My dad mustered out of the service in the spring of 1966, and after almost forty years of winters spent in Michigan, on ice breakers in the Great Lakes, and months spent at sea, he was ready for some place a bit warmer and a whole lot dryer. To that end he took a map of the United States, folded it in such a manner that there was no coast or border showing, and threw a dart.
Kingman in Arizona was closest to ground zero for his 1965 dart toss. That gave him almost a year to buy some prime desert property, unseen.
Well, come June of 1966, the family consisting of my two sisters, mom, dad, me, and a very unhappy parakeet, piled into the dark blue, four door, 1964 Ford Fairlane purchased the previous summer and that was now packed in a manner worthy of the Joad’s in their westward migration, and set out for our new home. The first leg of the journey was miserable but tolerable.
Of course it was less than a few hundred miles from Port Huron to Jackson, both in Michigan. Still, the stop at grandmothers was greatly appreciated.
The next day we made it to Niles, another run of a hundred miles or so, before we got another reprieve. This time it was the changing of a tire that required unloading the trunk that required first unloading the stuff piled on top of the truck.
Now, my dad and I weren’t really strangers but for the majority of my life up to that point in time, he had been away for long periods of time. So, the flow of colorful words that culminated with a reference to Sears & Roebuck, the store where he had bought the tires the week before we left, and where the store manager would find the tire if we were to return to Port Huron, presented me with a confusing revelation that led to the asking of various questions pertaining to anatomy.
Everybody was pretty miserable but in retrospect, my sisters were the most miserable of all. My older sister had just graduated from high school, and my little sister was just short of her third birthday. For reasons not understood at the time my mother was rather indifferent to us kids so my older sister seemed more of a mother than a sibling to both of us, but especially when it came to my little sister.
Dad had a tremendous gift for ignoring distractions while driving be they pleadings for a bathroom break, squabbling siblings, a bitterly complaining wife, or things falling off the roof of the car onto the highway. We picked up U.S. 66 south of Chicago, crossed into Missouri on the Chain of Rocks Bridge, another opportunity for dad to display his prowess with expletives and a great memory I will share someday, and called it quits for the day somewhere west of St. Louis.
The next few days were a repeat of the second. Stifling heat. Crying sister. Complaining mother. Ignoring dad. Hour upon hour on the road. Pit stops to pee, pit stops to get supplies, pit stops to make sandwiches.
Still, oddly enough, I also remember some pretty neat stuff, like the sound of the bell at the service station, the beads of sweat on the coke bottle that felt so cold in my hand, the smell of the wet pavement as it mingled with the scent of rubber, of grease, of gasoline, of hot engines, and sweat, and the swishing noise of tires on cars rolling by out on the highway. I remember a motel in Oklahoma where the neon sign presented the illusion the cowboy was really riding a bronco.
I remember with absolute clarity the ancient and dirty little service station in New Mexico where I first heard Spanish. It was in the same town where I ate my first real taco, and the first time I saw the Indian of the movies with long braids, a stern, weathered face, and a battered hat with a feather.
At first I had trouble understanding why the memories of this particular trip had rushed back with high definition quality this morning. I knew that in part it was triggered by a simple memorial service for my little sister, who passed away this past December, requested by her middle son who recently rotated stateside.
Throughout the day as I made phone calls, worked on the Route 66 encyclopedia, resolved issues at the office and those associated with the promotion for Ghost Towns of the Southwest, the memory of this trip kept pushing to the forefront of my thoughts. A short while ago it came to me, this was the last time we traveled as a family, a really dysfunctional family but a family nonetheless. This was the beginning of my Arizona love affair. And, as with so much of my life, tying it all together was Route 66.
Shortly after we arrived in Arizona, dad hitchhiked back to Michigan to get the truck and trailer to haul the family goods west. Almost immediately after his return, my older sister moved on and started a life of her own.
We stayed in Arizona for five years before moving on to New Mexico and my sister who seemed more like a mom, soon became a memory. In New Mexico we stayed a couple of years before making the reverse migration to Michigan.
With each move the cracks in the family had became more noticeable and this one turned the cracks into chasms. It was now only a matter of time before each of us chose a different course.
This trip on Route 66 was our last moment as a family. Route 66, my trail of dreams.

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