This is not how it was last time. Then it was a proper road trip.
‘Then’ was summer of ’77, when my parents bundled us into the back of our beat-up Buick, me and my sister, and steered the overheated engine from the east coast of the States to the west and then back again in a big loop. I was eight, my sister was nine and every night we charted our route on a map. I can’t remember the exact number of states we drove through (Dad…?) but I think it was about 36 in two months.
Pop, Mum’s recently bereaved father, came too, on a post-funeral visit from the UK, sitting quietly in the back with his pale shoulder turned away from us two girls, blocking off from the squabbles and chatter as the scenery unfurled by his open window.
Pop obviously had a whole tent to himself, which left two other places to sleep – in the other tent, or pegged out on the flat back of the Buick, looking up at the stars. Who slept where each night seemed to depend on the shape of the moon, or the passing of the eastern winds, or the number of crows hopping under a tree. One morning Pop said (and he never said much, especially that particular summer when the grey mood of Nonna’s demise accompanied us on the trip like an unseen pall) – anyway, one morning, Pop said: ‘Did you hear the coyotes last night?’ Prowling up in the hills, we all assumed. ‘No,’ he said, ‘around our tents.’
Another time we bust a tire on the dusty outskirts of some kind of ghetto and had to ask for help. I think my folks thought we were basically all going to die, but the first house we came to was a shrine of kindness, and we ended up sitting on a plastic-covered couch drinking iced water and looking through family albums while dad and the husband knelt in the dirt fixing the wheel.
Another time in Florida, Mum’s back locked (from grief, for sure) and when we pitched up at the evening’s campsite, Dad carried her from the car and put her down on a grassy bank while he set up tent for the night, stepping over his annoying daughters and prone wife. A wrinkled old keep-fit lady in orange pants and a sun-visor came up to Mum, knelt over her, and said: ‘It gets better as you get older’.
If we were very lucky we stopped at a KOA camp. We only stayed at these premium campsites if we were REALLY lost or really tired: there was a kind of ‘F**k it’ mentality to those wonderful KOA stop-offs, when my sister and I would go bonkers in the pools with the curly slides while Mum and Dad – no doubt exhausted – downed beers in the bar.
This trip was the two-month full-stop to our year in America, and it encompassed all the things we had taken on board. I remember unpeeling Hostess Twinkies in the back seat, juggling hot-wrapped apple pies from rare pull-ups to drive-in McDonalds, the taste of Kool Aid at wooden picnic tables under hot pines, rubbing noses under nylon sleeping bags, dodging giant night-time moths in neon-lit restrooms, chewing illict wraps of Red Mountain (probably to keep our mouths shut) – but most of all the lonely sense that I wasn’t sure how or when we would ever get home again, to Baltimore or, for that matter, to the UK, a place I had been desperate to get back to since I arrived on American soil. I think my feeling at the time was that the trip was just preventing us from getting ‘home’.
Either way, our family road trip had one effect on one sister, and another on the other. While it put me off camping for life, it left my sister with a passion for canvas that has resulted in her spending every summer pegging out her tent at festivals around the UK.
So who ever knew I’d be here 36 years later, sitting at a pop-up table in the dark, with a beer by my side and the mossies pestering me, and there is a reason why it didn’t take a lot of persuading to get me here, and that reason is the massive, four-berth, white truck the size of a small terraced house beside which I am sitting. Because of this Goliath of a ‘home’, our nine-day road trip down the west coast of Australia and back will not be like that sepia-tinted American tarmac trail at all.
It’s cheating, really. SmallMonkey has just climbed down the little ladder from his bunk to watch The Avengers on our built-in DVD player. Mr PC is cooking roast pork chops and baby new potatoes with a crunchy green salad and has just set off the smoke alarm – I mean, there’s a smoke alarm for goodness’ sake, and a microwave, and a fridge. I showered in the campsite washrooms just like I would have done in the old days, but if I’d wanted to I could have flicked on the water heater and had a shower in our own van. We even have a can, although the unanimous agreement is to save that for ‘emergencies’ – we haven’t defined that situation just yet.
We’re definitely on the road but there’s no squishing into the back seat for SM. Today he sat up front, map-reading, waving his stick legs around the acres of space between him and the footwell, then messing about with the DVD controls. Now we’re parked up in a slightly frowsy campsite right beside a fast beach road with evening traffic whooshing by, so no, it’s not quite the same. No whispering pines, no night-time mumblings from the open back of a beat-up Buick, no distant guitar picking from someone in the next-door tent, no coyotes yapping up in the hills. Anyway, enough chatter, better switch off my computer – so handy, to have WiFi all the way out here. I’d better go and help by doing the washing up in our proper sink while Him Indoors makes up the double bed.