My Mother the Vacation Whisperer
When I was a young, my mother’s crack was travel. Truly, there was nothing better to her. And it was never just about traveling all over the world and staying in the most desirable spots in the country. My mother would be happy taking a car trip to Opryland. It was the thrill of the adventure and the fun of planning.
Now don’t get me wrong, my mother was all about seeing Europe and traveling to some really nice spots. But if tickets to Albuquerque went on sale for $69 roundtrip, she was going to buy them. I remember her telling me that we were going to be visiting New Mexico. “Why?” I foolishly asked. Was I new? My mother looked down from her travel brochure (as we were visiting this exotic destination pre-internet) and said, “For $69 roundtrip, we’ll find something to do once we get there.”
That was a different sort of vacation…going to Albuquerque and Santa Fe. Not just because my mother + higher altitudes + 2 Coronas at lunch = telling me that I should name my souvenir Native American doll, “Squatting Dog” right in front of four Native American women selling pottery, but because it was one of the few vacations where I knew where we were going before I got there.
I spent much of my life in the backseat of our car, wondering where we were going. It didn’t occur to me to ask questions. We’d hop in a car and I never knew if we were going to the airport, driving to the beach or heading to the annual Webb family reunion in Fayetteville. It was a life of unexpected surprises…being in that back seat.
There were too many cooks in that kitchen for me to start taking charge, having an opinion or even getting briefed about our destination. Besides, the family dynamic, just like our spots at the dinner table, were set in stone: My father drove the car and paid, my mother made and held the itinerary and my sister spent most of our vacation attempting to rearrange my mother’s plans and looking for cute boys. All jobs were taken…so I was just along for the ride. It was my preference anyway. I was perfectly content, staring out the window in the backseat, rewinding “Hangin Tough” for the 60th time and daydreaming that wherever we were going would yield a chance encounter with a New Kid on the Block. I also found the job of keeping the 20 AA batteries separated into new and old piles to be a full time responsibility.
We went to a lot of places growing up. But no matter where we went, what hole-in-the-wall tourist attraction my mother had us at…there was always at least one day of historical significance. A day where we would go to some location to see something really old as my mother read the historical pamphlet. I assure you, the point was always lost on us.
I remember being at the historic lighthouse at Peggy’s Cove in Canada and my sister asking when we could go to the gift shop. “Look, “ my mother fired back. “We just drove an hour to get here so we are all going to stand here for five minutes in reverent silence and appreciate this historical lighthouse. This is where bodies from the Titanic washed up on shore. Have some respect.”
The reverent silence lasted 8 seconds before we heard from my sister. “I’m cold.”
In New York, it was the trip to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, In Washington DC I wore holes in the thighs of my Jams walking to every monument we could fit in our day, and in Vegas we drove to Hoover Dam so we could open the car door and touch our toe onto something historical before heading back to the nickel slots. All of these adventures, of course, were sandwiched between being trapped in the hotel room watching tennis, as we always seemed to travel during the French Open. No, there was no streaming Netflix through my 4G iPhone back then, I was forced to know who Boris Becker was.
Regarding historically significant matters, we couldn’t even go to Aruba without renting a car and setting off in search of ancient hieroglyphics.
Picture it, Aruba, 1991. My mother happened to find the only historical landmark on the 70 square mile island, and by God, we were going to that landmark. My mother finding the local history on any given vacation was like her own personal shot glass collection.
As much as we hated to leave the pool, our walkmans and the virgin daiquiris, my mom made us all pile into one of Aruba’s finest rental cars (which isn’t saying much) and forced us to make the drive to the “other side” of the island. This was the side of the island with no resort hotels, no fruity drinks, no casinos, no one to hear our screams. It might have been the outer ring of hell. There was nothing.
It is important to mention that our trip to Aruba was at the very beginning of the island building up its tourist business. There were not very many hotels to begin with and next to nobody was visiting. I have no idea what is on the other side of the island now, but then, it was nothing. It was just desert with a wind that constantly blew. In fact, everything about the other side of the island blew.
My mother insisted on taking us to a cave with ancient hieroglyphics carved in the side that were created by the first people to come to the island. I, for one, didn’t care. I think my dad, for two, and definitely my sister, for three, didn’t care either. My mother cared…which meant, we cared by force.
My mother was always interested in educating us. As my dad drove our luxury rental car, which I’m pretty sure was made up of old paddle boat parts, my mom kept one eye on the map and one eye on the road. Which was pretty unnecessary. It’s not like we were searching for a highway exit to our destination. I am convinced the “road” we were on was the result of a bunch of animals just fleeing in one direction one day during a fire. Somehow consulting a map seemed like overkill when all we were doing was driving until we saw “the” sign and if we ended up in the ocean, clearly we had gone too far.
Finally, we saw a piece of plywood leaning up against some desert shrub with the words, “Tunnel O’ Love” spray-painted in red. Blood red. The sign had clearly been put up while still wet as it seemed more fitting a haunted house than a family tourist attraction. Our American spirit of adventure, however, forced us onward. In other words, my mom screamed, “THERE IT IS, WAYNE. TURN HERE!”
