What I did on my Summer vacation.
This year on vacation me and my family went camping all over the place. We hit a deer but it was dead already. We saw a bunch of neat things. We saw Devils Tower that was in that alien movie. And we saw Mountain Rushmore with the president heads made out of rock. One park I forgot the name of had geysers that smelled like someone always farted. My sister and me both got hit in the face we teased her and said she looked like a monster. My parents were mad a lot but they did not get hurt. It was fun but most of the time it was boring. And it was hot.
When I turned the essay in to the teacher for grading I remember thinking how brilliant I thought it was. It was succinct and yet touched on the important high points of the assignment while still engaging the reader in personal and family dramas. But now, laying in the cabin wondering where it had all gone wrong, I remembered the vacation more clearly. There were things, situations really, that I left out.
It had been decided, with no kid input, that our vacation that year would be a two week road trip to see the great American West and all of its treasures. It's hard to think of an adult, especially a parent, holding on to adolescent dreams but I think my stepfather chose this trip because he always wanted to be a cowboy. I came to this conclusion because nearly every book he owned had a picture of a cowboy on it.
Maybe it wasn’t a fair assumption since I didn’t assume my mother wanted to be the woman pictured on the cover of her books. Books which always included a shirtless, or nearly shirtless, well muscled man. I also didn’t assume my stepfather wanted to be like the book he had hidden in the master bathroom. That book cover had a line drawing of a woman lying on a bed wearing nothing but fish net stocking and severely pointed high heels. Her legs were splayed wide open and a scribble of lines made up her cartoon vagina was aimed at a man standing at the door wearing a suit and holding a pipe. I didn’t assume he wanted to be either the man in the suit or the naked lady but in my defense he did have a lot more cowboy books.
It was also decided without any kid input that we would drive to our various destinationsBy driving, my stepfather explained, we would see things up close like the early settlers did. He wasn’t fooling me, I knew he had a fear of flying so driving was really the only way we would get there. The family car was a Lincoln Mercury Marquis and after a case of beer and a welding torch it was retrofitted with a trailer hitch. Now our lemon yellow car could pull a grass green Apache brand pop up camper. Together the car and camper were forty feet of bright colorful vacation madness.
The Apache is only a part time camper and even when it’s a camper it’s more of a tent on wheels. When folded up for travel it was about the height of a three mattresses. A hand crank was used to slowly unfold it raising the roof accordion style to a height of about seven feet. Double beds would slide out at either end and would be suspended about four feet above the ground by two thin aluminum poles. This meant the beds were basically hovering over open ground. I found this unnerving. If the camper should over balance in the middle of the night it would send me rolling out into a campground in nothing but my white, three to a pack, fly front briefs from JCPenneys. Which, at the time, was the white trash sleeping attire of choice.
For days before we left on the trip my mother and I would spend hours packing and unpacking the camper making sure things fit in both the open and closed positions. “Do you think the bath towels should go here near the door so we can get to them faster” I would ask “Or do you think they’d do better under dining room seats where there’s more room?”
For some reason this activity gave me some sort of deep satisfaction. There was just something fun about choosing what would go in the camper and making sure it all fit in the hidden storage spaces and closets. Then watching the camper get cranked back down to it's compressed position a tight and tidy box. Everything nice neat and orderly. It was my favorite part of the vacation and we hadn't even left home yet.
When The first morning of the trip finally made it we were hauled out of bed at four a.m. since, for some reason, four a.m. was the ultimate time to begin a vacation. My eight year old brother Bubba and my six year old sister Becky and I were piled into the back seat with our pillows, several books and as many last minute toys as we could carry. The seat belts were tucked into the seat cushions safely out of the way and optimizing our comfort and then we were off.
It was explained to that the first day was meant to be a travel day and, according to the handwritten itinerary, no real points of interest were scheduled. We started out looking to all the world like a group of people that enjoyed each others company. If of course there was anybody up at that ungodly hour to see us.
We napped, read our books, played games and listened to the radio. Spirits where high and there was still a sense of adventure in the air. For those first few hours the family was held in some sort of alien and otherworldly harmony. We were the picture perfect family like you would see on TV or in a magazine advertisement. We would remember that earliest part of our vacation for years to come and whisper about it at holidays. Because for the first time, if only for a few hours, we all got along.
It was a good fifteen hours after we started when dusk found us. We were in rural Iowa or Nebraska, I don’t remember exactly but truthfully from the car window they look alike. It was a travel day and we had followed those instructions. The part of the itinerary that said nothing interesting was going to be seen that first day would turn out to be false.
