A Pedacito Of My Mother's Final Road Trip
Updated: Jun 2, 2022
I was brought up by a mother who read the road atlas like others read Good Housekeeping, her red-polished fingernail following the continent-wide spider web that connects farms to villages, villages to towns, towns to cities.
She took special joy in finding names like Dime Box and Old Dime Box, adjacent villages in Texas, or Bug, a small town in southern Kentucky. Whooping with glee, she would announce the name for her fellow passengers consisting of my father, brother, and me.
I took my first road trip with my parents at the age of one when my father accepted a new job in Dayton, Ohio. The year was 1948, eight years before the interstate highway system was announced. It took my father three long days of driving from our home in Wichita to arrive at the final destination.
My mother was in charge of the atlas, linking the roads to find the shortest route. My four-year-old brother and I were relegated to the back seat and a box of small toys that were doled out one-a-day to keep us occupied. As we grew older, being the first to spot Stuckey’s or Burma Shave signs earned the winner a treat at the next stop.
In the years after that first journey, we took numerous car trips, my brother and I still stationed in the back seat, my mother in her role of navigator with the atlas on her lap, finger at the ready to tell my father where to take the next turn.
As a teenager and then as an adult after my father died, my mother and I continued taking back road journeys together.
Today, so many years later, excursions on two-lane roads across America are my Zen, my meditation, my solitude. It’s my opportunity to be mindfully present.
I revel in the simple act of observation, of scanning the horizon where jagged flashes of lightning strike a barren Southwest desert in a far-off storm; of watching a herd of antelope spring over a barbed wire fence and race toward the distant mountains in Utah; of witnessing a flock of wild turkeys pecking undisturbed in the grass beneath a stand of pine trees on a road that runs through Montana’s ranch country; of inhaling the green expanse of a wide caldera once the epicenter of white-hot lava spewing skyward and now a grassy plain where elk graze in New Mexico.
The last road trip my mother and I took together was from my home in Los Angeles to Wichita. It was the summer of 2003 soon after her death at the age of 94 in an over-air-conditioned hospital room in Central Florida. I planned to have a small memorial service in Wichita with a few family friends and relatives present.
Her ashes were given to me in a cardboard box for delivery to the funeral home in Wichita where they would be transferred to an urn and placed in the niche where my father's ashes were placed nearly 30 years earlier.
My grandmother’s birthday, my mother’s birthday, and mine were on the same day. Three generations were born on February 19th. For one of our birthdays in the early 1980s, my mother flew from Wichita to New York City, where I was then living. While I was working, I sent her to the Elizabeth Arden salon on Fifth Avenue for a spa day followed by dinner and a Broadway play.
So I put the box of her ashes in a bright red Elizabeth Arden Red Door shopping bag.
It seemed only fitting to let her ride back to Wichita in that red bag in the passenger seat atop an atlas where she had navigated all those prior road trips.
Driving from Los Angeles to Sacramento, I picked up Route 50, a road that spans 12 states from California to Washington D.C., most of it remote and desolate. I planned to follow it all the way to Kansas.
Ochre-colored mesas somewhere in the northern Utah desert surrounded me when my phone rang. It was the minister at my mother’s church answering the message I had left to discuss arrangements for the memorial service.
As we spoke, tears suddenly began to rush down my cheeks unchecked. It was the first time I had truly felt the loss. Apologizing, I told the minister I would call back.
Turning the car onto a dirt side road, I switched off the motor, rolled down the windows, and wept, my hand resting on that red Elizabeth Arden bag containing my mother’s ashes.
Route 50 is known as “The Loneliest Road in America.” It lived up to its name that day.
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