These days I'm either behind the wheel or riding shotgun, but as a kid I spent a lot of hours as a passenger in the back seat of the family car. Many of those years were spent wedged into the middle – being both the youngest and smallest – able to see only the ribbon of road ahead. But sometimes I got to sit next to a window and as the excitement of the road trip ebbed and we all became lulled to silence by the engine and the miles, I’d look out the window, gathering impressions like a dog takes in the scents flowing into an open window, tantalizing his nose.
There were the white farm houses, neat as pins, mere feet from the road with barns and outbuildings jumbled behind it; tractors, shining silos, crooked fence posts and every once in a while a horse hanging its head over the side to get at the sweet, long grass. There were acres and acres of corn, tall and green. Farm stands and historical markers which we noted but never stopped to read, rest areas with rough and faded picnic tables and toilets that were nothing but dark holes in the ground.
Those were the days of Stuckey’s – the purveyor of pecan logs – whose green roof beckoned one in for a bathroom break and something sweet. When Holiday Inn was the hotel and elusive at that, with its sign a beacon in the night, bristling with light bulbs and topped with a star. A night in a hotel assured that my brother and I would push the ice machine button repeatedly and stand mesmerized in front of the candy machine, the treats so close yet so far. A cruel taunt to the coinless.
There was the town with the red caboose parked in the square. The many anonymous playgrounds we’d swing or teeter-totter in and never see again. Sandwiches eaten along the side of a quiet road, batting at mosquitoes. Wet footprints on the cement around sparkling blue, kidney-shaped pools. Lying in a hotel bed at night, feeling even then the loneliness of the sound of trucks on the highway at night.
I still love road trips, but some of that road magic is gone. Maybe it's because now I have to pay attention to signs, other cars and the gas gauge, or maybe it's the difference between sitting in the front of the car, or being squeezed into the back, nestled against my brothers and sister.