Three sisters, four wheels, thousands of miles—and priceless memories
illustration by Lars Leetaru
You all can have your up norths and your baseball games. My sisters and I will spend a splendid summer day meandering through dioramas illustrating the life of a (probably dead) president, thank you very much.
We got a wild hair a few years ago and decided to make it our mission to visit all the presidential libraries in the U.S. This summer started off with a bang when we packed up the car and drove to West Branch, Iowa, the birthplace of Herbert Hoover. We know how to party.
We come by road trips naturally. My parents, my two sisters, and two brothers would regularly make the three-hour trip from the Twin Cities to my grandparents’ farm in tiny Campbell, in northwestern Minnesota. (You know: birthplace of Errol Mann, place kicker for the Detroit Lions and Oakland Raiders. And, my father will remind you, part of the Wahpeton, ND-MN Micropolitan Statistical Area.)
Every time we made that drive I hoped my parents would get me my very own pony or cow. (Either would do—beggars can’t be choosers.) Lulled by the rhythmic slapping of the tires over patched cracks in the roadways, I’d imagine it was the sound of said pony trotting alongside the car—that my parents had pulled over while I was asleep, made a deal with a farmer, and tied the pony (or cow) to the bumper. (I was a daydreamy kid—your physics are so temporal, man.) Upon pulling into the driveway, they’d surprise me with animal, which would live happily ever after in the backyard.
In the early ’70s, Disney World had just opened and our family made the drive to Florida in an enormous Chevy van, which my father had modified for driving straight through. There were two bench seats, one each for my teenage sisters. He built a platform over the back cargo area for my two younger brothers and me. We could only lie down; if we wanted to sit up, it was by the grace of one of my sisters and her bench seat.
My mother rode shotgun, armed with a yardstick she would swat at anyone misbehaving. She never left her seat, much less looked behind her, nor did it matter who the offenders might have been. It was a different time. It was also five kids, with two strapped and harried parents trying to make it the trip of a lifetime. Somewhere in the dark, my mother clicked off the radio when “Help Me Make It Through The Night” came on. Seat belts may have been optional, but that song was too dangerous for us to hear, what with taking the ribbon from one’s hair.
Here we are again. My sisters and I fight over the front seat and set our lights by the Dairy Queens along the way. Usually the three of us inhabit busy, separate lives, but now, in the bubble of the car, we talk in ways we never did on those family road trips. There is an intimacy borne of shared life experiences, the seemingly endless miles, and that same rhythmic slapping of the tires. Yet some things never change: We’ll roll down windows and argue about who might have “let one.” At the hotel, we’ll fight about who has to share a bed and binge-watch HGTV. Now that’s quality time.
Millions of Americans have their own version of this every summer. As we travel some of the 4,120,000 miles of our country’s roadways, the next sweet-corn stand or gas station or sign for “Free Kittens” in the middle of nowhere will all look so familiar. Suspended between point of departure and destination, we’ll discover not only new lands (even if it’s just the next state over), but one another, for better or worse, in ways only a road trip allows. Next summer my sisters and I will plan a drive to Gerald Ford’s Library in Michigan. Or maybe Harry Truman’s in Missouri. Who knows? We’re taking it one Peanut Buster Parfait at a time.