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Lunchtime at the Grand Canyon.
Learning to Drive
by Carol Joynt

During dinner at Kevin Costner’s casino in Deadwood, SD, my son and I savored the rush of being more than 1500 miles from home; a movie star’s saloon in a fabled Wild West town, with real cowboys and cowgirls to the right and left of us. We were a week into the most spectacular summer vacation of our lives, a cross-country road trip. 21 days, a different town each night, from our home in Washington, DC, to the wild Pacific coast of Oregon, and then back East. When we were done we’d traveled more than 3,000 miles.

The mental scrapbook is vivid. Walking the sandy lakeshore in Chicago, an odd but charming B&B amid Iowa corn fields, racing to Rapid City after dark chased by lightning out of Storm Stories, cuddly prairie dogs at Devil’s Tower, wind bending the tall grasses of the Badlands, Mt. Rushmore, empty roads and the best ever banana cream pie in Montana, Grizzly bears in Yellowstone, Old Faithful, the stunning beauty of Jackson Hole, the nearly prehistoric high desert of Idaho and Eastern Oregon.
Iowa corn in July.
The beautiful road ahead in the midwestern plains.
Bugs on the windshield, weather out of Storm Stories.
Spencer and I dipped our toes in the Pacific Ocean at Heceta Beach before the return leg down the Pacific Coast Highway into Los Angeles, a glitzy night in Las Vegas, the cliff edges of the Grand Canyon, golden Sedona and Santa Fe, and on to St. Louis and Louisville, the coal-rich hills of West Virginia and home.

We toured historic sites, napped on the roadside when Mommy’s energy flagged, watched Gummi Bears melt on the dashboard in Nevada’s 112 degree heat, scraped bugs off the windshield, gorged on road food, learned the words to a dozen country songs, and talked about everything under the sun and moon.
Mount Rushmore, from the parking lot.
The view in Custer State Park, South Dakota.
The great American open road in eastern Wyoming.
Spencer, getting acquainted, in Deadwood, SD.
The exterior of Kevin Costner's Midnight Star in Deadwood.
High, high, high up in the Rockies, a patch of snow in July.
The trip had to happen that summer. I calculated 13 was the last possible age when a boy could tolerate three weeks alone with his mother, in a car, clocking hundreds upon hundreds of road miles. But for me, and I think for him, too, each day was precious, each mile an adventure. We immersed ourselves in small town America. The Iraq war was at its peak. On coffee shop walls the owners taped pictures of their soldier children who had gone to war. On the Fourth of July at the Cody, WY, rodeo new enlistees were brought on the field for a standing ovation. Over steaks at Buffalo Bill’s favorite roadhouse we talked about my generation’s war, Vietnam.

By the time this long-haul journey happened we were veteran road-trippers, a mother-son team who found emotional recovery and an eternal bond on the highway and, in particular, in a car. It was a milestone on many levels, but especially because I was in so many ways a new driver.
July 4, 2005: New enlistees march out on the field at the Cody (WY) "Stampede" Rodeo before getting formally inducted in the military.
... and then the rodeo resumes.
A routine exceptional view from the heights of Jackson Hole, WY.
Seriously, the best "turn down" ever--at The Rusty Parrot.
Even though like practically every other American teenager I got my license at 16, I didn’t start driving until I was 47 years old, when my husband died from pneumonia. He was the driver. I was reluctant to take the wheel. I preferred to daydream or fiddle with the radio. In fact, it was fiddling with the radio that botched one early driving attempt. I took the family car out on a rural dirt road and promptly went into a ditch—while searching for the right station.

The few times my dear father gave me lessons he was so uncomfortable I pulled over, got out and said, “Here, you drive.” Besides, the lessons were mostly in parking lots. What did that have to do with the real world? His position was women weren’t good drivers, anyway. My mother didn’t drive. My older sister rarely drove. I was conditioned to be the passenger.
An old school soda fountain, Crowley's, in Twin Falls, Idaho.
Actual Idaho potatoes, fried, in Boise.
The high dessert of eastern Oregon.
Lush western Oregon, The Campbell House inn in Eugene.
My husband’s death shook our lives in every possible way. He left us in grief but also with a mess of financial demands, including his debt-soaked restaurant, which I, with no restaurant experience, had to master. Regardless of my fear and inexperience, I had to become the driver—of the car, of the business, and everything else in our lives, known and unknown. I shuttled my son to and from school, I commuted between home, my job as a producer at CNN and the restaurant. I raced from meetings with lawyers to meetings with accountants.

The revelation was I found the car to be a sanctuary. I learned to love driving. It was where I could be alone with my thoughts, have a healthy cry between destinations, and connect with my young son.
Son and mother after making it all the way cross country to the Pacific Ocean.
Arriving in San Francisco--the view from the bridge.
The view along the Pacific Coast Highway, headed south.
Dinner with dear friends Judith Owen and Harry Shearer in Santa Monica.
Driving to Las Vegas.
Hot in the Nevada dessert: outside temp 114 degrees.
Near the Hoover Dam, Gummi Bears melting on the dashboard.
Our happiest times together were in the car or due to the car. If he needed to talk, to get something off his chest, the car was where that happened. “Can we go for a drive,” he’d ask. I’d stop what I was doing because I knew he needed to talk. “Please tell me about Daddy.” I would oblige, sometimes recalling our own cross-country drive when we were newlyweds. That wetted Spencer’s appetite for our big trip.

I grew behind the wheel. I didn’t blush but beamed when a car dealer marveled at my “awesome” ability to parallel park. I kept my cool in icy snow. I knew timidity was in the past as I navigated city traffic and a girlfriend in the shotgun seat blurted, “Carol, you drive like an Italian man.” She meant it as a compliment. I took it as a review of my new assertive, confident self. I was mastering the car, the business and our lives, and had learned that in life, as on the road, it can be better behind the wheel than sitting passively in the passenger seat.
Sunset in Sedona, AZ.
The beguiling colors of Santa Fe.
In St. Louis, the arch.
In Louisville, A visit to the racetrack.
Kentucky in the early morning.
Inevitably Spencer turned 15, got his learner’s permit, and waved the car keys in my face. “Okay Mom, can we please go drive?” When we got to the car, parked on a city street, I told him to get behind the wheel. “You drive,” I said. His eyes popped. “Are you serious? Aren’t you going to teach me in a parking lot?”

Nope, I said. “You don’t drive in parking lots. You drive on the open road and so let’s start there.”
Three rental cars later, the last stop of our 21-day road trip, the Greenbrier Hotel in West Virginia. And then home.
Carol Joynt's new memoir, Innocent Spouse, can be ordered from Amazon, HERE.




© 2013 David Patrick Columbia & Jeffrey Hirsch/NewYorkSocialDiary.com