The night before our four-day road trip from Seattle down the Oregon coast, I figure it's a good idea to check in with Grandma, make sure she's still excited about our little bonding journey, make sure she's still alive. Grandma is 94 years old.
So I slip in the back door of her retirement home and ride the quiet elevator to Room 304.
Knock, knock, kno—"Come in!"
She sounds like she's right behind the door.
I push into the studio she keeps at just under 900 degrees and there she is: Vera Hansen, longtime waitress, bricklayer's widow, hater of pills, lover of travel, 100 pounds of wheelchair–bound feistiness. (The nerves in her legs have stopped automatically responding to the cues from her brain.) She smiles big, and her blue–green eyes disappear behind folds of pearly British skin. Her fingernails shine with a new coat of ruby–red polish.
Grandma is so close to the door that I nearly kick her when I step in. Has she been waiting there all afternoon?
"You ready to go, Grandma?" I joke.
"Not for good," she assures me.
Grandma has always been a traveler. In 1963, she and Grandpa bought their first travel trailer, and by 1970 they had moved into a mobile–home park, upgraded to an Airstream, and would spend the next 15 years towing it all over North America behind a Ford pickup. They were real professionals, the types who put a Christmas tree on the trailer's tongue every December. Polar bear watching in Canada… water–skiing in Mexico… Grandma considers her Airstream years among the best of her life. She's been talking so much about how she's going to show her grandson the art of two–lane travel that the nurses say she's annoying the other nonagenarians. She's even gone so far as to try to rent them the fold–out bed in our RV ($50 a day; no takers). Indeed, Grandma is a great talker but not such a good listener, which is why I think this trip will be so cool. We'll have some quality–time conversations about a topic we both enjoy: how to road–trip right.
"Let's be naughty," she says, shaking a bottle of syrah and giggling. "I think there's a corkscrew in there." She points to the closet that keeps her calendar of naked firemen and other essentials.
"Grandma, I think we need to nail down some details first," I say, and begin explaining what time I'll pick up the rental RV, where her caretaker will sleep, where we might stop, etc.
"We'll take it day by day," she interrupts, as if any other approach—one involving guidebooks, say—were completely, utterly preposterous. And that's that. I love my grandma.
"Ohhhh, it's beautiful," she says the next morning, appraising the 30–foot RV parked illegally next to a fire hydrant out front. Logos plaster every exterior surface: 1–800–RV4RENT. "There's the bathroom and the shower," she says. "That's your oven. You sleep there…"
Glenys, the caretaker, has more white hair than I expected (60–some years' worth) and might need a caretaker herself, having recently broken her left foot and right tib–fib. She climbs into the RV on her cane, installs herself at the kitchen table, and puts on her headphones, Bach jamming on the cassette player. Meanwhile, it's becoming apparent that Grandma—riding shotgun, map in lap, holding a disposable camera—will talk constantly.
"I could no sooner recognize this country than fly to the moon," she says, placing her hands on her cheeks and sucking in through her dentures as we motor down I–5 past so many box stores. But that doesn't stop her. She repeats the name of every sign three times.
"I know Olympia," she says. "Olympia, Olympia, Olympia."
"Chuck E. Cheese, Chuck E. Cheese, Chuck E. Cheese…"
It's a bit like having a coked–up parrot on your shoulder.
Not that my grandmother is senile, I want to make perfectly clear. She can recall events back to the dawn of AM radio. The repeating is more like a hypnotic trick to summon memories of all the times she's come this way before.
The first afternoon and evening go smoothly. At the bottom of Puget Sound, we bunk in a gravel RV "terraport" as big as a football field. Waking to warm sunshine burning through a foggy dew, we breakfast on Chips Ahoy! and stop by Safeway, where we learn Vera's Travel Tip #1: Don't sweat the food.
"In 1929, I drove a '24 Buick Touring from Eugene, Oregon, to Fort Rice, North Dakota," she begins out of nowhere.
"I worked my head off all summer cooking for thrashers. Saved $500. And then the banks went closed—ten cents on the dollar. I couldn't go back to college. So I drove home. It was all dirt roads in those days. We crossed the Mount Hood cutoff, and when we got up about so far, we had to back the car up. It was that steep. In Yosemite, my brother and uncle had to hold the car from sliding off the road."
