Driving

Last summer, on a bus headed toward the Grand Canyon with my husband and son, I turned my head at just the right moment and there it was: the Bedrock City (of Flintstones fame) Campground and RV Park. It was a place out of time. Irrelevant, faded, seemingly abandoned. No one on the bus gave it more than a passing glance, but I reacted as though I’d been slapped. There was nothing life-altering about the place, nothing that I can point to and say “this made a profound impact.” It was simply the fact that the place existed, that I had once been there, and that some 35+ years later, I remembered. Our tour bus didn’t stop there. I didn’t jump up and down pointing, or even think to mention it to the hubs until much later that evening. I just…remembered. And that was enough.

Somewhere in a box of moldering things I used to have a photograph of Bedrock City Campground and RV Park. And honestly? I’d forgotten all about it. I was, I dunno, 12 maybe when I took pictures of it with my little Kodak 110, and I thought it was one of the weirdest and coolest places I’d ever been. 

It was 1979, and I was traveling in the back of a Gran Torino with my mother and Julie and Jeremy, two of the short-lived step-siblings. My mother and I had picked them up in Georgia and we were all heading to Kingman, Arizona where James’ crew was working that late summer. It had been a long trip—longer yet for my mother, I imagine, since she’s the only one who could drive and she had to put up with a lot of back-seat fights between me and Jeremy. We’d spent a lot of nights in roadside motels, visited a lot of Stuckeys Stops, and had what we collectively decided were armadillo tacos at Guy’s Tastee-Freeze in Gallup, New Mexico. Jeremy stole a hunk of wood from the Petrified Forest, and I can still sing all of the words to Robert John’s Sad Eyes because it was on the radio every 12 minutes no matter what radio station we managed to tune in.

Kingman was finally starting to show up on the mile signs and I have no doubt my mother was desperate to get out of the car and away from all of us. Except that there were also signs that said “Grand Canyon, 30 miles” and “Grand Canyon, exit here and go left”. And somehow we convinced her to veer off the route and take us on a 3-hour side trip to the Grand Canyon. 

An interesting factoid that I recent learned is this: most people spend about 15 minutes at the Grand Canyon. They head to Mather Point on the South Rim, ooh and ahh, take a few pictures and then leave.

Fact: that’s exactly what we did back in 1979, and then got to spend the rest of our lives talking about having seen the Grand Canyon and how amazing it was. Frankly, it was kind of anticlimactic, given that we’d been traveling for who knows how many days and were hauling a hunk of felonious wood underneath the front passenger seat of the car. 

Before we made it to the Canyon, though, we stopped at the Bedrock City Campground and RV park near Williams, and it felt like Mecca. We peed. We got snacks. We took pictures. We argued. We left. And I forgot all about it until last summer.

Last summer we took a family trip to the American West. The teenager and I started with a road trip from our home here in western New York that took us across the heartland and on to Grand Junction, Colorado. From Grand Junction, we flew to Phoenix, where the hubs met us and we then joined a tour that meandered from Phoenix to Sedona, then the Grand Canyon and Moab. We saw the Red Rocks, the Canyon, Arches National Park, Monument Valley. We rafted down the Colorado, hiked, and toured, and then bus dropped us off at the Grand Junction airport where our car was waiting. From there we drove to Taos, New Mexico, down to Roswell for the aliens, then back through Arizona. The family portion ended in Las Vegas where after a couple of days the boys hopped on a plane and soloed it back home in the car. I am at my happiest when I am driving.

I thought about my mother a lot on that trip. Although I have a hard time reconciling them in my memories, the mother who didn’t want to deal with the hassle of traffic to get to the Ice Capades is the same mother who never said no to a potential road trip and who understood the power of curiosity well enough to think that a 3 hour detour was worthwhile. I get my love of road trips from her—I’m always willing to hop in the car and see where we end up. And I think its fair to say that she was happiest when driving, the car pointed down a long and often-lonely stretch of road leading to somewhere she’d never seen before. Despite her lifetime of protestation that she was just an old country woman who never did anything worth mentioning, my mother saw a lot of America from the driver’s seat of a Gran Torino, me sitting next to her, my feet propped up on the dash while I read my beloved Archie comics and waited for the next Stuckey’s Stop.