The windows had been rolled down so we could enjoy the cooling summer breezes and so we could to air out the car after a hot day of sweaty kids in the back seat. A smell, though bad, was just getting a good start. I was sitting next to the window and held my hand flat to catch the wind like an airplane wing. The landscape had changed from acres of corn and beans to thick woods on either side of the road. Oncoming traffic was sparse and not everyone had their their headlights on yet.
Though it wasn’t completely dark yet my stepdad decided it was close enough to nightfall to open his first can of beer of the evening. The rule being he could only drive his family and pull the camper while drinking if it was already dark outside. The lack of sunlight somehow made drunk driving safer.
It was Bubba who broke the mood. From the opposite window he yelled "hey look at that truck! it's so cool"
The truck in question was directly in front of us was a regular pick-up truck like we saw every day but it had the sort of giant oversized wheels typically seen on the back of farm tractors. It was so far up off the ground that a little step had to be added under the drivers side for access.
"What's so cool about it?" our stepfather asked "you can't load anything into the back. You can't tow anything with it". This was supposed to sound like practicality but it was more likely annoyance at not being able to pass the monster truck. In his opinion it had been going too slow for the past hour and was forcing him to break his beer rule.
I had observed over the years that anyone on the road driving slower than we were was referred to, by my stepfather, as a “slow assed, bastard” and was told, through the closed window, that he was “driving like an old lady”. On the other hand, anyone that passed us on the highway was referred to as a “Crazy assed bastard” and we were going to “Let HIM get the ticket”. The speeder could avoid the title of Crazy assed if he had a gun rack in the back window of his vehicle. Then he was a “good ole boy having a good time”. Regardless of road conditions or speed limits only we were going the perfect speed at any given moment.
As it turns out there really is a practical benefit to being so high up off the ground in that part of the country. The driver of the truck proved exactly how practical when he successfully straddled a thoroughly bloated deer carcass that was laying in the middle of our side of the highway.
A Lincoln Mercury Marquis has at best twelve inches of clearance between its underside and the the surface it’s driving on. A Lincoln Mercury Marquis packed with five people, and towing a camper has about eight to ten inches of clearance. An adult deer carcass, bloated from at least one day in a hundred degree weather, extends up from the ground roughly two feet. This height that changes significantly when it's run over by the previously mentioned Lincoln Mercury Marquis.
There is no good way to describe how foul the smell of Summer warmed venison smeared under fifteen feet of flesh searing American steel is. It escapes me how to convey the effect fermented intestines coating a tow bar and chains has on the senses. The scent quickly went past assaulting our physical senses and went after our very souls.
Since the smell seemed to be everywhere outside it seemed like a good idea to roll up the windows and turn on the air conditioner. But conditioned air has to come from somewhere. Instead of clean breathable air we were blasted with the undiluted smell and, this time, it was accompanied by a cloud of short fine brown hairs. In a matter of seconds we went from happily bored to fighting nausea with coating of deer hair sticking to our sweat damp skin.
The closest car wash was probably only five miles away but time can be deceiving when you're trying not to vomiting . Being in the front seat and directly in front of the air vents our mother blocked most of the deer hair with her face. She was so nauseated and frustrated that she started to cry. Not full on sobbing, though, just silent tears running down her face leaving clean streaks in her brand new five o’clock shadow.
Gagging, we evacuated the car before it came to a complete stop in the concrete bay. While my stepfather, with his shirt pulled up over his nose like a gas mask, tried to power wash the chunks of rotted tissue that was seared to the bottom of the car and camper. Bubba and I found a water hose meant for filling up radiators and rinsed off our faces. Mom and Becky went to the bathroom at the adjoining gas station to clean up. To sound like we weren’t bothered by the incident Bubba and I waited until they got back and suggested that, maybe, we could find a place that serves deer meat hamburgers. This started Becky gagging and this made us smile .
Ironically, several years later, my stepdad would take a job with the state of Missouri and his tasks would include moving deer carcasses off the highway and burying them on the side of the road so others could avoid this exact fate.
After the fourth or fifth washing it was only a short ride to our first campground. I don't remember the ceremonial first cranking of the camper but I remember the smell had lessened a little but had definitely not gone away. It was too hot to keep the windows closed but the smell was too strong to leave them open. It was a miserable night. We were sick, sore from lack of movement and sunburned on one side. All sense of hope and adventure had fled us and it was only the first day.