Ah, Spring Break, a week off from school beginning with Good Friday. Perfect timing. Gene and I and our two and a half year old daughter could take our time driving the 1300 miles from Gaithersburg, Maryland to Oklahoma City for my sister’s wedding. A beautiful wedding where I would be a matron of honor, our little daughter a flower girl, and Gene a photographer to be held the Saturday after Easter, near the end of the break. We couldn’t afford to fly the three of us to Oklahoma. Why not drive, see some of the country, places we had never been before. Getting home, well, that was another story. If we left right after the wedding, drove all night Saturday and all day Sunday, maybe it would work out, and I would be back at school to teach my classes on Monday morning. Gene would be the only driver, but what the heck, give it a shot.
We packed up our 1979 Plymouth Arrow hatchback with an Easter basket and all the goodies carefully hidden among the suitcases and hats and dresses and shoes for the wedding, a cooler and pillows and children’s books. First leg: Gaithersburg to Fort Bragg, NC to visit my cousin and her army officer husband.
North Carolina is a big state, bigger than we realized. We roll in at dinner time, spend a lovely evening catching up. In the morning, it is a quick breakfast, and we are off, headed for the Smoky Mountains and Gatlinburg, TN. Due west. Oh boy, North Carolina is a big state, bigger than we realize.
We drag ourselves into a quiet lodge where the receptionist has been waiting for us. The place is empty, no one else around. She hands us a stack of clean towels, smiles at our toddler, and says “Here’s a little something for Easter.” We add the candy to the basket and hide all the goodies around the porch for Jessica to discover the next morning.
The air is chilly, sky bright, a perfect Sunday for Peeps and jelly-beans and hard-boiled eggs in the back seat while the parents in the front marvel at the deep, hazy-blue views of these wise old mountains. We poke around all kinds of craft shops in Gatlinburg before turning west again.
Next leg: East Tennessee to northern Arkansas. A visit with an old friend in Mountain Home and a tour of the Ozarks National Park. First, we have to get across Tennessee. Oh boy, Tennessee is a long state. Longer than we realized.
It is wonderful to spend some time in Arkansas. Our friend gives us the royal treatment and the craggy Ozarks prove to be captivating. Our Canons come out and we are burning up the film, excited by every shot.
We push on to Oklahoma, the last leg of the east-to-west trip. We make it to Tulsa, very pleased, although we have discovered that Oklahoma is a big state. Bigger than we realized. Three more hours and we roll into Oklahoma City where we are immediately caught up in the wedding preparations. So many details. So many people gathering, the groom’s relatives to meet. The rehearsal and the dinner.
The big day arrives and we are all dressed, lined up, waiting for our cues. First, the two little flower girls holding hands, carrying baskets, I right behind crying, maybe for my sister, maybe more for my little girl who will one day wear another white dress and make the same walk down the aisle.
All goes well. Champagne corks pop, Gene takes more and more pictures at the reception. Later, there is a dinner at my uncle’s house. Our car is packed, gassed up, and we are ready to make the west-to-east return trip, one that will not be leisurely at all. No sight-seeing. Not a moment to spare. Drive all night Saturday night. Drive all day Sunday. Drive straight through. Nineteen hours plus stops.
But where are the bride and groom? We have already eaten our fill, said good-bye to family and friends. We are tapping our toes. Can’t leave before the bride and groom take off for their honeymoon, can we?
At last. Oh, I like my sister’s going-away outfit. “Have a wonderful time in San Francisco,” we say. “Don’t want to miss your flight…”
They are out the door and we are right behind. It is after 8, we won’t make Tulsa until 11 p.m. Then it’s a mad dash across Missouri.
We tuck Jessica in, she snuggles down, and we are off. Christopher Cross’ “Sailing” comes on the radio, the first of many times throughout the night. It is Gene’s song, the rhythm to drive by. He relaxes, slips into the rhythm and we are sailing along. I recline my seat, try to doze.
“Need some caffeine,” Gene says, rolling to a stop.
“Where are we?” I ask, and look out at what appears to be a huge truck stop with lights blazing.
“Lebanon, Missouri,” he says, and unbuckles our little girl.
We go into the restaurant and I am surprised at how many people are there at 2 in the morning. Most booths are taken, a grinning man seated next to a bright-shiny-looking woman with very red lips in each. Gene finishes his Coke and goes into the restroom.
“I have never seen that many kinds of condoms in a men’s room before,” he snickers. I look around and a light bulb goes off. What did I know. I’m just a high school teacher in a suburban school district.
Sailing again, the road is open, the rhythm right. The next thing I know it is sunrise.
“Look,” Gene says. “There’s the Arch.” The sun poking between its legs, reflecting off the stainless steel. St. Louis is beautiful at 6:30 a.m.
“Need to push on to Indianapolis,” he says. “We’ll get breakfast there.”
The restaurant is crowded, the smell of pancakes and maple syrup everywhere. We relax a bit, let Jessica enjoy her strawberries-and-whipped cream topped pancakes. Gene loads up on caffeine and we are off again, bound for Columbus.
But we are not sailing anymore. Somewhere along the Ohio Turnpike, Gene feels every tar strip vibrate up through the steering column, jarring the wheel, jangling his nerves. Both of us realize our heads feel funny, like we are underwater, everything distorted, trying harder and harder to wobble forward.
We make it past Columbus, but only by a little. Gene is shaking now. “We have to stop. Get a room for the night. I can’t go any further.”
We collapse in a motel, get some real sleep. Then it’s up early Monday morning and I call my school. “Won’t be in, not feeling so well.” Like sailing upwind, we fight the last six hours home on the winding, mountainous roads of Pennsylvania.
“Good thing we stopped,” I say. “This last leg is a much harder drive than through Indiana and Ohio on those straight, flat turnpikes.”
On Tuesday morning, the principal’s secretary is pissed, threatens to dock my pay. Finally, she relents, and says “You must have been sick.”
“Sick,” I say. “Rough sailing. Much better now after a good night’s sleep.” Spring break, the epic drive to Oklahoma City and back would be my secret.