Becoming Miss Janice

I have spent the better parts of many days trying to chase down some memories. This is both the power and the curse of the internet–you know the information you want is out there, if only you click one one more link. One more link. One more link. And if you’re me, you’re too cheap to actually pay for a subscription service that might answer some, if not all, of your questions.

Here’s what I know for sure: In 1978 I was failing the 5th grade. Miserably. I wasn’t even passing my beloved Language Arts, I was doing so badly. My brother was slogging through the 9th grade, a year behind, having repeated the 7th as another part of the Ronnie fallout.

Also in 1978, my mother remarried. His name was James, he was originally from Georgia, he looked strangely like Abraham Lincoln, and he drove a beautiful white Ford LTD with plush burgundy upholstery. His car had an FM radio and a CB antennae. He was the foreman of an underground cable crew. Their marriage lasted for about a year, maybe a bit longer legally. That’s one of the pieces I haven’t been able to find, when they were legally divorced. Perhaps they never were.

James had three kids (that we knew of), all of whom shared a first initial and referred to my mother as “Miss Janice.” (The correct pronunciation was JaNEICE, but we all gave up on explaining that after a couple of weeks.) I believe one of my crowning childhood achievements was the day I called one of them, to his (and my mother’s) face, an asshole. My mother slapped me, for the first and only time ever, then as soon as we were alone apologized saying, “He is an asshole, but you can’t say that to him.”

It was a long time ago. We didn’t keep in touch. Now, I’m trying to find them. Not because I want to reconnect, but because I have so damn many questions. The first is this: was their father a sociopath? Because that’s how I remember him. The second is how many times was he married? Because my mother once admitted that she thought he’d only been married once before, but when we met his mother she called my mother by so many different names that it just got confusing–even more confusing than this sentence has become. It seemed James been married quite a few times before then. The third question, well, I don’t really have a third. The first two cover pretty much everything I want to know.

I’ve spent most of my energy trying to answer the second question. Google couldn’t tell me that one. Neither could free trials of various subscription services that I now need to go cancel before they bill me. I finally went to Facebook, which I gave up over a year ago because I couldn’t handle it any more. You may now call me Penelope Bottomwater, because I dunno, I didn’t feel like being myself. Brooke Baker isn’t much of a stalker, but Penelope Bottomwater? That bitch is nothing but trouble.

Penelope has now stalked every single person she could find matching any and all variants of their names. She thought she found one of them, and spent a good couple hours reading every single one of his posts, hoping to see a reference to or photo of his father, only to find a three-year-old post in which he referred to himself by his full name and it wasn’t the right guy at all. I now know a whole heck of a lot about a random stranger, so that’s something.

I think, though, that I’ve finally found two of the three. I picked the one most likely to respond and sent a pm that included my real name. We’ll see if that goes anywhere. In the meantime I’m trying to come up with polite words for “sociopath” and “complete nutter.”

On the assumption that I’m going to have to tap into the sketchiest of recollections to tell the stories of her Miss Janice year, I keep making notes to myself. The look something like this:

  • Alabama, sulfur water, John
  • New Boston, bowling, campground
  • Georgia, Cleta, green beans, bike wreck
  • Kingman, roller skating, Pam
  • Missouri
  • Sad Eyes
  • The Jellystone Campground, Grand Canyon
  • Lake Mead

And truth told, this is where I really wish I could talk to my mother because I can’t help but wonder how closely my memories dovetail with her reality. But hey, I’ll keep chugging along, trying to make sense of it because it’s what I do both as a human and as a writer.