©2012 Ann Bodle-Nash
The ceramic coffee-shop mug reads: Arroyo Grande, California, 93420. Nice Town, Normal People. I start laughing. I’m not feeling normal.
It’s day one of a three day, three-generational road trip by minivan, from north of San Francisco, down scenic Highway 101, to a family reunion in coastal central California. You remember family vacations with dad leaning over the back of the seat yelling, “Do you want me to pull over?” Yes, you do remember.
Now add forty years–the kids are the drivers, parents in row two of the minivan, and the kids-of-the-kids anchor the last row. All over 21, all adults, all hiding in their corners avoiding the others. The back row is reading novels. The middle row is wondering when they get to drive (“Never, we say”) and the 60 year-old drivers are not letting loose of the keys or the wheel. Prison comes in many forms.
The travel-music CD burned just for the trip is playing, and it’s not loud enough for row two but too loud for row three. Row one controls the volume and can’t find the fade switch to solve the dilemma. Some of the songs were selected especially for row two, but they have forgotten the words, forgotten that they used to entertain or torture their children with in-car-singing on road trips fifty years prior. Row one sings along, gets nostalgic remembering, shocked that the parents in row two can’t remember the words. Time has marched right along— memory has faded.
The first 60 miles are easy–freeway, easy mid-morning commute, views of the Golden Gate. Then tensions rise. The future row three passengers are not responding to text messages. In The City for three days previous, a pick-up location has not been established. Meet us at SFO, Terminal three, United Departures, we text. No response. Take BART from the city.
But it would cost $8 each. Can’t you come pick us up near our hostel? They respond finally.
Please, it will add 45 minutes to our six hour journey. Please take BART, we counter.
Then silence. No incoming texts. We continue driving, take the turn for SFO airport, pull up to DEPARTURES and wait. We text. Silence. We text, We are outside at the curb. Silence. What’s wrong with this generation, we muse. Suddenly the twenty-six year olds appear smiling, climb into the back and we begin the next two-hundred miles. They pull out books, ignore the landscape. Grandma (in row two) begins her travelogue of sights they should be noticing. The driver turns up the music.
Lunch time on the road—a meal stop that all can embrace is important for unity and harmony. Three generations of tastes. Six ideas of suitable food. We pass chain after chain along Highway 101. At Soledad, near noon, we spot a Denny’s and discuss finding the All American Meal. One of the row-three’s is Canadian, and there is concern she would be offended by the All American restaurant approach, which occasionally seems gluttonous. But this is not spoken aloud. She is the fiancée of the son in row three, and all of row two and row one (prospective in-laws) are on best behavior. Remarkably, the row-three son spots an alternative. A real restaurant, with a romantic name: The Windmill. Salads, Burgers, and sandwiches are advertised. It turns out to be a fabulous choice, with healthy salads composed of ingredients from The Salad Bowl of America’s fields. A culinary film is showing on the wall-mounted TV. Out-takes of artichokes grilling in a commercial kitchen, avocadoes filled with shrimp and fruit, and wine glasses sparkling in the sun at some local vineyard play in the background. Music surrounds. Equilibrium returns.
Back on the highway a sign for Mission Soledad flashes by and the driver decides the van needs a cultural stop. A mile west of the highway, the mission is self guided and beautiful. The gift shop charming. Artifacts of native Indian cultures are displayed alongside early conquerors—Catholic priests and parishioners—effects. Landscape canvases create a notion of earlier times. A 30 mph wind blows dust on everything and we wonder how early inhabitants dealt with the very dusty, dry landscape. After ten minutes Grandpa (from row two) says, “Isn’t it time to go yet?” We drag our feet towards the car, turn south and resume the drive.
About 4 pm we reach our destination, Arroyo Grande, and the Aloha Inn Motel. Cultures have collided in California, and the motel owner’s English is tricky. He appears to be East Indian and it takes us time to sort out the reservation for five rooms, some of whose occupants have not yet arrived. Keys are passed out; fighters go to their corners, with instructions to meet in twenty minutes to leave for the reunion host’s home.
Let the family reunion begin. We learn to play bocce ball in the backyard, examine over- grown avocado trees, ooh and ah over the lemon and orange trees— a novelty for the cousins from the northlands.
Day two begins with a meet-up at the cousin-hosts home. This time there are name tags. Write your name and the name of your parent. Sign up for the wine tasting adventure or to the beach. Form carpools. Lunch is now served. Dinner will be at 6pm. Have fun.
I get into the sleek, black Audi of my most successful cousin. He found success in the electrical engineering and early computer engineering world when Bill Gates was yet a pup. He found a wife and a life in the Silicon Valley before all the start-ups and Facebook. He has worked hard, still does, and drives aggressively. I have missed him.
When we were young our parents spent most Christmases together. We picked roses from the trailing split-rail fence of our grandmother in Temple City, placed rose thorns (with a little spit) on our noses and roared like rhinos. We played button-button, who’s got the button in the den, near the half-bath where grandfather’s shaving kit was always a curiosity. We looked for money in the sofa cushions. We gave mini-plays. Then we grew up. Moved away from each other. Married, had kids, had grandkids, lost touch.
Family reunions do that – foster that re-connection thing. One cousin has stage four lung cancer and never smoked. One has early glaucoma. One has a neck problem. We are aging, and our talk turns to comparison of maladies, searching for familial patterns of disease as our genetics are gathered. We see facial similarities, similar patterns of speech– reminders of parents, grandparents. We are struck— between laughter and tears— of the shortness of life, the times we had together on this earth.
Then it’s over. We say goodbyes, embrace, make plans for two years in the future. Hug one more time. Wave. Wonder if our beloved cousin will live that long and hope she will. She is the eldest of our generation. The mantle of patriarch and matriarch is shifting our direction.
The third morning is a speed run back north, re-tracing the route, only time for fast food now. One sister needs to catch a plane in Oakland; one nephew needs a ride to Palo Alto. How fast can the car go?
My sister and I talk about the mugs we bought in the Café Andreini coffee shop in downtown Arroyo Grande. A majestic downtown, restored at some point in the last twenty years, with wooden store fronts full of merchandise for locals and tourists alike. A coffee shop with Wi-Fi, tables and sofas. A menu. Comfortable. The kind of place you and your computer could hang for a few hours. Not too far from Pismo Beach, the vineyards, the sunshine.
We laugh again at the motto on the mugs: Arroyo Grande, 93420, Nice Town, Normal People. We wonder where they found the normal people. Three days on a multi-generational car trip and we are positive none of us is normal. But we are family.
Category: Indie It Travel