I sometimes wonder where some of my memories from my early childhood came from. Is it possible for me to recall something that happened when I was nearly two years old, or do I remember it because of the photos I’ve seen and conversations I’ve heard years after the moment occurred?
In the days of film, my mom would generously take 118 photos for the entire year. Yesterday, I conservatively took 118 photos of my family’s afternoon at Goblin Valley.
When I was in college I spent three months in Ecuador and burned through eight rolls of film with a grand total of 256 pictures. Of course with film, not all the pictures always worked out, some were overexposed and some were underexposed. My favorites were the double-exposed photos, the ones you got when you accidentally rewound your film and used it again mistaking it for a new roll of film. This creative accident would expose your trip to Bryce Canyon over the photos you took two months earlier from Thanksgiving dinner placing your Grandma on top of red sandstone cliffs and hoodoos while eating turkey.
When I was still too young to ride my bike alone to the end of our street, I would sit on my mom’s bed surrounded by our family’s photos albums. I became intimately acquainted with each photo as I carefully looked at every detail before turning the page. There were no stickers or pages that were painstakingly crafted with clever combinations of paper and glue. Our photo albums were organic, raw, and uncontaminated. There were no distractions that competed with the photos for attention, it was just me and the plastic photo sleeves filled with my family photos making it possible for me to travel into the past. If I wasn’t sure if the person in the photo was me or my younger sister, I would pull the photo out of the plastic pocket and look on the back where my mom had documented with a black pen the place, date, and the names of those in the picture.
With the limit of 24 or 36 photos that could be taken on a single roll of film, you were liberated from the pressure to take multiple photos in an attempt to capture the elusive perfect shot.
The brown vinyl photo albums sat organized at the top of my mom’s closet with each spine label with the year printed on masking tape. I would pull a chair down the hall from the kitchen to my mom’s room so I could reach up and select a book to look through. I knew each photo like it was a dear friend. I had memories of moments that happened before I was born because of the photos in those albums. Is a memory my memory if it was created in those quiet moments on my mom’s bed looking through the photo albums?
Some pictures became close friends that I looked forward to seeing again. Like the one of my dad on his hands on knees giving me and my brother a horsey ride. Or the one of me, my little sister, and my Grandma Stephens each sitting on enormous snowballs that were too big to stack on top of each other to make a snowman. There’s one of me wearing nothing but a blue coat and shoes standing by the front door. And there’s another one of me playing outside in the sandbox wearing only that blue coat. In fact, according to the photos of 1980 at the age of two, I seldom wore clothes, except for that blue coat and shoes.
But for some reason, there’s one photo that has been deeply imprinted on my mind. It’s a road trip photo of me standing on the asphalt (sparsely clothed) near our yellow station wagon with our green portable gas stove on the ground. I am confident that if I ever get Alzheimer’s this photo will still be in my memories and will be the one thing I will talk about when my kids come to pay their dues to visit their mom who thinks she’s on a road trip to Yellowstone and keeps talking about something called a station wagon.
By photography standards, there’s nothing remarkable about the photo. The lighting is harsh casting a strong shadow behind the rusty station wagon. The people in the photo are not artistically placed. There are no natural lines that lead the eye to a focal point. But I love it.
We took road trips every year as a family. The beginning of my road-tripping career started in that yellow station wagon. Road trips in 1980 were different than they are today. To keep myself entertained during those long hours between Utah and Montana, I’d drop little rocks through the quarter-size rusted out hole that was hidden beneath the floor mat. And when I ran out of rocks, I’d watch the hypnotizing road pass through that little hole. For some reason, it was much more interesting to watch the road through the hole in the bottom of the car than through the window. When I got bored of looking at the road through the rusted out hole, I’d climb into the very back of the station wagon and play Uno with a couple of my siblings. After we exhausted the excitement of card games, I’d move to the competitive game of counting dogs, horses, cows, and churches that could be seen through my side of the car. Churches were worth 100 points, dogs 20, cows were one point each, and horses were 10 points. It got really exciting when we passed a cemetery. If the cemetery was on your side of the car, you lost all your points.
On these road trips, we made many stops. Rest stops to stretch our legs and use the bathroom. Stops along the side of the road when my brother was car sick. Stops to threaten to turn the car around and head home if we didn’t stop fighting. And stops when the station wagon stopped working.
On this particular road trip, in the photo, the whole family was in attendance. Which meant my mom and my dad all six of us kids ranging from 6 months to 8 years old traveling in the station wagon together (my youngest sister would join us in a few more years). I remember moments when we’d pull up to a parking lot and all us kids would start piling out of the car like we were struggling to get to the surface for air, and people would just watch. I never understood why they found us so interesting enough to watch us get out of a car. To me, it was completely normal to pack eight people into one car. Didn’t ever family have to rent two motel rooms for their family? Years later I would attend a circus and watch a never-ending stream of clowns climbing out of a small car and laughed wondering if that how people saw us.
On the back of this photo in my mom’s neat cursive handwriting, she wrote: “July 1980. Last Supper on the Trail. By Tetons.” Though I have the photo memorized, I do not recall ever reading the back of the photo until recently. I can’t help but laugh at my mom’s wit and humor. When this was taken, had the station wagon broke down yet again? Had my 6-month-old little sister been crying for the last 30 miles? Was I the cause of my little sister’s crying for the last 30 miles? Were the kids complaining about someone else looking at them? Were my parents tired of trying to get their two-year-old to just put some pants on?!
A few days ago my husband and I took our three kids and our dog to Goblin Valley, medicating them (the kids, not the dog) with Dramamine, audiobooks, and movies for the four-hour car ride. We hiked around all afternoon exploring and climbing and looking at interesting rocks. After a long day of hiking, and with everyone’s excitement morphing into irritability, we decided it was time to make our way back to the minivan.
My husband backed up the van to a spot with a picnic table, opened (and left open) the hatchback, and began making dinner for our family on the green stove. The same green stove that went on so many road trips with me as a child. As I sat there eating my breakfast burrito filled with potato, egg, and spam I could have sworn I saw the tired old yellow station wagon sitting there in place of my van.
As we made our way home late that night, with the headlight cutting through the dark sky on the quiet highway, I waited anxiously for my phone to regained reception. I couldn’t wait to send my parents some photos of our day, especially the photo of my family gathered at a picnic table eating dinner that was prepared with the green stove.
In one of their replies to our text, I learned for the first time that it wasn’t my parents who bought the green stove, it was my dad’s parents. They had bought it when my dad was a young boy for their road trips.
That stove has been road tripping for more than 62 years and it is still going strong. I wonder where this green stove has traveled to. But beyond the impressive nine lives that this stove has is its seemingly magical power to make everything right in the world again by simply making dinner for a family on a road trip.
November 15, 2019
Writing time: 4 hours
Total time writing on this blog: 156 hours