MY children and I spent a lot of time in our two-door sedan last summer. In June we drove from the Oregon coast to the Green Mountains in Vermont. Before we took our first turn east, we all said goodbye to the sea, and in the manner of our family, we all said it a bit differently. My nine-year-old son took a flying leap off the dunes, rolled several feet and stood on his head, as though he wanted to grind enough sand into his body to remain with him in Vermont. My four-year-old daughter bunched her blanket under her arm, stuck her thumb firmly in her mouth, marched 10 steps to the west, nodded, and marched back into the car. I sat in the dunes, where the sand turns to grass and watched the ocean as though it were the face of a friend I would not see for a long time.
It took us three weeks to travel east. We saw the Tetons, fields of seedlings in Nebraska, and flooded plains in Ohio and Illinois. But what we saw the most of was the inside of our car.
My son rode in the back seat. He was pressed against the wall of the car on his left side while on his right rose small mountains of clothes, books, stuffed animals, and hiking boots. I had to be careful not to turn sharply or else a small avalanche of items would tumble into his lap.
My daughter sat up front with me. She spent a part of each day under purple headphones listening to tapes, singing along with the loud brassy voice that comes from not being able to hear yourself very well and thinking other people can't hear you either.
While my son could read for up to six hours in the car, my daughter alternated between watching out the window and singing her tunes. She became the interpreter of the country we drove through.
Winding our way to eastern Oregon, we climbed through small brown mountains nestled so closely together it was difficult to see where one rise began and another ended. I began to understand why people love the desert; the warm colors of the soil, the round bare hills resting together. ``I think if you climbed up there, you'd get to the sky,'' my daughter told me as she watched the hills. I asked her what that would feel like and she replied. ``The clouds would touch your hair. I think I'll try it someday.''
Next to the mountain of clothes in the backseat, close enough so my son could rest his elbow on it, was the cooler. At least twice a day, one of us had to get into the cooler. Since it was hard to open, this usually involved the only adult on the trip - me. Moving the driver's seat forward, I crawled over a growing rock collection, books, and several pair of my son's dirty socks. The back seat was similar to our tent. You couldn't stand up in either place. I'm not sure what was more difficult, trying to get dressed twisted like a pretzel, hopping on one foot, avoiding small arms and legs flung out of sleeping bags, or making tuna fish sandwiches in the back seat with only four inches to extend your arms.
Every few days I had to pull the cooler out to drain it. This involved emptying the contents, lifting it up and maneuvering it through the small space I created when I tilted my seat forward. There was a lot of pushing, pulling, and labored breathing. I usually ended up hot and sticky and fantasizing about roomy minivans. My children learned to go off somewhere and play because a huffing and puffing red-faced mother was not pleasant to be around. Before we left Vermont to travel west, I mailed five boxes of things home just so we could put the cooler in the trunk.
The car held up well, the worst incident being a disconnected muffler in Wyoming which we fixed in Iowa. The mechanic in Vermont who gave it a 120,000 mile tuneup told me I was ``just breakin' her in.''
On the return trip, I got my first traffic ticket in 25 years. We had just crossed the Montana border. I was feeling exhilarated, heading west on the home stretch. The speedometer said 70 m.p.h., at least 10 miles over the posted limit. I warned my son and daughter that we were being pulled over for speeding and not to come to my defense with any unusual or unacceptable language or gestures. Traveling so closely together strengthened an already tight bond, and I imagined my daughter shaking her tiny fist at the officer in loyal defense. I thanked my children for their support and told them I'd like to handle this on my own.
The largest state policeman I'd ever seen walked to the driver's window. He bent slightly and began writing. ``I've been on the road with my children all summer,'' I said as though this would explain perfectly why I was speeding. No answer. ``You just get to looking at this beautiful sky and forget what you're doing,'' I went on. A slight nod. ``Was I speeding?'' I asked.
``Seventy miles in a 35 m.p.h. zone,'' he answered as he pointed out a six-block town I'd just passed through. I thought of telling him that my daughter was just recently released from the hospital. I thought of sharing some of the challenges of single parenting, but I could see he was no more to be moved than the adjacent fields. I was embarrassed at my readiness to manipulate, embarrassed at my inability to locate my car registration, insurance card, or AAA card. I did find my children's birth certificates, my national-park membership card, and mileage record, none of which was of any interest to him. I wanted to ask him if everyone tries to weasel out of tickets, but he didn't seem much in the mood to linger.
I drove away slowly, making sure the needle on the speedometer didn't vibrate but a fraction past the 55 m.p.h. mark. No one said anything for a while. My son was the first one to break the silence. ``Why did you ask him if you were speeding when you told us you were?''
``Well,'' I said, ``I think I was trying not to get what I deserved. Sometimes you don't get what you deserve and sometimes you don't deserve what you get.''
``But this time you deserved it, didn't you?'' he asked.
I don't spend much time keeping score of life's ups and downs. But if I were forced to tally the events in our life, I'd have to say the score evened out last summer. We've had to be flexible these last few years. We've spent a fair amount of time with some events we wished hadn't taken place. But in August, heading west across the great open fields of Montana, I felt as free as I'd felt in a long time. Everything I really cared about was in my car; the people I loved most in the world, letters from friends, books and journals, hiking boots and good music.
I looked around the little cubicle of space that had been our home for almost two months. I thought of rainstorms, curving mountain roads, rivers running hundreds of feet below highways. I thought of the love and exasperation we'd felt for each other in this little car. I thought of one broken muffler and one little measly Montana ticket.
``Yes,'' I answered my son, ``this time we got what we deserved.''