Growing up near the hill country of Arkansas introduced me early on to my dad’s enthusiastic driving on treacherous mountain roads. Most of our trips did not take us “over the river and through the woods”, but up the mountains and around the curves. Perhaps my memories of Dad being a speed demon on those roads can be attributed to the exhilarating and scenic drives we took as a family up old Highway 7.
On many such occasions our little family of four, Dad and Mom and my sister Sharon and I, headed up the mountain, sometimes to visit family and other times just to get away for the day. A visit to a roadside diner for breakfast along the way was a treat we sometimes enjoyed in the small mountain town of Jasper, nestled in the heart of the Ozark Mountains. Many of our return trips on a hot summer evening would include a stop at the Buffalo River where we would wade and swim in the icy cold clear mountain water.
One of the other places at which we frequented along the way, the Cliff House Inn and Restaurant, was always one of Dad’s favorites. The Cliff House was a quaint little place overlooking the Grand Canyon of the Ozarks. I don’t remember a time that we weren’t enthusiastic about being able to get out and peruse the gift shop, digging through trinkets we didn’t need. Dad, on the other hand, was there for a cup of coffee and a piece of their famous homemade pie.
After a stop for some pie or a swim would always come the inevitable time to head home, and we would pile into our car with Mario Andretti behind the wheel and his co-pilot Mom at his side. My sister and I would take our positions in the backseat, and before we got too far down the road, one of us would lie down across the seat, and the other would take the floorboard. I don’t know if I liked being in the floor more than Sharon did or if it was just my place because I was the youngest, but that’s usually where I wound up.
On one particular trek down the mountain, which must have been during the winter, I settled into the floorboard into a deep slumber, using Dad’s leather jacket as a nice pillow. I’m not sure how anyone could sleep in that racecar as it maneuvered the hairpin turns, but I somehow managed just fine. Not long into my slumber the mountain driving, the stale air in the floor, and whatever was in my stomach got the best of me, and I woke up and puked all over Dad’s jacket. He was not a happy camper! Needless to say, after getting me and my mess cleaned up we made it home safe and sound that night.
As we were growing up, I don’t ever remember having the fanciest vehicles in the world, but Dad always managed to keep us moving in something or other. One particular car I remember must have been something like an early 70’s Monte Carlo. Boy does that car bring back some memories. I believe it is the one I puked in, as well as being the car we took for one particular scary Sunday drive.
That Sunday afternoon we all piled into the Monte Carlo and took a leisurely drive, this time across the Arkansas River and over to nearby Mount Nebo State Park. Our drive took us up multiple switchback curves to the top of the mountain where we enjoyed the spectacular view of the river valley. This popular destination for hang-gliding enthusiasts allowed us to see first-hand some folks who were willing to risk life and limb to jump off of the mountain attached to a large kite. Although they were pretty exciting to watch, I couldn’t imagine myself ever wanting to attempt that feat.
After we enjoyed some time atop the mountain we climbed back into the car to make our way homeward. As Dad got behind the wheel, he turned the key to start the car only to discover that it was dead—nothing. In this pre-cell phone era, instead of picking up the phone to call someone Dad had to do some head scratching to see what was wrong with the car. Since the car was an automatic it could not be push started, but Dad decided that a better place to be stranded was at the bottom of the mountain, car running or not.
So we got the car pushed out into the road, and after pointing it in the downhill direction, we all took our seats in our motor-less bobsled on wheels. Gravity did its work in getting us going, and we all held on with anxious anticipation wondering how this was all going to play out. We soon found out.
I was uncertain as to whether our car had power brakes or not, but it didn’t take long before Dad was applying some of his own power to them as we approached the first switchback curve. We hadn’t come up on any drop-off-the-cliff turns yet, but we would be upon them soon enough. I’m not sure what was going through everyone else’s mind in the car as we approached the first steep drop-off, but I know that I was thinking, “We’re all gonna die!”
Coming up on the next steep curve, Dad looked as though he was going to press the brake pedal through the floor. As he hit the brakes hard I lurched forward, grabbing his seat from behind, yelling for him to slow down. For a split second Dad must have been wondering if we were all going to launch off of the cliff out of control. The other thing that must have been going through his mind was wondering if he should reach back and throttle me so that he could get a few moments of pleasure before we all plunged to our deaths. He somehow managed to keep his sanity, maneuver the turn, and get me to shut up and sit back. With eyes as big as saucers I endured the rest of the suicide ride in silence.
I can’t quite remember what happened after we careened to a halt on level ground at the bottom, but I know that Dad certainly got us home that day, unscathed. Now that I have children of my own, road trips are a part of our life, and one recent trip comes to mind which requires mentioning.
When children are unable to speak very well yet because of their young age, it is somewhat understandable that when they get tired of riding along in the car on a road trip, they cry. When crying does not work for them, it escalates to screaming. Dads are not trained for this, at least this dad isn’t. Small children screaming within a few feet of my head is not conducive to a positive environment, especially while I’m driving. My lovely bride Katrina possesses the amazing power of selective deafness, which I do not have, so she can ride along for quite some time unaffected. After years of experience in this arena, as well as improvements in modern technology, Katrina and I have figured out a couple of things that make an unruly driving experience somewhat bearable—music and food.
Katrina always has children’s music readily available to play in the van. Sometimes, when the kids are somewhat willing to comply, the bible songs playing over the stereo system seem to work. When that doesn’t work we resort to food, but that has to be used sparingly or it can cause the puke-on-the-jacket syndrome like my moment when I was a kid. None of this worked on our last major trip down the road. Over the repetitive sound of Onward Christian Soldiers, I could hear quite plainly the struggles of our three oldest (and most compliant children) fighting in the back seat, as well as our two year old screaming loud enough to make the windows shake. Getting home was my priority, so stopping on the side of the road to make sure to not “spare the rod” was not an option. Enough was enough.
Katrina’s selective deafness seemed to be working for her, but if I was going to keep from driving us into the nearest embankment to take us all out of our misery, I would have to resort to my emergency tactic. I call it My Personalspace³, or MP3 for short. As I donned my earphones and connected myself to hundreds of songs in my portable music player, I was transported to a place of tranquility. I drove along, happy to have air-conditioning as I watched the farmers on the rolling hills bailing hay in the heat of the day, stirring up dust on the horizon. I wasn’t sure what everyone else was going to do to make their experience better, but I gripped the wheel and listened intently to my music, focusing on the road as my co-pilot tuned out the noises of the little people in the back.
We soon arrived safe and sound across the finish line, pulling into the garage, home sweet home. Needless to say, peace and tranquility was not what had been happening over the past hour and a half, but we could now put it behind us and be happy that we were on solid ground once again.
Then began the struggle of getting them all in bed…
Written by David Steen, with God smiling, June 19, 2010.