by Valeen Gonzalez.
“I loved the car. I used to think it was very fast. It was an automatic and it had a great radio,” he recalled with a far-off look in his eye.
It’s every teenage boy’s dream: driving down a wide open stretch of highway in a shiny, new Camaro, nothing around for miles, throttle wide-open, Led Zeppelin blasting from the speakers and a female in the passenger seat. But what if that female is his mother? My husband, Andrew, smiles and laughs as he remembers the cross-country trip he took with his mom at age sixteen, almost fourteen years ago. He’s come a long way from the teenager he was, but in some ways, has also come full circle and is back at that crossroads of life many teenagers find themselves at. It’s nice to see him remembering a time that he really enjoyed.
His mom packed everything they needed into just a couple bags that fit into her small teal Camaro, their Blue Goose that holds countless memories etched like grooves on a highway, and they left on a trip with no set schedule or destination. As the miles on the odometer ticked up and he drove across the country with his mom in her shiny, new Camaro, Andrew, a teenager at a turning point in his life in a fast car on a trip that held the promise of spontaneity and new destinations, learned how unique the people and sights in each part of the country are and created a lasting bond with his mom.
When they left on their trip, Andrew had just finished high school and Carol took a few weeks off from work. Bags were packed, maps were purchased and that was about all the planning that happened in preparation for the trip.
“Growing up, my mom subscribed to a school of spontaneity that prevented us from making too many plans. Along the way, she would point out potential stopping points that I may enjoy, but she usually left the decisions up to me. Food and lodging were never planned. We just went with the flow for the most part.”
Andrew approached the trip with a sense of adventure, the same way Jeannette, as a child, viewed each move her family made. A teenager at the time, he embraced the spontaneity of the trip, which is quite different from how he approaches travel as an adult, preferring to have a clear destination and pre-planned routes for how to get there. One thing about Andrew that hasn’t changed over the years is the fact that, he doesn’t pack his own bags. “I don’t really remember packing. I am sure my mom did that for me.” He wouldn’t last in the Walls family, where the children were expected to help with the whirlwind packing. Not that I’m pointing fingers, since I wouldn’t last in the Walls family either. With my tendency to over pack, I probably would have stuffed so many clothes, shoes, toiletries and first aid supplies in that there wouldn’t have been room for Carol and Andrew in the Camaro. With their clothes and maps packed into the car, Andrew and Carol set off to explore the diversity this country has to offer.
The United States is a colorful patchwork of people and places. As they passed through small towns and bustling cities, Andrew discovered that the people and scenery in each region of the U.S. are different from Southern California, where he had lived his whole life. Montana made a good impression on him.
“The speed limits were high, the roads were wide open, and there were no cops. We also stayed at a little hotel there that decided not to charge us. They said it was their off-season and they weren’t expecting much business anyway.” That act of generosity has stayed with him all these years. On days when he gets disillusioned with the “me-first” society we live in, he tells me that story as he reminds himself that there is still unselfishness in the world.
While he liked Montana, the place that captured his heart was Vermont. “As we drove through Vermont, I fell in love. I told myself I would live there one day. I just thought the environment was so beautiful.” He still dreams of living there. I sometimes catch him looking at Vermont real estate listings, his version of daydreaming. Driving back down through New Jersey and Massachusetts, Andrew developed a less-than-favorable impression of the residents.
“I still remember my mom joking about how rude people in Massachusetts and New Jersey were, and I learned the word ‘Massholes.’” Andrew laughs as he says Massholes and quickly reminds me not repeat that in front of his grandma, a Boston native who is still fiercely loyal to her home state. As they made their way back west from the east coast, the U.S. landmarks they visited held beauty and lessons for Andrew.
They visited many U.S. landmarks that left him in awe, such as Mount Rushmore and Yellowstone, but their stop at the Grand Canyon taught Andrew that though geography the of our country is stunning, it should be enjoyed with caution.
