Updated: Dec 2, 2022
In my recent novel, Land’s End, a young brother and sister are kidnapped by their estranged father, a man they’ve only seen sporadically since an ugly divorce the year before. The father, Dennis Digby, picks his kids up from school and tells them they’re taking a road trip, promising adventure and fun. He flees California in his dead friend’s old ice cream truck while police scour the streets. Two weeks later, they arrive on the east coast, driving head-first into one of the most notorious winter storms of the last century, the brutal Blizzard of ’78. As their father’s mental state deteriorates, they come to a dead-end on the remote beaches of Land’s End, Massachusetts, leaving the two children to take their rescue into their own hands.
The seeds for the novel had been planted way back in 1978, when my family took our own cross-country road trip—in the opposite direction of the one in the story—from Massachusetts to southern California. My parents had bought an old Concord motor home, some thirty-plus feet long, and we left home the morning that the blizzard was just moving in. My father edged the giant RV onto route 95 south, the vehicle trembling with acceleration, giant snowflakes peppering the massive windshield. He turned on squeaky wipers that smeared the glass in long streaks, blurring the traffic in front of us.
By New Jersey, we found ourselves in the full throes of the storm. Wind screamed across the interstate in a violent rush, snow and ice dinging the side of the vehicle. Visibility ahead faded to nothing, the landscape turning ghostly. Red brake lights bled through the snow in vague smears. We passed cars cluttering the breakdown lanes, surrendered to the storm’s fury and hoping to wait it out. Our motor home crawled along in the right-hand lane, windshield wipers whipping. I saw an 18-wheeler off to the left, turned onto its side like a sleeping dog. Then, minutes later, another. My father had only previously driven the motor home around a parking lot when he’d first bought it, then up and down Main Street a couple times just to get the feel of it.
Eventually, his nerve, or his senses, got the better of him and he abandoned the interstate for the unplowed parking lot of a Howard Johnsons. It was night and the vast lot felt lonely, the restaurant a melted smudge through the weather. We bundled up and trudged inside for dinner—I think I had pancakes—in no hurry to finish. Back in the motor home, my father struggled and failed to get the generator going, so we spent the night in the dark, bundled in blankets, the storm socking us in and erasing us.
* * *
We spent a few nights in North Carolina visiting one of my father’s college buddies. His sons gave me a couple of comic books for the road, but I think it had been against their will: I remember looking at a bookcase of classic stories in graphic novel form, and Dad’s friend telling me to take a couple. His sons started to protest but their father was quick to shoot them down: “Let him have a couple for Chrissake.” I took Frankenstein, Dracula, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, leaving a noticeable gap in their bookcase.
From North Carolina we drove west through downtown New Orleans and then Houston, then over the arid terrain of New Mexico and Arizona. We stopped at a southern rim of the Grand Canyon and hiked around, stretching our legs. My father led me out onto a stone catwalk, fifty feet above the rocky ground. The wind punched at us with aggression, and my father put his arm tightly around my chest, holding me close against him. We posed for a long-distant photo, my mother and little sister far from us, on safer ground. I wanted to sink to my hands and knees and crawl off the boulder, but that would’ve been chicken. I could feel my knees betraying me.
Later, we ran out of gas on a long stretch of highway and sat on the shoulder for hours. The motor home had two gas tanks and my father had switched over to the reserve only to find the reserve also empty. He sat in the driver’s seat with the C.B. radio in his palm, while the rest of us moved away from the road onto the grass and stretched out. My sister twirled in circles. I watched my father nervously from the corner of my eye, unable to hide my concern over this predicament. Eventually, a Good Samaritan pulled up behind us with a can of gas, his shoulders slim and back crooked from a lifetime of labor. He wiped sweat from his brow with a rag while my father poured the gas into the tank. He wouldn’t take any money from us.
At a store back in Texas my parents let me buy a book of magic, so I’d been practicing tricks with my sister as my sole audience. When I tired of that, I began writing, and by the time we grumbled through the deep tunnels carving through the mountains, and then crossed the Colorado River into California, I had 75 hand-written pages of a Bigfoot novel. At nine years old, it was the longest story I’d ever written. Sometime later, I’d find the loose sheets of paper scattered about the bottom of a closet, the pages not numbered and out of order. I don’t think I bothered with it after that.
* * *
The following summer we left Santee, California for back east. My parents had bought a mid-seventies blue Lincoln Continental, right out of a Billy Joel song, and they wanted to keep it, and so my mother drove the car and my father the motor home. We visited my mother’s aunt in L.A. and then over to Las Vegas to visit another of my father’s college friends, and then hit the road again for the long drive home, carving through the heart of the country, my father leading the way and my mother trailing behind in our shadow.
