The summer of 1981 may well be remembered for the lavish nuptials of the Princess of Wales but for me it will forever photograph the road trip of my lifetime: five weeks, twenty-one states and the freedom that came with the unsupervised parenting that was well, 1981. Move over Lady Di, at fifteen-years-old, I was clearly in a fairy tale situation of my own.
The opportunity came about rather simply. My best friend, Kristi, and her family – an older sister and two teacher/parents – went cross country in their RV every summer. Always somewhere different. Always returning with exotic photos and strange souvenirs (think tchotchkes from The World’s Largest Ball of Yarn or postcards from Pike’s Peak). Gooberish to many but always envy-inducing to a girl like me, who never went anywhere over summer vacations. When my folks moved us to Long Island from the grimy borough of Queens, apparently THAT was to be our perpetual vacation.
Kristi’s family was all set to take off as planned but – serendipitously for me – Kristi’s sister failed English in her last term. In order to graduate she needed to attend summer school and couldn’t go with them. At first it was a monkey wrench: being meticulous organizers Kristi’s parents had already planned out their five-week itinerary to the day – every meal was planned for four people, every attraction had been purchased for four attendees, every bathroom stop had been calculated to include four travelers requesting them. It didn’t take long for two highly intelligent educators (and one persistent teenaged daughter) to find the perfect solution: With spending money in my Velcro wallet, I packed up my Smurfs, hopped into Kristi’s sister’s place, and off we went.
Our forty-day trip would take us to the opposite coast of California and back, traveling a different course in each direction, allowing us to insert twenty-one brightly colored push-pins into the map of the United States. It was more than I could wrap my brain around at the time. Twenty-one states for a girl who had never even been to New Jersey. Twenty-one states for a girl who still referred to Long Island as “the country.” Twenty-one states that most people in the nation wouldn’t see half of in a lifetime.
I remember being unable to sleep the night before our ungodly early departure. Grappling with nerves riddled with excitement and anxiety and anticipation I slept on the couch in the downstairs foyer, listening to albums on such low volume at times only a slight bass thumped from the speakers. I couldn’t tell if it was fear of leaving my family for the first time or Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” that kept tears streaming down my cheeks through sunrise.
I was ready for a road trip. At the close of the school year I’d been unceremoniously dumped by the (third) love of my life, who’d taken up with (sigh…) my tall, tanned, blonde friend. I was ready to suck-face with strangers and make-out with as many Rick Springfield look-alikes I could muster up from the George Washington Bridge to Mount Rushmore. I’d packed enough cute terry-cloth shorts (you know, with the white stripes) and tube socks (with the colored stripes) to ensure it. Yep, I was ready.
While many details of the minutiae of the trip have been faded by other memories (and, okay, decades of equally great times, some perhaps involving alcohol) many moments of that summer still make for a funny story. My fave: an admission that while we were trekking across America we occasionally called friends back home — and charged the calls to the telephone numbers of people we didn’t particularly like. For real. Today, as a mature adult (with – God help me – teenagers) I shudder at the memory. But it’s true. Anyone who remembers B.C. times (before cells) will fully recall how people would actually have to speak to an operator when placing a call from a (gasp) public telephone booth. My friend and I would innocently declare we’d like to charge the call to our own home number – and viola! – instantly a nemesis-left-behind got thrown under the bus (or rather, her parents did, on their next phone bill). Simultaneously evil and brilliant. Shudder….
The number of hours (and money) we wiled away in campground arcades was unfathomable. We had no internet, so we read books and wrote in diaries, traveling hours and days at a time past nothing but cornfields. There were no I-Pods, so we stopped every few days to buy more “D” batteries for the cassette player that ran constantly. There was no HDTV or DVDs, and when we went to see “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” we dreamt about it for days, hoping (and wishing and praying) that in our wild cross country adventure out to Hollywood we might actually sidle up next to Harrison Ford on an L.A freeway and tell him how much we loooooved him.
We were in the magnificent state of Washington when MTV’s little astronaut man debuted to stick a flag on the moon so we missed that but it turned out okay: we were allowed to drink beer after taking an Olympia Brewery tour, which single-handedly made us the coolest freshman felons on this planet.
Throughout the steamy summer days we mastered Pac Man and Phoenix. We shared a dog-eared copy of The Other Side of Midnight. One night while driving through Idaho we witnessed an actual tornado. We saw the Vegas strip, something my own mom never got to do. We went through more national parks than I can name and staunchly passed on the toilet paper factory tour (Kristi’s parents went alone and we stayed at the campsite to sneak more Olympia beer. They duly pretended not to notice.) We traveled through the Mojave Desert by nightfall to avoid triple digit temperatures. We wore bandanas and cowboy hats and short-shorts and found boys to kiss outside the arcades in the moonlight. None looked like soap opera pop singers but it didn’t matter. We lived like we were never going to return to our simple suburban lives and swore that our five weeks together would bond us like sisters. It did.
In the weeks we were gone Kim Carnes’ gravelly “Bette Davis Eyes” had gotten its ass kicked by the sap of Diana Ross and Lionel Richie. The grueling “Endless Love” was being played by tri-state disc jockeys nonstop throughout the final leg of our journey back and it made coming home even sadder and more torturous. Kristi and I cradled our cassette player between us and watched out the window in silence as our exit on Long Island’s Southern State Parkway neared.
I was fifteen that summer, presently the age of my youngest child. The idea catches my breath some days. While times are different and perhaps more dangerous today, I can’t help but admit I’d give just about anything to have my own kids live five weeks like I did back in 1981. It was extraordinary. It was (according to my diary) a pissa. It was living.
And should they ever have the great, great fortune to live it, there’d be a bonus for sure –these sneaky kids have their own phones today; it would be highly unlikely that irate parents would hunt me down for bogus phone call money.
Tina’s husband looks nothing like Rick Springfield…and she no longer wears terry shorts…. but she still loves beer. She and Kristi have been friends for forty years now.
Tina Drakakis blogs at Eyerollingmom and was featured in the 2014 Boston production of “Listen to Your Mother: Giving Motherhood a Microphone.” Her work has been featured in NPR’s “This I Believe” radio series yet she places “Most Popular 1984” on top of her list of achievements. (Next would be the home improvement reality TV show of 2003 but her kids won’t let her talk about that anymore). A witty mother of four, she takes on cyberspace as @Eyerollingmom on Twitter and Eyerollingmom on Facebook. and@Eyerollingmom on Instagram.