  He was making his way to Arizona to work in the gold fields.  I wonder now how we made room for him in that 1970 Chevy Impala, but it worked out.  He had exciting stories to tell about his travels. He said he’d worked at a trading post in Alaska, and had been on a freighter to Hawaii.  His tales were the stuff of a real adventurer. He sent postcards to my mom for several years after that trip, and we all enjoyed reading them.

Mom always started conversations with people we met.  There were no strangers, just people we had never met before.  Through these people we learned more about the world and found it was the stuff dreams are made of. 

 -Barbara Ali

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Barbara Ali is a native of Illinois, but spent much of her adult life traveling the world with the US Air Force. She is an avid photographer, world traveler, adventurer, and mom. She and her husband, Abdulhamid, live in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where they have a "yours, mine, and ours" family of six children.