While looking at a Halloween display of a grandmother driving her grandaughter, I got to thinking about entering my teen years. In my house that meant you were ready for a special rite of passage. It was your turn to take a once in a lifetime road trip with Grandma Esther.
I’m not talking about a a 30 minute ride through sweet smelling apple orchards to Aunt Bee’s house. I’m talking about riding shotgun for 2000 miles from rural Minnesota to California in a camper truck. And the camper was an upgrade. Prior to its purchase, Grandma owned a classic ’60s VW van.
I’d already had a short practice trip in Wyoming with Grandma, while she still had the VW. I slept in an army green pup tent on top of the van. I was pretty thrilled to have my own special space since I’d always shared a room and I knew Grandma was known to snore some. I was excited, too, knowing I’d be able to brag to friends back home about how cool it was sleeping under the stars in the mountains. But I thought I’d skip the part about how terrified I was of potential bears and elk on the ground below. And that I hid out in a fetal position in my sleeping bag, after zipping the tent up extra tight. No, that was my little secret. I didn’t even tell Grandma.
Now, having had my traveling initiation, I was ready for the California trip. Grandma was soon busy finalizing the game plan. She ‘interviewed’ me first before settling on the detailed itinerary. She wanted to take me places I hadn’t been before, so she quickly scratched off Mount Rushmore and Wall Drug, replacing it with a trip to the Morman Tabernacle Choir in Salt Lake City.
“Have you ever been to the Sequoia National Forest, or Reno?,” she asked. As I shook my head no, she added both to the list as well.
Grandma next taught me her own special rules of the road.
First, the classic wave. It was only to be shared with those she perceived as friendly fellow travelers. She’d raise her left hand to her chin, and hold her palm open, keeping her fingers straight. I soon followed suit, noticing Grandma’s wave wasn’t quite as prevalent around young male drivers with shoulder length hair.
Her second rule related to cars backed up behind her as the over packed camper started to drag while climbing altitude. “When you hit half a dozen autos behind, you pull over and wave everybody by,” she told me. I soon learned for this scenario, Grandma would make an exception and wave at all ages and hair styles.
I admit I became nervous one night when Grandma wasn’t feeling well, knowing I didn’t know how to drive and had no idea where we were, but Grandma recovered by the next morning. And we were both uncomfortable another day making a pit stop next to some cranky cowboys coming out of the bar in a town where the posted sign said “population five”. But overall, our trip went well.
As a tempermental teen, I initially wasn’t too excited about the prospect of visiting Salt Lake, Reno and the Sequoias. But besides accomplishing her goal of arriving in Fresno where she’d teach migrant children for the year, Grandma accomplished a secondary goal. And that was introducing me to the beauty of choral music, the evils of slot machines, and the magnificence of nature. I acted as a good student for all three lessons.
When I returned home from California and realized none of my friends took trips like this with their grandmothers, I learned one more thing. Just how special and blessed I was to have Grandma Esther in my life.