Standing on the bridge, looking through the railings at the children wading in the dirty water below me, I grasped my mother’s hand a little tighter. These boys, not much older than I was, were screaming something at us, though my 5 year old brain could not comprehend it. It was foreign. Totally foreign.
We walked a little further, my mother holding my brother and I a little closer to her than usual. There was music playing that was just as strange to my 5 year old brain as the young boys. To this day, almost 40 years later, I can still smell the smells, hear the sounds and see the frantic behavior that was foreign. Totally foreign.
With every tentative step my family made into this strange land, we were drawn deeper. My mother admonishing my brother and I to “not talk to anyone” – as if this place were somehow more dangerous to children than others. I can’t say that I blame them, for even though my parents were gifted with a wanderlust, this was the first time that any one of us – let alone the all four of us – had stepped into a land that was not our own. We had done what Corteś had done some 400 years earlier.
We had discovered Mexico.
I come by this all very naturally. My grandfather, growing up as farm boy in Alabama, took Uncle Sam’s invitation to see Europe and the Middle East as the only opportunity to see all of the places he had read about in the pages of the National Geographic at the Calhoun County Library. In fact, he was probably the only boy in Anniston who actually read the articles, rather than gawking at the sagging breasts of tribal women.
By the time he got to North Africa, the war had mostly moved into a British and American occupation, allowing him to see the sights. When he got leave, rather than hit the bars and brothels with fellow soldiers, he hit the convoy routes and hitchhiked all over the Middle East from Tehran to Libya – absorbing it all. He even had his picture made at the Sphinx with a contingent of Brits he had befriended.
Rather than being an occupying force, he tried his best to assimilate into whatever culture presented itself. His tales of sleeping with the Bedouin, eating goat in the desert under palm trees while the camels worked their cud, were the stuff of legend to me.
While Shahs and Mullahs had come and gone, he maintained relationships through writing. The box where he kept his correspondence was fragrant with the smells of distant lands. Post cards bearing camels were covered with script that is still indecipherable to me, their post marks coming from Tripoli, Marrakesh and Tehran. Dusty artifacts seemingly placed at random around his desk bore evidence that they were not “Made in the USA”. As a boy standing beside my grandfather’s desk, thumbing through the box, my desire to see and experience all of the magical, mystical places was born.
Of course, I was not the only one who had been infected with the desire to see and experience. Even as a struggling young couple, my parents had maintained their subscription to National Geographic. Though on a severely limited budget of a junior draftsman for the US Geologic Survey, my parents read and dreamed of the places beyond the bend, over the hill and across the ocean. Particularly, my father was interested in the places within his grasp, those of the United States National Parks.
The long winter months were spent plotting and planning the next summer’s expedition. Starting out modestly by quick trips to the close-by Great Smokey Mountains and as even far as the Everglades, they progressed through the years, venturing to places like Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon. When the family size increased to 4, it forced him to buy a small, basic pop-up tent camper from Woolco and attach it to the back of the car. Rather than the common sentiment these days of being limited by a family, my parents simply added two more to the travel plans.
While my father’s salary was not the biggest, his job with the federal government did allow us one luxury: time. His almost 5 weeks of annual vacation allowed us to leisurely leave Alabama and make it to the west coast and all over the Rockies before coming back to Tuscaloosa. My brother and I thought nothing of riding in the car for days on end, dreaming of cowboys as the saguaro cactus rolled by just outside the windows.
The National Geographic led touring took us to places like the – then newly formed – John Pennycamp State Park in the Florida Keys, Pismo Beach, Sunset Crater, Devil’s Tower National Monument in Wyoming, Arches, Zion, Bryce, Yosemite, Yellowstone, Teton, Mt. Rushmore, Rocky Mountain, Painted Desert, Petrified Forest even Saguaro National Park in Tucson.
On that particular trip, I had to fortune to stop and watch the trucks working in the open pit copper mine in a little town southeast of Tucson. A place which, completely unexpectedly, 35 years later would be my home: Bisbee, Arizona.
By the time I was 10, I had been more miles, seen more of my country, than most Americans will in their entire life. I could tell you where Wall Drug was and what the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota looked like. While others in my grade school were going to Panama City Beach, I was taking a tour of an extinct volcano in New Mexico. Every winter something peaked my father’s curiosity and every summer we were off to explore the next greatest wonder.
Each trip started the same way, my father would drive all night, leaving Alabama – and the familiar – behind. We would wake up in the “exotic” worlds of Texas, Missouri or Arkansas. From there, we would cross the great plains to find the natural wonder which my father had circled on the map. While there was an objective in mind, the route was often arbitrary. In fact, the subject of the National Geographic article generally only pointed the direction, leaving the journey to be the true destination.
We lived in KOAs and ate fantastic meals my mother would whip up on the Coleman Stove. We read by the light of the ever present Coleman Lantern and slept in the little pop up camper. The odor of white gas still brings back the memory of those mornings when I would smell the odd mixture of kerosene, bacon, toast and coffee. Not what you might think of as the most nostalgic aroma, but one that leaves a lasting memory (and probably slight brain damage!)
We were attacked by flying ants in Texas, almost froze to death in Colorado and were nearly blown away by storms in the Dakotas. My brother and I ate more corned beef hash than should be allowed by law and washed it down with Shasta soft drinks. He and I saw things that we could simply not relate to our friends back home. When they would tell us of their week at Gulf Shores, we would talk of our visit to Yosemite Valley. More than once, I pleaded with my parents to go on a “normal” vacation like all the other kid’s families did… and was rewarded with a trip to Port Saint Joe State Park in Florida, about as far from the crowds as you can get on the panhandle. Not exactly what I was aiming for.
I saw my parents get into one of the most intense arguments I ever witnessed. At Old Faithful Village in Yellowstone, our car was precariously low on fuel. My father pulled up to the pumps at the concession and saw the price, $0.73 a gallon. As he put it, “They have a captive audience and think they can just charge whatever they want. Well, I won’t pay it!” We drove back to Cody, Wyoming that day, the needle hugging the “E”. My mother scowled the whole way, questioning – among other things – whether my grandparents were married at the time he was born. Like the Hanukkah miracle, somehow our car made it to Cody. My father’s life was spared and I will always remember when he was too stubborn to buy gas at less than $0.75 a gallon.
You simply cannot get this level of family bonding without travel. It is the “going” and the “doing”, as a unit, that brings you closer. The shared experiences; the good and the bad; the laughter and the arguments; the miles you sit just talking to your brother, using your mind the invent worlds even greater than you see with your own eyes. This is the making of a childhood that cannot be bought at any price, cannot be found in a theme park and cannot be compressed and packaged into a “sleep away camp”.
This is the life that comes from a family of adventurers: a tradition passed down.
This is the life I was born into. The life I was destined to live. The life I choose.
The life of the intentional wanderer.