We took turns riding with our mother, my younger sister more often than me. But sometimes she didn’t want to and I didn’t want to either—the motor home had room to roam, a bathroom, beds for a nap, games and toys—and so in a deadlock we both would ride in the motor home and leave our mother to ride alone through the long, hot Midwest afternoon.
My job was to occasionally retreat to the back of the motor home and look out the rear windshield to make sure she was behind us. Sometimes my father would lose sight of her in the side mirrors and send me to check. One time I went back there for a look but couldn’t see her. Perhaps she’d fallen behind farther than usual. I strained my vision as far as I could, a dozen or so cars back. “I don’t see her,” I called up to the cab of the motor home.
“Whataya mean you don’t see her?”
I looked again, scanning cars. “I can’t see her anywhere.”
My little sister rushed back in her pink pants with blue flowers on them. She had a Hostess cupcake in her fingers. She leaned on me for a look. “She’s gone!”
He kept asking us to look harder but the answer was always the same. Eventually he pulled the motor home onto the shoulder of the highway, and we idled. He stared into the side mirror outside his door, watching cars whizz by us, their energy rocking the RV back and forth. Minutes passed. It was 1978, decades before cell phones. There was no way to get in touch. I stared out the grimy back windshield, my eye training on every blue car I saw. I remembered years earlier I’d been holding a plastic toy airplane out the rear passenger window of my mother’s car and dropped it into the road. It was gone in an instant, swallowed by the street, lost forever. We sat on the side of the road for fifteen more minutes. Then ten more after that. My sister and I looked at each other. She wanted me to say something reassuring but I had nothing to say. I thought of earlier that morning when we’d argued over who would ride with her, trying to bully each other, neither giving in.
When my father pulled back onto the highway, I thought we were moving on without her. My sister cried, her face down in her hands. A few miles ahead, though, he turned onto the off-ramp, then re-entered interstate 70 heading back west. We drove almost forty miles before seeing the powder-blue Continental in the breakdown lane on the other side of the highway, its hazard lights flashing dully, clouds of swirling dust enveloping it.
The car was later towed to a garage in a small town somewhere outside of Topeka. My sister and I roamed around back and climbed over the scrap piles, looking for cool stuff. I kept a length of bent aluminum that looked sort of like a sword. I tried to straighten it. Kerri collected half a dozen plastic advertisements that snapped onto tires like hub caps. I flicked dried raccoon poop in her direction with the tip of my sword. She told me to cut it out, gagging on the words.
Back on the road the next day, we took turns riding in the car with Mom. Kerri kept holding up the advertising caps against the back of the motor home windshield for some reason. I thought she was taunting me but couldn’t be sure. When it was my turn in the motor home, I spent much of the time up front, in the passenger captain’s chair next to Dad. I liked the way the chair turned side-to-side, liked leaning forward to look straight down the huge windshield at the highway blurring by below. I did better to check on my mother behind us, returning to the captain’s chair with a Coke from the fridge. My father and I passed it back and forth and we listened to his music: The Eagles, Steve Miller, Neil Diamond and Elton John. The Kansas wind coming through my open window was dry and warm.
* * *
I’ve thought about these old days frequently over the years and knew that, someday, I’d write about the experience. Decades later, in the mid-nineties, I made my own long drive, from Palm Bay, Florida back to Massachusetts following a breakup. I’d been living with a girlfriend for the past year while she began a doctoral program, but we both knew that we’d drifted apart, moving in different directions, that I’d never be able to hold on down here for a long three years. In the spring I departed, my Toyota Celica packed with my few belongings, my final hundred dollars in my pocket. I drove from early morning through Georgia and South Carolina, stopping for gas and a late meal somewhere along the way. I’d planned on stopping for a half hour or more, to give myself a good break and a stretch, give the car a rest and time to cool down. But ten minutes in I felt alone and anxious outside the safe capsule of my car, the crowd around me moving in packs. I retreated to the car and got back on 95.
I was tired of the road but didn’t want to stop too soon because I’d have too much down time on my hands, Around eleven p.m. I exited when I saw a motel sign somewhere in Virginia, but when I came upon the old motel a couple miles ahead and pulled into its driveway, it looked a lot like the Bates Motel from Psycho. I sat in my car with my foot on the brake, looking over at it for a few minutes, trying to nerve myself to put the car in Park and grab my bag. The neon sign flickered, MOTEL, the E not working. I wasn’t tired yet, I decided. I’ll drive a little more.
