Growing up, I only went on one vacation that wasn’t to a family camp. That single exception became the makings of family lore still told today.
My oldest sister was performing summer stock in Utah that July, sparking the plug for Pop’s greatest vacation wish to finally come true: A Winnebago and the Wild West. Of course since my family was involved, chaos followed our every turn.
I was not quite eight years old when we set out about five hours behind schedule. The first thing I remember is the air conditioner in the Winnebago breaking halfway through Texas, and taking showers with ice. Outside of Clovis, New Mexico, the Winnebago couldn’t make it over the dips in the road. Pop must have said, “Doggone it!” about twenty times before he finally found a way out and to Albuquerque. We celebrated at a picnic lunch at a park where dashing across the street to said park, I narrowly escaped death by a truck almost as beat up as the Winnebago. There were still eleven days to go.
This is when we hit a stretch of national parks where we couldn’t leave well enough alone. When at the Petrified Forest, I walked away from our first landmark with some ancient bark stuffed in my pocket. Then a herd of tarantulas crossed our path in a sketchy RV park that night and suddenly the humid trailer on wheels didn’t seem all that bad. By morning we drove into the Painted Desert, exhausted from the heat but drawn by natural beauty and a desire to breathe. We stumbled outside. I took one look at the painted landscape and puked on the pink sand. Our band of travelers had been away from home only a few days with now two parks violated and the realization that our camper was a lemon.
Mom was spent by the time we approached the Grand Canyon. My pestering questions about what the Grand Canyon was, combined with cabin pressure and Pop’s pictures at every landmark, had broken her. “It’s just a big hole in the ground!” she shouted at me. So as I peered over the south rim railing at sunrise, the Colorado River rapids way below, the colors of the stone brightening in the new day, I asked quite innocently, “Where is it?” I think I was expecting a grand cannon.
Pop insisted we view the big hole in the ground from the west side at sunset. So back into the Winnebago we climbed. Why Mom chose that exact day to make turkey and gravy, I’ll never understand. When she sat us down for dinner en route to the other side, with every twist and turn, the plates on the table switched position. As Pop circled the canyon, so did our dinners from one person to the next until we didn’t know from whose plate we were eating. I don’t remember the sunset at all, but I’ll never forget how good that dinner tasted, whoever’s dinner I ate.
Finally we made it to Utah where in Bryce Canyon, I saw a real chipmunk. In Cedar City, I was exposed to Shakespeare for the first time when my sister performed A Midsummer Night’s Dream with the Utah Shakespearean Festival. I was mesmerized from start to finish. Things were looking up. I’d almost forgotten being nearly run over two days prior. But Pop had an agenda, and no matter the exhaustion, we were gonna check those boxes. So after a not-so-brief detour through Las Vegas at night, we puttered into Los Angeles.
Pop’s college friend lived in Pasadena and worked for Disney. When we pulled up to his mansion on a palm tree-lined street of other million dollar homes, I’m sure our busted up Winnebago was welcomed with open arms. But our hosts were gracious and came with a scruffy, little terrier named Biscuit—a name I’d later give a pet hamster.
Pop’s friend invited us to Disneyland. Boy, oh boy, was I stoked. Sinking beneath the water’s surface in a submarine on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea felt so real and the miniature villages on the Mr. Toad ride charmed me. But it was when we hopped onto boats for Pirates of the Caribbean that my patience was finally tested. Mom had promised there would be no drop. I was positively terrified of roller coasters. So when we dropped what felt like fifty million feet, a blood-curdling scream could be heard from one end of the tunnel to the other. Mom couldn’t contain her laughter. “I didn’t know!” she chuckled, raising her palms. That was when I leveled with her mom trickery. I was onto her, but all was forgiven when Mary Poppins shook my hand in the parade. I swore I’d never wash that hand again. Sadly, I was about eleven when I realized it had just been some actress and not Julie Andrews.
By the time we made it to Universal Studios–six states, several national parks, and a dozen landmarks behind us–we felt we’d been gone from New Orleans ten years. In all actuality, it was about eight days, and Pop’s must-see list wasn’t nearly complete.
At Universal, my sister fell for some mumbo jumbo that a certain seat on the Backlot Tour would be free and clear from any close-up action of the reenacted disaster movie sequences. Was she ever surprised when her supposed “safe seat” was really the hot seat, ground zero for everything–Jaws opened his mouth in her face, a helicopter essentially exploded at her feet, and Kong took a good swipe at her waist. “I could feel his breath,” she cried. Life’s a bitch, I thought. One man’s Pirates of the Carrribean is another’s Backlot Tour.
But this was Pop’s big fat American vacation, and we were going to experience it all–anything and everything of which our dilapidated set of wheels came within fifteen miles. Even if it killed us we would have a picture of our pained, sweat-soaked, exhausted faces in front of every natural wonder, theme park, and scenic overlook. So naturally, next up was Sea World where my sister fell in love with a walrus and Pop convinced us to sit in the front row of the killer whale show. We spent the rest of the day in shoes that squeaked. His antics weren’t even close to ending.
When we walked into Paramount Pictures the following morning, I had to pretend to be ten years old because no one under ten was allowed inside. I took my role seriously, and on the set of Entertainment Tonight, I introduced Mary Hart to my family. “My sister’s name is Mary and I am ten years old,” I said proudly. It was a half-truth. On our last day in Los Angeles, behind the scenes at Disney Studios where animators were working on Oliver & Company, we were wilting–everyone except Pop, who had two more tricks up his sleeve.
First was an overnight at an RV stop on a cliff overlooking Laguna Beach. The Pacific was an eerie sapphire blue and its dramatic waves made the Bay St. Louis shoreline look like a puddle lapping up on a street curb. All along the beach were big black rocks smoothed from weathering. As became customary of my behavior on this trip, I stashed a bunch of the Pacific rocks in my suitcase before splitting the scene in the Winnebago, which also looked a bit weathered by then.
At our final stop, Pop took on a sentimental determination. As we struggled down the sloped trail into Carlsbad Caverns, his enthusiasm valiantly played against our complete and utter disinterest. “Oh, look, a stalagmite. Another natural phenomenon. Let’s pose for a picture. Whoopee-freaking-do.” We were done. The cave was cold and drippy, and while Pop used his fighting spirit to keep us engaged, we were ready to go home.
On the first day of school that fall, I had to write a theme: “What I did this Summer.” I wrote about it all—the tarantulas, stolen petrified wood, chipmunks, Midsummer Night’s Dream, Mary Poppins, King Kong, killer whales, towering waves, and bats. My teacher returned my paper with a note in the top corner: “No one can do all of that in two weeks.” She accused me of lying and sent a note home to Mom. Mom sent the note back with a reply:
“You don’t know my husband.”
I kept that theme assignment in my bedroom desk for years–a catalog of Pop’s at long last, great adventure, Mom’s purgatory on Earth, and a now hilarious story my sisters and I tell our kids. The West didn’t win that one. We did—through heat exhaustion, motion sickness, lost tempers, and all in a jam-packed two weeks. We won because that’s the prize of a big fat family vacation: The laughter that follows inevitable chaos when the tribe convenes.
Now as a parent myself and having just completed ten days of Disney World with extended family where our best laid plans often became bedlam, I know enough to know that these moments aren’t about any perfect capture on film. They’re about the hilarious stories born from the frenzy, from the epic chaos that follows families—families like mine.
Originally published in New Orleans Magazine online.