Ellen Murphy — Lessons of the overnight road trip

07/30/2013 4:05 PM

07/30/2013 4:07 PM

At six months of age, I took my first long car trip 55 years ago, from Tulsa, Okla., to Kitty Hawk, N.C. I was hooked because in the car is still one of my favorite places to be.

What better time than high summer to expound on 1960s road trips? A familywide memory: Parents loading up the VW bus after work on a 100-degree Friday in August and heading east about 10 p.m. when the heat has “died down.”

Seven kids, each with a mom-made duffel crammed with beach and camping attire, library and comic books to trade, faced plenty of hot hours to work out simmering sibling situations. By 3 a.m., the rhythm of the air-cooled motor was our lullaby, and expectations of our parents to stay awake driving, an inexplicable quality of trust.

I don’t know how old I was when I was promoted to Talker All Night. Our bus had full front, middle and back benches, and a flat space over the engine, where the little girls slept on a foam base, which doubled as dog bed at home.

On one random trip, I realized that everyone around me was asleep, and I was drawn to the raspy sounds coming from the radio way up front. At the next gas fill-up, I was inserted between the sleeping parent on the right and the caffeinated parent on the left. Being the middle child took on new meaning.

Dad tuned in anything out there, and if he was lucky, a baseball game. To this day, I seek radio play-by-play called in a relaxed Southern accent with colorful descriptions taken for granted when broadcast on TV. Depending on geography, we tuned in WWL, WNYC, WBBM, KMOX or WLS, which broadcast all night for truckers.

Country music was unceremoniously passed over, except for the Hank Williams or Patsy Cline types. My parents, transplants from the East Coast, considered most of the regional music of their new Midwest home to be rather corny. Certain singers, especially the most plaintive-sounding, fit smoothly with Sinatra and Nat King Cole crooning, helping define the sonic texture of the night.

Weak radio signals were the backdrop for conversation, even though I didn’t know how important that was until years later. I listened to the few words my parents could fit in around my chattering about classmates, the imaginary characters I wanted to write stories about and almost anything else that came to mind.

I was so proud to get to sit in the front seat in the middle of the night that I was simply unabashed. I had no idea that those hours were forging future personal bonds and serving to keep the driver awake.

One night my mother hit a runaway white dog as it appeared suddenly on a two-lane mountain road. She burst into tears, and Dad, shocked awake, comforted her, confirming that had she swerved, we might have wrecked.

Weirdly, I committed a similar duck murder while traveling at high speed wedged between two semis through urban St. Louis not long ago. Swerving over six inches either way would have been fatal. Lesson learned.

My attitude about the road stems directly from my parents’ willingness to take vacations full on. I travel overnight to avoid construction or beat rush hours.

Front-seat, all-night school is where I learned to flash the high beams after a passing semi gets far enough ahead to return to the right lane: When a trucker signals thanks by cutting his running lights off and on for a few seconds, we know the secret handshake.

When I met hubby Steve exactly 34 years ago our first date was a road trip. A hundred miles later, and that was it. The side-by-side conversations I’d associated with personal relationships had developed into an eyes-front listening technique, which still comes in handy.

Even though he is starting to feel the overnights are getting old, I can’t imagine replacing the gradual revelation of the nuanced Blue Ridge Mountains as the sun rises behind them — ditto with the Delta basin on a drive to New Orleans — with just walking off a plane and hopping into a rental car.

Drink iced coffee, forge happy trails and drive friendly.

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