The late-night darkness swallowed route 95, and it was another hour before I saw the next sign for lodging. This time it was a motel right next to the highway, adjacent to a 24-hour gas station. I paid $35 for the room and fell onto the squeaking bed, exhausted and sore. I turned on the TV for company but it wouldn’t stop flickering. I listened to the big rigs roaring along the highway and could hear a man snoring just beyond the thin paneled wall behind my head. He was only six inches away from me. I turned the TV up louder and folded the pillow over my ears. I wasn’t one of those people who left the TV on all night—in fact, I’d never been able to fall asleep without silence and total darkness, but tonight I left it on, needing the illusion of company. Anything to push away the suffocating feeling of aloneness, or loneliness, or whichever it was. In the dark, it sounded as though that snoring was in the bed with me. I turned the TV up a bit louder, tried to focus on the TV voices, the big rigs, anything else. I hardly slept at all.
In the morning I was grateful for the sun and to get back to the comfort of my car. I gassed up but the engine was acting weird, surging again and again, almost like heavy breathing. Something wasn’t right. I’d spent $35 on the room and had gassed up twice and bought snacks. I had thirty dollars left and no credit card. I didn’t know what I’d do if the car broke down, how I’d pay to get it fixed, how I’d be able to pay for another night’s motel if it came to that. I pulled back onto 95 and drove in the right-hand lane, careful not to push the car over 55. Every time I had to take my foot off the gas I felt the engine surge, then fade to a near stall. When I stopped for gas again in New Jersey, I kept the engine running, afraid to shut it off. I bought chips and a Coke and a Snickers bar and got back on the highway, the whole stop as fast as a NASCAR pit stop.
I drove, thinking about that 1978 road trip in the motor home, all the little things that had gone wrong, how stressful it must have been. As a nine-year-old, I was mostly oblivious to this. There was always an assumption that my father knew what he was doing at all times, that every scenario had been prepared for and anything that came out of left field could be considered and then handled. But that could not have been the case. The almost constant uneasiness I’d felt on this drive, the dread that the entire plan was flimsy, that any single curveball could derail the whole thing, was something I’d never forget and would store away in the same mental folder where I carried the 1978 trip.
* * *
In 2014 my wife and I drove from my brother’s house in southern California up the Pacific Coast Highway, through the winding and breathtaking cliff-side roads of Big Sur to San Francisco over the course of five days, to meet up with her college friends. I couldn’t help but think again about that 1978 trip, and to a lesser extent the 1996 solo drive from Florida. We spent our third night in Monterrey just north of Big Sur, near the brick buildings and walking bridges of Cannery Row, the working-class seaside neighborhood that John Steinbeck so often wrote about. We took a detour the next day to Salinas and visited the Steinbeck museum. I thought of the epic, iconic road trip of The Grapes of Wrath, and of Lenny and George in Of Mice and Men, the way Lenny keeps telling George of their dream of one day owning their own small ranch, how Lenny will get to tend the rabbits, even, as the reader, we know this dream will never come to fruition, and that even George almost certainly realizes this too.
Walking through the museum we came upon Steinbeck’s green camper truck, the one he drove around the country with his poodle Charley back in 1960 and memorialized in his classic memoir, Travels with Charley: In Search of America. I stared at the pick-up a long time, imagining it out on the roads I’d been driving these last days, the roads I’d driven in 1996 and the roads we drove back in 1978. I peered into the truck through the back door, at its old paneled cabinets and walls, a cushioned booth in the corner. I pictured Steinbeck sitting in here at night, this tight space, eating dinner and smoking cigarettes, his typewriter on that very tabletop, and a small curtained window above it.
By the time we’d left the museum, I was thinking about our original cross-country road trip in 1978, my wheels spinning on how to revisit that experience, how to write about it. I wanted to find a way to capture the romance of a road trip, like Steinbeck, but also the dark realities, the precarious tightrope walk between things going right and things going wrong, and especially how, as children, we put our blind faith in our parents, a blanket surrender to their supposed better judgments. We drove north from Salinas toward San Francisco but it was hard for me to stay in the moment, the events of those past road trips coming at me like a tide.
A year later, I was leading undergraduate study-abroad students in San Sebastian, Spain. I spent my mornings and many afternoons writing the novel in sidewalk cafes, sipping cappuccino and eating a pastry, alternating between typing a few sentences onto my iPad keyboard and looking up to people-watch and daydream. I took the iPad with me to France, then Germany, Austria and Switzerland, appreciating the serendipity that I was writing about travel and using those past road trips as fuel, while drafting the novel in cities all across Europe. Traveling abroad while writing about traveling, all while mentally excavating the original road trip. Often, I felt in both places at once: in a café in the Swiss Alps looking out at dramatic and rugged Mount Eiger, for instance, but also back in 1978, my nine-year-old self staring out the greasy window of our motor home, the highway blurring past, the world vast and full of possibilities, but scary and uncertain too, my pen tapping against the pages of my Bigfoot novel, waiting for me.