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Highway to healing

In search of adventure and solace after the death of his mother, travel writer Tim Johnson rekindles his family’s road trip tradition

By Tim Johnson


I was cruising down the freeway on the last day of a tour of California, looking forward to an upcoming journey to the Arctic, when my phone rang with bad news. The Russian research vessel that was supposed to carry me from Baffin Island across the Davis Strait to the west coast of Greenland was stuck in ice. The trip had been cancelled.

In the back of my mind, I had been constructing a vague itinerary for a continuation of my west-coast journey should something like this happen. But I’d only do it if my 68-year-old dad joined me — it wouldn’t be much fun otherwise. I called him at home in Peterborough, Ont., with my crazy, last-minute plan: he’d fly to California the day after tomorrow, we’d rent a car and drive north, worrying about the details as we went along. “Yes, let’s do it,” he said, a crescendo of excitement in his voice. “I’m in!”

Two days after Greenland fell through, I met my father at San Francisco International Airport. We made our way to the car rental kiosk, settled into a rented white Nissan Altima and drove to a non-descript town along the interstate to stay for the night. Walking across the road from our motel for some fast food, he smiled and said, “I love this. So many memories.” I knew exactly what he meant.

The Johnsons have always been a road trip family. While growing up, the highlight of every year was a long car trek. We diligently saved up a portion of my dad’s civil service salary, spurning luxuries like restaurants or movies so that we could blow it all on one big annual vacation. Even my weekly allowance as a kid was tailored to these trips; in exchange for doing a few household chores, my parents gave me two dollars — one to spend on candy or other kid fun, the second to save in a pickle jar I kept in a drawer, to spend on our trip. 

We never flew anywhere. Our memories were always made in an automobile — first a copper-coloured Subaru hatchback with no air conditioning and a manual transmission, and then a two-tone grey Pontiac Bonneville, a boat of a car that sailed us across the continent and back several times. My dad was usually behind the wheel, driving for as many as 16 hours a day. In August 1991, we spent five weeks on the road, driving diagonally across North America: visiting the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas on the way to Los Angeles, then up the west coast to British Columbia to visit relatives before turning east and making our way home.


We created some of our family’s most treasured memories on these trips — what stuck was not necessarily the amazing places we visited and things we did, but rather the simple, random moments like swimming in the little pool at the Golden Link Motel in Kissimmee, Fla., Mom and Dad watching my sister and me doing tricks off the diving board; or arriving in Denver during a pounding rainstorm, the three passengers helping Dad pilot the Bonneville through a forest of orange construction pylons; or uncontrollable fits of laughter in a Pizza Hut somewhere in the middle of Oklahoma.

Those trips left an indelible mark on me. When I was a kid, our old, tattered Rand McNally road atlas was my most prized possession. I would study it like scripture, taking it to bed and memorizing the capital cities of provinces and states, tracing routes both imagined and real. Doing research in the pre-Internet age, I would write letters by hand on three-ringed lined paper to city and state tourism boards, asking them to send information for our upcoming trip. It felt like Christmas a few weeks later when a big, brown envelope would arrive in our mailbox, stuffed with colourful brochures featuring local theme parks and shopping malls and steak houses.

Our family’s passionate relationship with travel continued into my adulthood. The year before my sister got married, when I was 18, we took our last big family road trip — the four of us carving 11 days out of our summer schedules — to drive to Colorado and Utah. My sister and I carried this love of travel into our later lives: she worked for a while as a travel agent, and I make my living writing about travel, in the process visiting 112 countries on all seven continents.

My folks were able to join me on some of those trips. “Whenever you’ve got time, and wherever you want to go,” my mom would say sweetly, “we’re game!” When we weren’t travelling together, my mother would email me every day to update me on the details of life at home.

Everything changed on Mother’s Day in 2014. I was in Australia when I got the news that my mother had suffered a brain aneurysm, was on life support and would never recover. She had emailed me a few minutes before she collapsed, telling me that she loved me and that I was a wonderful son.

I saw my mother one last time, via my mobile phone. It was an image of her lying in a hospital bed. I got on the next plane home but was too late. With my dad keeping vigil, she breathed her last while I was high over the Pacific Ocean.