“For some reason, when I was a teenager, I hardly ever wore shoes. Well, that became a real problem at the Grand Canyon. It was very hot that day, and I didn’t realize just how hot until we had walked pretty far. So, our visit had to be cut short due to the unbearable pain that the blacktop was causing my bare feet.” He had blisters on his feet by the next day and learned a valuable lesson about listening to his mother’s advice. Even though his feet had toughened from his teenage barefoot phase, he couldn’t walk on the scorching, sun-baked ground like the Walls children, whose thickly calloused feet were used to walking barefoot through the southwest desert and didn’t burn. As they shared experiences in each place visited and close quarters in the small Camaro, Andrew and his mom developed an even deeper bond.
Andrew and Carol bonded over small things on their trip that remain things they share even now. Soon into their trip, they decided to collect a keychain from every state.
“There were a couple of states where it turned into a wild goose chase and we both had a fun time with it.” Those keychains all hang displayed on a board in our house. Occasionally he will see one and ask his mom if she remembers how they found it. Her memory is not as good as his, so it usually leads to him teasing her about her age leading to memory loss and a good laugh for all of us. He also adds to the collection with keychains from our trips together. It’s a visual representation of his journey from a sullen teenager to the man I married.
Music was another easy thing for Carol and Andrew to bond over on the trip. They listened to classic rock such as Led Zeppelin, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Cars and the Rolling Stones because they both enjoy that music. “I remember hitting the scan button on the radio. We listened to classic rock when we could, but in some areas there were only one or two stations to choose from, if there were any at all.” Even now they have similar tastes in music and enjoy talking about what they’re currently listening to on Pandora. When there was no music they would talk and many times whoever was the passenger at the time would take a nap. All these years later, Andrew admitted in front of Carol that he drove much faster than he should have when she slept. She didn’t seem surprised. Those bonds over simple keychains and songs on the radio helped Andrew recognize and appreciate things his mom did for him.
As a mother, Carol’s always considered Andrew’s happiness and comfort; from small decisions, such as sleeping arrangements in cramped motel rooms, to big decisions, such as the choice to divorce Andrew’s father, an abusive alcoholic. On the trip, Andrew and his mom usually shared cheap motel rooms at Super 8 or Motel 6, with the occasional splurge at something nicer when cheap options weren’t available. For as long as I have known her, Carol has always been willing to sacrifice her comfort for Andrew’s and she did that even on this trip.
“Sometimes my mom would snore so much that I wasn’t able to sleep. She felt so bad about it that she would sleep in the bathtub. I feel bad about that now.” Motel bathtubs are not roomy or soft like a bed. It could not have been restful or comfortable for Carol, but she willingly spent her nights there so that Andrew could sleep more soundly. Selfless acts like that showed him just how much she valued him and placed his comfort and happiness ahead of her own. As he noticed little gestures like that, Andrew began to see all his mom’s choices and advice in a new light.
Flying down the highway in the Camaro, windows down, Lynard Skynard blasting through the speakers, with a woman (his mom) in the passenger seat, Andrew began to cross the threshold from teenager to young adult as he learned about his mom and the people and places that make our nation special. Andrew has seen more of the country than I have, so he shares his experiences and impressions with me during late-night conversations when we fantasize about moving to escape the punishing heat of the Inland Empire in the summer. He shares his dreams of living in Vermont and describes the beauty of Yellowstone. After his experiences with Massholes, he’s decided he won’t ever live in Massachusetts. The bond that he solidified with his mom on their “skedaddle” remains strong even now. Carol is an important person to him and it’s refreshing to see how close they are in this digital world where many people of our generation substitute Facebook status updates and text messages for personal relationships. Something she said must have gotten through to him on their road trip, because when they got back, he decided to go to college and had his Master’s degree by the time he was twenty-one. The cross-country trip was a turning point for Andrew as a son and as a man who became the person I am sharing my life with. The experiences shaped his views of the country and his relationship with his mom. Overall, he found the trip to be both educational and enjoyable and has even said he would like to do something similar with our own children.