“That?” We were all three thinking the same thing. My dad turned the car down a path in the direction indicated by the arrow on the sign.
“Maybe it gets more legitimate looking the closer we get,” my sister whispered to me in the backseat. It didn’t. What we saw next, can only be described as a movie set. If the movie was about stupid American tourists who pull off the road and stumble upon the last place people are ever seen alive.
There was a tiki hut, a VW wagon that looked like the after shots of a car bomb on the Gaza Strip and two men who were staring at us like we were there biggest rush of the day. I can’t be sure, but I think one of them blinked dollar signs like in a cartoon. We saw two other people. It looked like a young American couple…honeymooning perhaps, walking toward us with dazed looks on their faces.
“How was it?” My mom asked the Stepford honeymooners.
“It was interesting.” The woman replied as she stared straight forward and walked to her car. She said nothing else and we never saw them again.
Before we could run for our lives, we were ushered to the tiki hut by one of the two men and my dad paid for us. We were then given 3 hard hats and 2 pocket flashlights between the four of us and introduced to our expert guide, David (pronounced DAH VEED) who told us he hadn’t been to Georgia but he’d been close when he visited family in New York one time.
The one thing I should probably mention at this time is that we had still not seen a cave. Cue creepy music.
We were to soon find out that the cave we were going to see was, in fact, underground. As a child, you think your parents have all of their decisions under control. I trusted that my parents would not pay money to have us get lost forever in a cave in Aruba.
As a parent, now, I see how well thought out a lot of our ideas are not.
Once we were several stories underground in the cave and trying to share a few pocket flashlight beams of light, David and my sister Anna seemed to disappear ahead of us in a matter of minutes. That left my father, my mother and me alone to find our own way through the winding underground labyrinth. Being lost in a cave with my family is pretty much like putting your life in the hands of all the people who were ever picked last in kickball. I love them dearly, but the Ingalls we are not. We would have died on the Oregon Trail when we realized there was no Hyatt. In fact, we might still be down in that cave if it weren’t for a rope on the ground leading the way that we clung to for dear life.
Meanwhile, my father was repeating over and over again, “watch your head. Don’t slip. Don’t slip. Don’t….ahhh” He slipped. This was not a fun, relaxing day of checking out local history. We were spelunking. I felt like a coal miner after an explosion. It was dark, dangerous and I was not cut out for this kind of extreme sightseeing. Plus, I really felt like we were inadequately geared up as we passed our hard hats back and forth on a 90 second rotation that we developed.
We managed to catch up to my sister and our tour guide long enough to catch the one hieroglyphic drawn on one of the walls. I’m pretty sure it was in the same blood red spray paint that was featured on their plywood sign. As we were admiring the historically significant wall, since that is what we paid to see, my sister and David raced ahead as if trying to ditch us again. I was really beginning to dislike them both.
By the time we caught up to them, they were talking to us from a hole in the ground above us. I guess I assumed that since our descent into the cave was a gradual stair stepping, climb down, that our climb out would be similar. Truthfully, I had imagined an elevator, but this wasn’t the high-class setup that Ruby Falls was. It was not similar to the climb in. It was like looking up from the bottom of a well.
Our only way out of the hallowed halls of vacation hell was a two-story climb straight up the side of the cave wall. There were no harnesses, no spotters and there was no safety equipment unless you again count the hard hats and flashlights we were rotating. As previously stated, we were not equipped for this.
My dad managed, through a clever strategy of praying and cursing, to climb out. I tearfully followed. Looking back, I’m not really sure how I got out since I’ve never even been able to register an actual time doing the flex arm hang in gym class, but I’m guessing adrenaline played a part. That left my mother. We all looked back down the hole. She started explaining that she loved us all, never meant to take us on a dangerous educational excursion and tearfully explained that she would make the best of her new life in the cave.
She willed her jade ring to me, and her emerald necklace to my sister. She requested we hire someone to drop food down the hole every so often and that we never ever forget her. She also mumbled something about the single choir ladies ready to pounce on my widowed father and how she better not catch any of them in any of her jewelry. Yep, this definitely hadn’t been in her travel brochure.
My father finally coaxed her up the side of the rock wall by promising her everything under the sun and reminding her that we were missing the French Open. Once we were all out, every Webb in our clan ran as fast as they could to the car. We never looked back. We were free.
We had driven only a few minutes when we caught sight of another sign. It was a very professional looking sign with graphics and lights. Next we saw a paved parking lot full of cars and tourists and a big cave that you walked straight into. It was a glorious sight.
My mom pointed at the parking lot full of people and said, “Wait, that’s the cave we were supposed to go to.” No sooner were the words out of her mouth than my father slammed his foot down on the gas peddle and passed the legitimate attraction as fast as that little car made of old paddle boat parts would take us. We had had our fill of historical significance.