Tim Johnson’s family in 1991, outside the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, Calif., made famous by its Hour of Power television broadcast. The stop was part of a five-week transcontinental family road trip. Photo courtesy of Ellwood Johnson
Tim Johnson’s family in 1991, outside the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, Calif., made famous by its Hour of Power television broadcast. The stop was part of a five-week transcontinental family road trip. Photo courtesy of Ellwood Johnson

I’ve always had an excellent relationship with my father. Yet, as much as I considered him a friend as well as a parent, our connection was always, to some extent, mediated by my mom. Our travel together would now be different. We had to find a new groove. Early on, we spent a quiet but enjoyable week on the island of Nevis, sitting on our hotel’s balcony, looking out over the mountains of St. Kitts, soaking up the sun and chatting for hours. Then we went to Cuba, a destination my mom never showed any inclination to visit.

On the ride into Havana from the airport, we stumbled into a conversation with a fellow Canadian named Bobby who lives there. He offered to organize a tour for us in a cherry-red 1957 Chevy, and we gratefully accepted. Together with Bobby’s Cuban friend, Guillermo, we drove along the famous Malecón, following its languorous curves as young Habaneros gathered in groups on the seawall, and later visited various monuments and museums around the great, crumbling capital.

At every turn, my father pointed out classic cars from the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, showing a remarkable ability to identify make and model and to attach a story about them from his upbringing. “Uncle Harry had one just like that, except it had running boards,” he’d say. Or, “See that old ’51 Pontiac? We got one of those used — it always acted up in the winter, but it got us all the way to Caronport when we dropped Auntie Joyce at school.” I learned a lot about cars — but more about my dad.

Now we were making our way up the coast of northern California, my dad usually at the wheel, just like old times. We detoured from the interstate to visit Redwood National Park, walking through the famous tree so massive you could fit a car into a hole in its wide base. We ate a hearty meal at a former lumberjack camp, my dad relating stories from his summers when, on break from university, he worked construction in the north for Manitoba Hydro. We stopped to marvel at the rugged beauty of the Pacific coastline. “Drink it all in,” he would say with a smile — the same thing he’s always said since I was a kid.

We drove through the mountains of Oregon, taking a couple of days to tour quirky and fascinating Portland, where Dad partook in what was likely his first ever vegan meal, including courses of edible flowers. (To our mutual surprise, he liked it.) We took a detour inland to visit a cousin in Spokane, Wash., driving just a wee bit to the east over the state line to the lovely resort town of Coeur D’Alene, Idaho, so I could check off my 50th state visited.

As we racked up the miles on the Altima, we relived many of our family’s best times. Laughs came easily. And my mother rode with us, too. Small things — the price of gas (my mom was a coupon clipper and notoriously unhappy to pay even a cent too much) or a roadside restaurant (my mother loved a select few chain eateries, ordering the same thing every time) — would spark a story and a new round of warm laughter.

There were also sombre moments. Dad shared with me what it was like to live alone in our family home, now filled mostly with memories. He said the house seems strange when it’s so quiet, but at the same time, keeps him close to all those years with my mom, when the halls were alive with family energy. I told him about all the times when I would be travelling in some far-flung place and a memory of Mom and all of us together would hit me. I had a hard time holding back my emotions. Together, mile after mile, we healed.

We unwound in the evenings, stretching out in our motel rooms — some of them of the same drive-up-to-the-door vintage I recalled from my youth. We’d chat about the highlights of the day and share a story or two about family memories in West Yellowstone, or Moab, or Barstow. The conversation would continue after we shut off the lights, and then I would listen to my dad’s steady semi-snore, the same sound I heard every night on the road all those years ago. 

These trips have drawn us closer together. Travel, I will always contend, is transformative. Yes, our conversations — the memories we shared — were cathartic. But it was more than that. By experiencing new things together, we created new memories, new joy. And that, in turn, contributed to a new bond that will keep us close as we journey together into this new, uncertain future.

We finished our road trip in Seattle. The Mariners were in town that last night, and we decided to go — baseball games being one of our favourite activities. We had excellent seats behind home plate. We cheered for the home side, and they won. It was a fabulous finish to our trip. But it was just the beginning, too. As we made our way back to the hotel, we vowed to hit the road again. Soon.

Tim Johnson is a travel writer based in Toronto.



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