As a child and early teen, before the years when you start thinking your parents are horrible, I used to go on long car trips with my dad. They were a highlight of my youth, and I remember every one of them with a lump-in-my-throat fondness. The night before, I would get to stay up ‘late’, making our lunches with him. First, we’d go to the grocery store and buy sub rolls and deli meats, bags of chips and cookies. I even got to pick out two 10 cent cans of soda for each of us.
Then after dinner, when it was my bedtime, we would fuss in the kitchen for what felt like hours, assembling the perfect lunches, with sandwiches that had to be made with exacting care, lest they get soggy, with tiny ziploc baggies of Hydrox and celery sticks and grapes and corn chips. Everything carefully staged in the fridge, with the washed-out cooler on the table, waiting, and its weird little screw-in ice pak chilling in the freezer.
I would lay my clothes out, carefully picked layers and my favorite sneakers and a windbreaker.
He would wake me at 4 and tell me to get dressed while he showered, and I would pull my clothes under the covers and get dressed where it was still warm. When he came back in at 415, I would always pretend to be asleep, and he would always threaten to leave me home, at which point I would throw off the covers and yell “I GOTCHA!” and then we’d laugh and laugh and shush each other and then hurry out to the kitchen.
We would so carefully pack the food into the cooler, grab our windbreakers, the keys, his cigarettes and matches, any cassettes I wanted to bring, and then, grab the weathered, much beloved Rand McNally Atlas from beside his easy chair, and head out the door.
There is a magic to the dark morning, that time when the street lights are still on, but the frogs have stopped chirping. The dew is cool and sparkling on the grass, making fairy-handkerchiefs out of spiders’ webs, and the fog hasn’t yet lifted, in these memories. I breathe in the outside air, and feel a giddy, crazy sense of adventure and freedom, and hop into the front seat.
He is the Pilot. I am the Navigator.
We launch into the morning and leave our sleepy little neighborhood, and by the time we are taking a left at the stop sign fifty feet from my driveway, my father is lighting a cigarette, and I am both loudly gagging in complaint of it, and unconsciously reveling in the familiarity of his nicotine and coffee exhale, because surrounded by that smell, I am as safe and as beloved as I have ever been or will ever be. Soon we are crossing train tracks and then the creek, heading into town past the bank, where my father is The Boss (which to my childhood mind meant All The Money Was His) and we pull into the Day and Night.
My father has a cigarette hanging from his lips as he pumps gas into the running car while I push hard past the door into a gas station that smells perpetually of stale mopwater, Genesee Cream Ale, and winter slush, no matter how far into the summer it has come. I gleefully begin to run my fingers over nearly every item in the store, waiting for my father to pile my arms with the treats we did not tell my mother we would be buying as provisions for this adventure.
M&Ms are always my choice, though I often consented to Peanut ones, because my father loves them. He gets a packet of them and I am allowed to hold it in my childfevered fist, as well as small boxes of both powdered and chocolate-covered Donettes, two small glass bottles of Tropicana orange juice and last, but not least, a shiny plastic package of Spangler-brand circus peanuts in all their hallowed, chewy, weirdly orange, banana fondant-y goodness.
Those, plus a new pack of Basic Golds, a newspaper, a one-dollar scratch-off ticket, and we are Ready.
Back into the car, with the windows down, and we drive as far as we can, for hours, listening to the radio until the station fades, and then I put in cassettes we love, like Roy Orbison, and Barry Manilow, or even mix tapes from his friend Roger (who I know, as a child, is Different and maybe a little Drunk or on The Drugs) who sent them every year for his birthday, and we sing along to every song, moving through 50s and 60s rock and roll to 80s pop and easy listening, from Gordon Lightfoot or the Moody Blues to Billy Joel and Leonard Cohen.
We achieve escape velocity, heading south along the wide and muddy Susquehannah river, and when the sun comes up, and we find ourselves in rural Pennsylvania, and I am all but out the window like a happy yellow lab, waving at farmers and trains and hitchhikers and truckers. When my father wants another cigarette, he asks me to hold the wheel. We eat donuts and drink orange juice, spilling powdered sugar on our clothes, melting tiny flecks of waxy chocolate into the car seats.
My father is the smartest, strongest, most amazing man in the world. We are immortal, and I am forever young. He shows me our kingdom — everything a car can reach is ours. Just ours.
It is mid-morning when we leave the highway and begin to search for the road less traveled, and when we finally stop, we are always in some place just outside civilization, pulled off the road. We sit on the guard rail, or a strangely-abandoned picnic table, or on the floor of the trunk, and we eat lunch together, and with gusto, praising one another’s culinary talents in making sandwiches, occasionally tossing chips or pieces of bread to bird and squirrels.
I feel like I can breathe enough to fill myself and float away. Sometimes we sit in absolute silence except for the sounds of crunching bites and rustling baggies, pointing out beautiful things in the landscape. My father pretends to eat grapes, but them balances them on his teeth, unharmed, unchewed. I drink two full cans of soda, and practice belching. He shows me card tricks, smokes his cigarettes, and lets me scratch off the lottery ticket, promising me I can have at least half of anything we win. We attempt the crossword, daring the universe with a blue pen.
Nothing else in the world exists — my world is this morning, these mornings, these Saturdays; they are perfect and beyond compare.
Eventually, we make sure we have not left any litter, pack everything back in, and begin the drive back. The highway is forbidden. I have the map, and I alone know how to get us home. I chart a course through towns with fun-to-say names, and look for seasonal roads to take us through wild hills. Sometimes, grass grows so thickly between the tire ruts, my father gives me a nervous look as if to say ‘Are you sure?’ and I grin like a smug madman and point straight ahead.
He lets me pick the way home, every time, and we are never lost. Somewhere amidst the katydid drone and the Pennsylvania pine blue, while I am queueing up the next selection of songs from Jim Croce and Neil Diamond, because not only am I Navigator Extraordinaire, I am also the DJ for this adventure, my father indicates it is time to open the last set of treats: the circus peanuts.
I tear into the Spangler bag with my teeth, and offer my father a single peanut; he takes the bag from my other hand and laughs at me — this inspires a dangerous game of Keep Away while he is driving, and we are a menace on the road, laughing at one another while inducing a post-lunch sugar high that would make most six-year olds envious.
We keep singing, eating circus peanuts, and pointing out landscape oddities, like rock ridges, small waterfalls and natural springs, herons and turkeys and whitetail deer.
Eventually, we end up back on roads so familiar they might as well be the highways. I could ride with my eyes closed and know how far from home I was by the sway around each curve. It feels like slowly coming back to earth. It feels like knowing the merry-go-round is slowing down. It feels like stopping pumping your legs on the swings.
We get home somewhere around one or two in the afternoon, and finish singing whatever song is playing before turning the car off. We take everything out of the car and haul it back inside, and my mother is folding towels that had been hanging out back, or putting away groceries, or washing dishes, or sometimes having a cup of coffee and some cookies while watching Father Dowling Mysteries.
I tell her about everything we saw, every place we went, recounting the hilarious names of Twin Tier villages (everything is hilarious to a ten-year-old) and excitedly confess to having eaten my weight in sugar, much like a hummingbird, and hold up the torn plastic packaging, explaining how circus peanuts are the best candy, while she tries not to roll her eyes at my father, who innocently throws away the packaging and shrugs like ‘Kids, eh. What’re you gonna do?’
My father disappears to do my-Dad things like lawn mowing, and reading the paper in the garage, while my mother does my-Mom things like laundry and dishes, and the morning slowly evaporates, gone into the past like all the other morningss before it, but I can still taste circus peanuts for the rest of the day.