Our Trip West: A Memoir

One summer during the 1950s, the thing I cared about most was our family’s long-anticipated “Trip West,” the road trip we’d mapped out for the last two weeks of summer.

Departing from our apartment in Chicago one hot August morning, we crossed the Mississippi River and entered Iowa, the first state west of Illinois. As our eyes drank in the not-yet-boring sameness of the Iowa cornfields, my mother suddenly had an urgent question. Where was the garment bag, filled with four brand-new outfits, that she’d left hanging on the bedroom door? She didn’t remember putting it in the car.

Sure enough, when we stopped for the night, the garment bag was nowhere to be found. My parents, in their haste to leave, had forgotten to take Mom’s bag. The result? Mom had one dress to wear for the entire two-week trip.

Imagine. Two weeks in August in one brown-and-white hound’s-tooth-checked rayon dress. We scoured store racks from Sioux City to Sioux Falls searching for another summer dress for Mom. But by the last two weeks of August, even the least trendy stores in the least trendy parts of America had NO SUMMER DRESSES left.

By Salt Lake City, Mom was resigned to one more week of the hound’s-tooth-checked number and finally stopped looking. We were all happy to end the search, enthusiastically thanking Providence for Mom’s underactive sweat glands.

Our trip included adventures in the Badlands, the Black Hills, and Yellowstone National Park. But the highlight for me happened when we arrived at the town of Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The town was not yet the “in” resort it has since become, but its mountains were already attracting skiers. And that summer I rode the Snow King Mountain chair-lift 4,000 feet to the top. By myself.

Driving through Jackson Hole, we’d noticed a sign promoting the chair-lift ride to the top of Snow King Mountain. Daddy stopped the car and got out to take a look. The rest of us followed, watching chairs whizzing up the mountain from where we stood at the bottom.

Somehow our signals got crossed because I hopped on one of the chairs thinking that Daddy was going to hop on the very next one. As I blithely began to go up the mountain, I suddenly heard loud voices. I turned around to see my parents, still at the bottom of the mountain, waving their arms and shouting. I couldn’t make out what they were shouting, but I got the idea: Daddy had decided not to ride the chair lift after all, and I’d made a big mistake to hop on when I did.

I faced forward again, realizing that it was too late to get off. The chair was moving fast, and if I tried to dismount, disaster might ensue. So I sat back and feasted my eyes on the spectacular scenery. Chicago never looked like this.

When I reached the top of the mountain, I was startled by a man who emerged from a small structure, took my photo, then pulled me off the still-moving chair. Shouting “YOUR MOTHER WANTS TO TALK TO YOU,” he thrust a telephone receiver into my hand. Calling from the bottom of the mountain, my mother frantically demanded to know if I was all right. After assuring her that I was fine, I hung up, and the top-of-the-mountain man helped me mount a chair going downhill.

As I descended, I realized how very high I’d climbed. I could see all the way down the mountain to the tiny town below, and it finally sunk in just how far I could fall if I slipped out of the chair. Luckily, the rest of the ride went smoothly.

When I landed safely at the bottom of the mountain, my parents rushed to greet me, my mother smothering me with kisses. I wondered why they’d been so worried. Now, a mother (and grandmother) myself, I no longer wonder. Seeing one of my young children whisked up a 7,808-foot mountain, all alone, I would have panicked too.

With the Jackson Hole episode behind us, our family explored Colorado and Utah before heading home. By the time we got to North Platte, Nebraska, we were sure our Western adventures were over. But we were wrong.

We dined at a local steakhouse, figuring on an uneventful walk back to our motel. But when we left the steakhouse, the air was swarming with hundreds of enormous locusts. Unaccustomed to seeing any insect larger than a horsefly, we were shocked to see hordes of gigantic bugs zooming through the air.

We ducked and began running, collapsing in the bug-free atmosphere of our motel room. But it was too early to proclaim victory over the insect world. As Mom began to undress (yes, the brown-and-white hound’s-tooth-checked number), a locust emerged from the vicinity of her bra and began to fly around the room. We all screamed till Daddy did what was expected of 1950s-era Daddies and got rid of the thing. It took us a while to settle down to sleep that night.

We returned to Chicago and our routine existence. But the memories of our Trip West never faded. A reminder arrived in our mailbox a few weeks later: the photo of me, in the chair-lift, at the top of Snow King Mountain.

Among my favorite memories are those of my travels, starting with those I took with my parents so long ago. I’ve gone on to travel to many parts of the world, and I plan to keep on going. Inside me is a little girl on a chair-lift, eager to be transported up the mountain one more time.

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2 responses to “Our Trip West: A Memoir

  1. Nice. Just the right tone. Thanks. See you soon. —Chip

  2. What a wonderful memoir of a very memorable trip. Thanks for sharing this!

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