Down the road

Deep drifts of snow covered downstairs windows, the mercury snoozed well below the point of thaw, and Zoloft prescriptions stampeded into town by the dozens. Everything – save the now gray piles of snow haunting streets and alleys – in our little mountain town was at the point of meltdown.

It was always at this most desperate of moments that my dad defied Prozac temptation and leaped into action. Only one thing could salvage a marriage, heal sibling rivalries and stave off seasonal psychosis – the family road trip.

And so every spring for nearly two decades, dad would throw the duffel into our tiny Subaru, load up his wife and three young kids and point it for a sunny, southern exposure. Packed inside that puttering automobile, we would all bid farewells to the snowbound San Juans and set off on what I’d call more of an odyssey than a journey. I say “odyssey” because those trips to sanctuary always had their fair share of peril.

The family’s first test usually showed in the Painted Desert, somewhere between the garden spots of Tuba City and Teec Nos Pos. True, we have visited the motels of Cortez, a mere hour and one family meltdown away from our front door, but Navajoland was most often the theater for our first family drama.

Once, a blown water pump saddled the whole troupe for a romantic evening in Tsegi Park – a dozen ¾-wide trailers pasted together into a mock hotel not far from Kayenta. That night, as we waited for a spare part from Flagstaff, the Sands clan dined on a sumptuous feast of deep-fat-fryer bits at the Kayenta Holiday Inn. Bellies full of breading, we laid down for a restful evening in the roach motel, just as bedspring Olympics got under way in our fellow lodgers’ rooms. The next morning, our culinary adventures led to a predictable outcome.

“Who needs to go poop?” was a phrase my loving mother barked that day and hundreds of other times along stretches of highway all over the West. You see, every single Sands family getaway has been colored by a mysterious odor, and on every single getaway, the kids took the bitter blame.

“Okay, that’s it. We’re pulling over,” the front seat would call. “One of you is getting out and taking a poop on the side of the road.” The only member of the clan – aside for the chief inquisitor – never to endure a humbling roadside squat was the usual culprit. The man in the driver’s seat was then and is now a certified master of flatulence. Thanks to years of practice and exquisite muscle control, he who must not be named could easily conceal or embellish his emissions to suit any circumstance.

Roughly four “who needs to go poops” later, we’d reach another barren clime, often the edge of the Mojave Desert. With windows peeled open in place of air conditioning (and to diffuse unexpected smells) and the same tired “Eagles Greatest Hits” working the stereo, the situation would often grow dire. The Subaru’s plastic, naugahyde seats would stick to bare skin, and yet another turn of “Witchy Woman” would worm its way into fragile minds. A jug of cold water often made the rounds, as we drenched our clothes to fight off the heat and dreamed of those far-off snowbanks. As the madness set firm roots, the back seat would fall into a rubber tomahawk grudge match or a bout of white plastic spork fencing. By this time, dad wouldn’t even bother with a “Don’t make pull over.”

One Mojave crossing got especially warped when my pop turned to unconventional measures to dull the pain. Like a second-string illusionist, the man magically produced a bag of strange looking brownies and carefully nibbled two small bites off a shaggy-looking square (these were the late 1970s). The confection was for “adults-only,” we were told, and with an “abracadabra” the cellophane baggie rapidly disappeared back beneath the driver’s seat. At the time, I had no idea why we were crossing the Mojave at a sluggish 50 mph. Now that I’m nearing maturity, the driver seat calls of “Joshua Trees are the most mystifying plants” and “Far out, I think that was a spacecraft” are no longer so baffling.

On many of those flights from winter, sunny southern California was our destination, with Orange County at least 20 hours, three cheap motel visits and one Bob’s Big Boy away from home. We also visited less romantic locales over the years. Once, the Subaru delivered the “fam” to a backward resort just a few miles north of the border in Nogales. We spent another trip poolside in the charming burg of Gallup. And we have explored the Route 66 destination of Needles, Calif. A real family highlight came more than 20 years ago during a two-day stopover at the Sky Ute Lodge in sunny, little Ignacio. Suffice it to say that the tourist amenities were a little wanting back in the Reagan years.

Whether we were sitting on the edge of the Pacific, basking in Four Corners chlorine or ankle deep in a power plant cooling pond, the story always ended on the same note. After about 24 hours in “paradise,” my folks would get antsy and start missing the snow. The duffel would fly back into the hatch, and the Eagles album would come out of the glove box. Just before shoe-horning us into the back seat, mom would lay down the ultimatum. “I want three poops from you kids or we’re not going home.” In reply, my brother, sister and I – and occasionally the man in the driver’s seat – would all happily file in toward the porcelain.

– Will Sands



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