I was a back-seat Western pioneer

When I was a little girl growing up in Kentucky, my parents thought nothing of packing us four kids, our suitcases, several jars of peanut butter, a cooler, and plenty of dog-eared maps into a station wagon and heading west. The road started in Lexington and headed out through the western part of the state.

If we were taking the northern route, we'd drive through Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, Utah, and California to reach the West Coast. If we were visiting my mother's best friend in San Diego, we'd dip down through Tennessee, Arkansas, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.

The days took on their own rhythm. We'd be up as early as four kids could be roused from their Holiday Inn rollaways, fed some dry cereal, and packed into the back seat and nether regions of the station wagon. The morning highway was still cool and shadowy and the fields sweet-smelling and dewy beside it.

As the day wore on and the road grew hotter, we'd stare at the maps and watch for cities we'd pass. Sometimes we'd play silly games; other times, we'd listen to whatever radio music we could eke out of the sky. We didn't stop for lunch, but made one peanut-butter sandwich after another.

My mother had a story ready whenever we complained about the four-day journeys, which, when we first began taking them, still involved passage on a two-lane Route 66. She would tell us that we were getting a taste of the way the early pioneers explored the frontier. This never quieted us completely, but it did add an aura of romance to some otherwise long, hot days.

A couple of times - when the un-air-conditioned car was dragging through the desert and we were trying to stay cool with washcloths dipped in melted ice from the cooler - we would almost believe her. At those moments it didn't take much imagination to think of ourselves as the heirs of those early travelers, walking alongside a dusty covered wagon with half a mysterious continent ahead of us.

By 3 or 4 p.m., the sunlight made mirage-like "puddles" on the tarmac that would disappear as we reached them. Cries of "When will we get to Topeka?" or "Can we stop at a motel with a pool?" would fill the air.

Don't get me wrong. I am told that all of us were good travelers. We knew that to reach the good stuff - mountains and canyons and Indian trading posts - we had to pass through a lot of cornfields. Traveling taught us patience.

The best part of the day was at dusk, when we were no longer heading right into the setting sun. Then in those long days of summer, we'd travel an hour or two more and finally pull into a roadside motel. We followed a routine there, too.

First, Dad would go see if there were rooms available that we could afford. We could always tell from his expression as he walked back to us whether we'd have to press on a little farther or could finally pile out of the car for the day.

Then we would freshen up (my mother, sister, and I would tie our wind-whipped hair up in bandannas) and find the most authentic local eatery. If we knocked off early, we'd go for a swim or "sight-seer," which meant walking down the idle streets of some town like Texarkana, peering into store windows and seeking out all the local monuments. These were good times, the satisfaction of a hard drive under our belts, the challenge of another day to come.

Our trips west have left indelible memories. Although I have traveled throughout this country and to Europe and Asia as an adult, I have seen nothing that compares with my first glimpse of the Grand Canyon. The drama of the Pacific Coast, the elemental grandeur of Monument Valley, the intricate and cozy cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde, the eerie landscape around the Great Salt Lake - these were all ours to claim. And because we drove so far and worked so hard to get to them, they belonged to us all the more.

These trips were not expensive, but how rich they were! How deeply we grew to love the land we drove across; how all of us have grown up to be veteran travelers, unafraid of discomfort, in love with the faraway and hard to reach.

Last week, I climbed into a jet in New York City and took off for California. Six hours later I was in San Francisco. Somehow, that will always seem like cheating to me.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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