Although we have made the road trip from Los Alamos to St. Louis and back dozens of times, we still begin preparing for the two-day drive in advance, piling on the spare bed items we rarely use except on this trip: a GPS, a flashlight, an emergency kit, yerba mate gourd so we can sip the traditional South American energy drink. Then we head out East, retracing the steps of the Santa Fe Trail pioneers. Except that those pioneers didn’t have a garage whose door may, or may not, have been left open. Terry and I, middle age memory and cognitive abilities in full and sad display, cannot remember either way, and we turn around after half a block’s travel to verify that yes indeed, someone had closed the garage door, although we can’t remember which of us did it.
Terry’s family is mostly in St. Louis, so this trek back to the land of her ancestors was a familiar, typically summer trip for a long time. For most of our history in Los Alamos, our trek included three children, often a dog, sometimes a frog, and once, on the way back, a jar full of guppies I had promised to relocate from Grandpa’s aquarium. Before smartphones, the mapping requirements for such a logistical trek were quite severe. Not only did we need to fill up the gas tank as needed, but we also needed additional restrooms because someone “didn’t need to go at the gas station” 15 minutes earlier, grassy areas for the dog to do its thing, and some place for the kids to run around so they would nap in the car, or at least be hypnotized by a Harry Potter book-on-tape. Hence our careful mapping of all McDonald’s Play Places between start and finish.
I do most of the driving as this only requires having eyes on the road. I know the responsibilities of riding shot-gun, and I would much rather have Terry take care of that. All I need now from her is a supply of caffeine from the yerba mate and something to eat with it. The complexities of the trip came when we had three bundles of joy in the middle and back seat of the minivan, and since I was driving, the middle and back seat were Terry’s domain. Her job was simply to hand out food, books, paper towels, and an occasional barf bag. As I would peek in the rearview mirror, she reminded me of a Vegas dealer furiously dealing cards around a blackjack table. Oh, and she was also the one who would arbitrate who sat in which seat for how long, change the book-on-tape immediately, continually peel oranges and distribute slices, occasionally read map and correct hypnotically-tranced driver (from too much caffeine), and turn into Mrs. Plastic Woman to reach the back seat of a moving vehicle as the need for negotiation, nutrition, or discipline demanded.
It is much, much simpler now. No kids, no dog, no frog. Just Terry and I on the open road, her voice announcing the next highway exit even replaced by the robotic voice of the GPS box. No emergency bathroom breaks. There is no need for multiple Garfield comic strip collections.
On our most recent trip to St. Louis, there is no shouting, no crying, no requests to replay a key section of the Harry Potter book-on-tape, no fighting over seating order, no cracker explosions, no carsickness from reading too much Garfield, no car contortionism. On this trip, there is no enigmatic loss of a single shoe somewhere between Amarillo and Tulsa. Just Terry and I, crossing the Great Plains in silence and comfort.
I hate it.