Seeing the USA

By Bob Buckel | Published Saturday, June 28, 2014

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I don’t know about you, but summertime makes me itchy to get in the car and drive – not across town, or even across Texas, but across America.

Maybe it’s those ads that sang, “See the USA in your Chevrolet!” when I was a kid.

More likely, it’s my family’s epic vacations.

Bob Buckel

Bob Buckel

Oh, we had lots of trips within Texas, wrapped around summer press conventions. We saw trees, hills, lakes and beaches – as well as San Antonio’s Riverwalk, the Astrodome, Galveston’s seawall and the Capitol in Austin.

And those trips were long, given that our starting point was closer to New Mexico than to Abilene.

But we also took a few classic family vacation trips across America. We had to.

My dad grew up in Southern California, and Mom’s childhood home was in a tree-shaded neighborhood of Montgomery, Ala. Just going to see kinfolk meant driving 1,000 miles in either direction.

My sister and I would settle into the backseat of the family sedan, fortified with pillows, books and games, and Mom and Dad would occupy the front seat as the marathon began.

Mom was navigator, child-manager, cafeteria and planning director. Dad just drove. He was Superman to me anyway, but it ratcheted up a notch when he got behind the wheel. I believe he could have driven coast-to-coast without a break.

We talked constantly, sang, counted telephone poles and train cars. We catalogued critters and license plates from exotic places like Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida. Sometimes we’d reach over the seat to rub Dad’s shoulders, stroke his bald spot with a cool washcloth and pinch his cheeks as he chewed up the miles.

There were no seat belts, and the speed limit was 80 in most places. If one of us kids wanted to stretch out on the seat, the other would lie in the floorboard, knees over the hot hump where the driveshaft ran to the rear wheels. I remember lying on the hat shelf, too, up under the back windshield.

You had to be in big trouble to get sent to the front seat between Mom and Dad – but those time-outs were usually short. I’m sure they wanted their adult realm back.

There were long stretches of desert as we headed west across New Mexico and Arizona. Going the other way, once we got past that flying horse atop a skyscraper in Dallas, it seemed the entire country was forest, with narrow corridors carved out for roads.

We’d pack a cooler and stop for lunch at a roadside park. Mom made sandwiches and everyone drank Shasta cola. Dad and I would carry our baseball gloves and play catch while the ladies went to the restroom.

Crossing a state line was a big deal, especially if you changed time zones. Heading west we “gained” two hours – I felt like we were outrunning the sun, and if we could only keep driving it would eventually be morning again.

I distinctly remember one trip when Dad warned us we would be leaving early – 5 a.m. – and then set the clocks up so we actually left at 4. Picking up two hours, with a big gas tank and few towns to slow us down, we made it to Riverside, Calif., before dark.

I remember trying to hold our breath all the way across the Mississippi, flirting with unconsciousness. It remains the biggest river I’ve ever seen, a dangerous, vibrant, thrilling channel that divides our country and rolls through its history.

I’ll never forget the Civil War battlefield at Vicksburg, or on a trip north, Gettysburg and Arlington Cemetery in Washington, D.C. We saw the nation’s Capitol, Jefferson’s home at Monticello, the Blue Ridge Mountains – and of course, baseball parks at Cincinatti, St. Louis and Kansas City.

The trips were as memorable as the destinations – expanding my world, taking me to places new and different, filled with history and wonder.

They affirmed my belief that being from the treeless plains of West Texas is one of the best things that ever happened to me. My childhood friends confirm this. Having been raised to see the beauty out there, we are better equipped than most people to appreciate beauty wherever we find it.

It’s still true. Although I’ve lived in scenic North Texas for more than half my life, I still do not skip lightly over tall trees, rolling hills and rocky outcroppings, acres of waving grass or flowing creeks. Walking through the seasons here for the last three decades, I still see beauty everywhere I look.

If anything, the wonder only increases with age.

So does that itch. Wonder if Shasta Cola is still on special?

Bob Buckel is editorial director of the Messenger.

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