When I was a very young girl, my favorite song was “Leavin’ on a Jet Plane” as recorded by Peter, Paul and Mary. The track was on the folk trio’s “best-of” cassette, which I would insist my mom play in the car on the way to ballet practice. That album was also in the small collection of cassettes that accompanied our family of five on road trips and included other greats like Loretta Lynn, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Kenny Rogers and the Muppets. I could sing “Too Much of Nothin’,” “The Gambler” and “Coal Miner’s Daughter” as well as I could “Rainbow Connection” by the time I hit second grade.
In 1980 my parents loaded us into a light blue station wagon and took us on a grand tour of The West. The wagon was crowned with a luggage-packed car-top carrier and outfitted with a ball compass and a plastic frog mascot on the dashboard. I was 6 years old and my brothers were 8 and 14.
We set out from Illinois, following route 80 across Iowa and Nebraska and into Wyoming. From there, we dropped down into Utah, crossed back east into Colorado and took the southern route home through Kansas and Missouri. Over two weeks, we covered 5,500 miles and visited four national parks, two gorges, and quite a few roadside attractions along the way.
During subsequent summers, we would drive out in the same wagon to visit my grandparent’s who had moved to Colorado Springs.
My 42-year-old brain holds a random, but cherished hodge-podge of memories from those trips, like the adventure of driving on Gold Camp Road, a serpentine dirt throughway that once held a mining railroad for transport from Colorado Springs to Cripple Creek. My grandfather would speed along it in his bulky Cadillac like he was on a four-lane highway instead of a narrow dirt pass lined with blind curves and precarious drop-offs. My mother held her breath and closed her eyes. (Gold Camp Road has since been closed to vehicles and converted into a multi-use trail.)
Recently, my dad and I took a stroll through the family photo albums, and so many moments came back to life… munching road-side picnics in the hot sun with the humming bees, standing on the Four Corners, feeding rainbow trout at Seven Falls after climbing 224 steps, seeing how ancient peoples lived at the Manitou Cliff Dwellings, riding a coal-mine elevator deep into the Earth with my grandmother who was clad in an elegant white pant suit, exploring the whistling darkness in Cave of the Winds, eating like a cowboy at Flying W Ranch, staring up at Mt. Rushmore with the political ignorance of a child, teetering on the rocky ledges of Grand Canyon and Bryce Canyon, etc.
And for some reason, we have never forgotten that my brother K. threw up at the Petrified Forest National Park. Or that I tossed my freshly made donuts on the 14,000-foot summit of Pikes Peak–foreshadowing a proneness to altitude sickness that, years later, would land me in the ER in Telluride, CO a day before my friend A’s wedding.
Those family road-trips awoke two things within me at an early age: a love for roadside attractions and wanderlust. It was exciting! Hitting the road to explore, seeing something new every day, discovering the world beyond my previously small experience of it… Those trips also gave me time with family that I will always hold close to my heart. My grandparents and my mother are no longer living, but one quick step into the memory field and I’m laughing again with them as we explore new places together. I’m sure they wouldn’t be surprised that I’m still wandering about the world, seeking out new vistas. And, after all these years, “Leavin’ on a Jet Plane” is still my favorite tune.