In planning this trip, I always felt that driving back to the East Coast would be the hardest part. For one thing, from Denver to DC, we would all be crammed into our RV (admittedly much bigger than a family car) together for 10-12 hours, covering 600 miles each day. For another, we would begin our acclimatization to the summer swelter east of the Rockies, where the low temperature often equals the high we get in Puget Sound.
Deciding whether to go West to East, "with the wind", or the other way, posed a dilemma. Either way had problems. On the plus side of West to East is the prevailing wind. We heard stories of people pedaling all day across Montana from the East, and not getting anywhere (the biking equivalent of an urban legend, I think.) On the minus, there was the thought of biking for two months, and then all getting back into the RV to race across America in one mad dash, seven days of family hell, arriving with siblings forever locked in death struggles, and all the glow of our trip erased. On the plus side of East-to West was the high concept of coupling the roots with the routes, by getting some semblance of chronology of how the country and our families grew. Leaving Plymouth on the 4th of July has a nice poetry to it. Also, we get the hard part (driving across the country) out of the way, I got a chance to drop my mother off at her home in Colorado, and we could lengthen the trip by taking advantage of the difference in school ending times between Cody and the girls, with the added benefit of keeping them apart (in the driving portion) for half the schlep across the country. All in all, no contest, all of that against the wind. The wind lost. And as one cross-country vet told me, "It doesn't always blow that way; prevailing wind just means that 51% of the time it does." (What an optimistic guy!)
But, at some point, we did have to cross the country in our rig. The kids paid little attention to the changing topography and vegetation, preferring to bicker amongst themselves ( must be a genetic thing?). I was reminded, however, of a story I read in my high school literary journal (the "Gleam"). This story, despite its sophomoric subject matter, was so well written and compelling (with such a vivid image) that it has stuck with me all these years, although I've long since forgotten its author. He was not, however, one of the school's standard literary heroes - not on the school paper, not an advanced English student, not a bookish nerd. He was more of a future newspaper reporter - quiet, but always asking questions.
This story was clearly fiction, but also obviously based on something most of us had experienced in the late fifties or early sixties - the multi-day drive across the continent in the family station wagon. To get anywhere worth visiting from Cincinnati required several days of listening to Dad expound on the vivid flatness of Kansas, or the muggy heat of Georgia, on the way to California or Florida. Cheap air travel has probably changed all that.
One of the signature events of the way west was the bugged up windshield. Somewhere in the prairies of Illinois, your windshield would start to get a Dali-esque multi-colored pattern reflecting the etymological history of your journey. A yellow and white hornet from Vincennes, tiger stripped smear of a Viceroy butterfly from Effingham, pinpoints of gnats from St. Joseph, and the mysterious but very adherent insects of the central plains of Kansas. Back then, gas stations had attendants, who, after hearing, "Fill ' er up regular" (my dad was not an ethyl guy), would try to wipe your windshield clean with a cloth and soapy water. Windex, and the sponge-on-a-squeegee had not yet been invented. Sometimes, they'd make the effort to actually wipe the damned things off, which required lots of elbow grease; other times, either from laziness or a crowded station, they'd just smear them more smoothly over the glass.
Well, this kid's story concerned a Kansas (or Iowa, I forget which) truck stop, where they'd elevated windshield cleaning, out of pride or clear necessity it wasn't clear, to a high art. They advertised for hundreds of miles in every direction (shades of Wall Drug), and brought in travelers from near and far just to experience their expertise. The kid-narrator of the story was anxious with anticipation, and wondered just how they did it. What he saw was - turtles. Yep, apparently turtle piss (I told you this was sophomoric, written by a fifteen-year old) is the best known window cleaner in nature. They had buckets of the fellows, and when a car came in, the attendant would pick one up, squeeze it in a certain way, and then wipe the resulting liquid around on the window. Apparently (although he didn't reference this in the story), the high ammonia content in turtle piss produced the perfectly clean windows for which that truck stop was so renowned.
The climax of the story involved the kid staring in awed fascination at one monster rig rolling up to a pump, windshield so splattered with bugs the driver was leaning our his side window to see. The attendant working on the kid's car said, "Uh-oh, this one's gonna take Big Bertha!" With that, a giant crane was wheeled over the largest vat of all, and a single, humongous turtle was lifted carefully to the level of the truck windshield. Bertha was goaded into action. The story ended with Bertha letting loose for five minutes or more, and most the station's attendants and many of other people assembled dancing around in her shower.
That's the story I remember whenever I drive through a spring or summer bug storm. And going back East in a car for the first time in 25 years reminded me why that story made so much sense - seemed actually real - when I read it the first time. You're just so happy when you finally get the bugs cleaned off your windshield, and can see again.
**Next Day's Journal**