My grandparents were excellent travelers. They thought nothing of packing up the car like an ancient tetris game and heading out into the world from their Bay Area home base. In 1956, it was not uncommon for them to put my mother and uncle, their ‘spinster’ aunt, and Bronco the dog in the car and head up the coast to Oregon to check on the maternal family dairy farm, to Carmel for lunch and sandcastles on the beach, to the Sierras for camping and trout fishing, or to Arizona, Chicago, and later, the East Coast, where my mother was in college. Along the way, they managed to find Hopi ruins, Chicago’s greatest hauftbrauhaus, California’s widest redwoods – the best of what their world had to offer, without a guidebook.
When you are raised to see the world this accessible – yours with just a get up and go – you can’t help but want to see more of it. My uncle hitchhiked through Latin America (hopping one ride on a single-prop plane in Nicaragua); he sent a congratulatory telegram from Africa to celebrate my older sister’s birth. My mother, having taken a stationary break to have kids, left us with our father for a month while she went to India to study yoga with Iyengar – in the 70s, when most people still didn’t know what yoga was. In her 60s she returned (via Dubai, Jordan, Chile, the Galapagos, Fiji) to explore not Delhi but the islands of Kerala.
My father had his own wanderlust, having driven west from his Chicago birthplace to settle in the Bay Area all on his own. Later, he soothed his heartbreak at my parents’ divorce by traveling to Nepal and trekking toward Everest with a few friends. When altitude sickness forced him to return to Katmandu, he left a note at the Yak n Yeti, which his friends found on their return a week later. “Gone to Kenya,” it said. Four days later, they found him in the bar at Treetops. The world was a smaller place then, even if it seemed so much bigger.
With family like this, it is no surprise my sisters and I thought nothing of going to sleep in our sleeping bags in the house and waking up, still bagged, in the backseat of the car as the sun came up on the Sacramento Valley. Three-day trips in my grandparents’ track up the north pacific coast, day-long drives into the Sierras to hike or explore a ghost town– as normal as jump rope and girl scouts to us. We all have it, the love of travel, and adventure on the road. For some of us, it is what drives all else, even if it takes us a while to realize it.
My grandparents are long passed, but they live with us on the trips we take. In addition to a Pendleton car blanket and a stuffed mole that lived in whatever car he drove, my grandfather left behind a treasure trove of journals, written note-form in 4×6 datebooks from the insurance agency. Uncovered after his death, tucked chronologically in shoeboxes in his attic, the journals read like a combination of expense log, datebook, and travel guide, for an expanse of more than thirty years.
Though it is of course fun to see where my now 68 year old uncle wrote “my birthday” in March of 1959, or where the family had lunch the day of my mother’s high school graduation, my favorite entries by far are the road trips. Meticulously detailed, from pre-departure mechanics to location and contents of second breakfast, the trips unfold as clear as photographs. A five-day camping trip into the Sierras, complete with pack mules, trout fishing, and sleeping in tents by a lake in unspoiled wilderness makes me ache for the picnics we took during my childhood, hiking through fields of Indian Paintbrush and California poppies to perch on giant boulders over streams of snowmelt, and eat egg salad sandwiches, lovingly cut into quarters and served on a sectioned red melamine plate, with a cookie in one quarter and a deviled egg in another.
In 1965, my grandparents took a camping trip with a couple I’m sure they considered friends, but who, it turned out, were not good trail companions. Up in the thin air above the tree line they did nothing but argue with one another and complain about their circumstances – i.e., the out of doors. My grandfather was a compassionate man, to a point. His tolerance with the bickering duo waned quickly as the day grew long, and despite altitude and exhaustion, or because of it, he longed for a drink. Luckily, into his heavy pack he had smuggled a flask of scotch, adding unnecessary weight to 9,600 feet. Drawing from it while he wrote, he deemed the contraband “well worth packing in.”
That’s it then – the measure of things. Our time, like our packing space, is limited, and we have no choice but to pick what we carry with us in a day, and what we leave behind. Who but ourselves can determine their value? And how? “Worth Packing In,” seems as good a measure as any – and better than most.