Open Road Chaos

Elizabeth Cole

My mom is a talented woman. She is a well-practiced photographer and a gifted pianist, but her strongest talent is her ability to navigate us toward any traffic jam within a ten-mile radius without fail. No matter how hard she tries to avoid them, we inevitably end up crawling down the interstate at ten miles per hour while she yells “Traffic update!” repeatedly into her cellphone at the automated 511 man, who interrupts each time stating, “I’m sorry, I didn’t quite catch that,” with an air of facetious politeness.

Her most recent accomplishment was the marathon trip we took back from Anaheim in the beginning of June. She managed to twist what would normally be a seven-hour trip into a grueling 12-hour trek up the California coast.

The author’s mother showing the route from Anaheim to the Napa Valley. Contributed by Elizabeth Cole.

It was warm, but not exceptionally sweltering, the morning we left the Best Western that had housed us for the past three days and said our goodbyes to the Happiest Place on Earth. Nevertheless, my mom opted not to travel up I-5 in order to avoid the heat of the Central Valley. Instead, we sidestepped Steinbeck country for the coastal redwoods of the western half of the state. It added two hours to the trip but was a decent trade off for the improvement in scenery.

A couple of hours into the trip, we hit our first traffic jam. Exhausted from the deluge of sunbaked people and forced euphoria that had comprised our two-day bout in Disney Land, I drifted into sleep and woke up in time for lunch at an In-n-Out Burger along the highway. Another nap, another meal, two more traffic jams and three episodes of “Doctor Who” later, we finally entered the Napa Valley, and I was in bed before midnight.

Lately, family vacations have consisted primarily of road trips, which I’m fine with––I do a lot of flying during the school year, and the Bay Area is a day’s worth of driving away from the ocean, the mountains and even LA or Portland. But this does mean that we spend a lot of time in the car, especially with my mom’s affinity for traffic jams. After coming back from camping in Humboldt County––a day of which had consisted of driving two hours to get to the coast, spending two hours there, and then driving two hours back––I had spent enough time in the back seat of my mom’s van for a lifetime, let alone one summer, and I opted out of the family road trip to Idaho that left in only four days.

It was the first time I hadn’t accompanied my family on a family trip, and it was strange helping them pack the car and then waving goodbye to return to a house cloaked in a silence that hadn’t been heard within those walls since before my two siblings and I were born and our house was transformed from a two-person household into a five-person home with a menagerie of pets. It was strange falling asleep as the only one in the house, strange not having to let someone know when I would be home, and a hell of a lot easier keeping the kitchen clean. But while I was given the week of rest I had hoped for as my family made the nine-hour drive to visit my older sister in Boise, I missed out on some of the fundamental aspects of our family vacations: the traffic jams, the misadventures and the inability for anything to go as planned.

The author’s father along the way. Contributed by Elizabeth Cole.

Instead of wandering into seedy casinos in Nevada in search of food only to be forced out by the oppressive cloud of cigarette smoke, I ate comfortably outside on Napa’s mild July evenings.  I missed out on Cabela’s, the theme park-sized sporting goods store with over 50 different taxidermy animals on display, and I missed out on trying to teach my older sister and her husband how to play Settlers of Catan, failing miserably and settling for a game where everyone more or less followed the rules.

In staying home, I exchanged clamor for solitude, uncertainty for regularity and managed to spend less than half the week in the passenger seat of my mom’s van. I take comfort, however, in knowing that many more opportunities lie ahead to vacation with my family. And I take comfort in knowing that I haven’t missed out on all of the fun. For there will never be a family road trip where we hit less than two traffic jams, there will never be a family camping trip where we don’t forget to bring the key to the overhead storage and have to drive a mile to the nearest town to find a locksmith, and even if I do skip out on another trip, my sister will always be there to send me picture messages of all 50 taxidermy animals they have on display at Cabela’s.