"Wow," I interject, still unsure of the point. "What did you eat?"
"We'd buy a quart of milk and ask the farmer if we could steal a little more, suck straight from the cow."
"What about with Grandpa?" I ask. "What did you eat when you were traveling together?"Hash browns. Stew. Baked potato. Roadside berries. You're eating to exist, not to get fat! You've got so much to live for, so much to do."
In that spirit, I return 20 minutes and $62 later with groceries for the next four days. Let me rephrase: After 20 minutes, our party of three has 12 meals that cost an average of $1.72 per person: white bread, potatoes, onions, Chips Ahoy! I steer us south with a smile on my face. Yes, the portions seem a bit meager—and the food pyramid more a carbohydrate brick—but I'm game. We're not counting calories; we're counting experiences.
We turn west off I–5 toward the coast, following the South Fork of the Chehalis River through clear–cuts to a state park for tomato–and–butter sandwiches. That afternoon, we stumble upon blackberries behind a Dairy Queen outside a little mill town.
All the while, Grandma keeps talking.
"I was waitressing at Johnny's Dock when an important man came in. I didn't know. Turns out he was Richard Nixon. Campaigning …"
Worried we've passed the last RV park and not sure this is going anywhere, I interject to ask where we should stop tonight. Vera's Travel Tip #2: Stop wherever the hell you want."Rest areas, campgrounds, the side of the road, fairgrounds, in the parking lot of the Elks, in a haystack. You see, we're self–contained!"
Self–contained or voluntarily admitted? She continues her Nixon story, eventually reaching the conclusion that the former president had a neck just like anyone else, and they tied on his seafood bib same as they did everyone else's.
"Grandma, sure we shouldn't loop back?"
"No, no," she says. And here we go again. "I was the oldest of eight children. You know that. Four boys and four girls. The last child, Maybel Jean, died as an infant after World War I. Contagious flu. I was about ten years old and she died in my arms, holding her just like this. The minister came down in a speeder. He said she'd never go to heaven, because she wasn't baptized. Can you imagine!"
I can, maybe, as soon as we turn around.
"And that's why you don't believe in heaven," I say, knowing the prompt.
"I've held it against religion ever since. I don't believe in heaven," she says, before adding a tidy witticism I haven't heard. "I don't need reservations anywhere."
5:30 A.M. "I got new Depends on, I'm good for the day," Grandma hollers, still lying in bed without her dentures, looking out the rear window at dawn breaking. "Hah! Toothless Vera sees the sun rise over the Columbia."
Tell me we have more to eat than Bran Flakes.
We cross the bridge into Astoria Astoria Astoria, Oregon, the landscape changing from forest to Scotch broom, me starting to feel a bit like the chauffeur. At Cannon Beach, we wheelchair out to Ecola Point, the most photographed spot on the Oregon coast, according to the chipper ranger.
"It is just unbelievable what we're seeing," Grandma says, gazing out at puffins and cormorants circling a smattering of sea stacks. "I bet you've never seen anything so beautiful."
The way she says it—looking up at me, tone rising—I almost think it's a question, one that might even lead to a conversation.
"It is beautiful," I say, "But then, the Himalayas are pretty spectacular, too."See this purse?" Grandma replies, not rising to the bait. "I have my comb, scissors, keys, knitting needle, and lipstick in it. I got this purse in my first job. We went to a show one night and I left it behind …" She continues on about straw bales, a gentleman inviting her to dance, etc. I lose the point.
"What made you think of that?" I ask.
"My lipstick is in this purse," she says, digging it out to apply a new lacquer of red.I'm beginning to think I need a break.
"Historical marker!" Grandma calls, pointing to a little dirt pullout with a brown sign I've just sped past.
"I don't think we can make a U–turn," I say, pressing the accelerator a little harder."Your grandfather would have stopped," she says, not spitefully, though clearly I'm not living up to the family name. "We stopped at every sight."
"Every sight?" I challenge.
"Some days we traveled 500 miles. Some days 50. At the Grand Canyon, we drove 20 miles in two days. How are you gonna learn if you don't stop and look!"
Vera's Travel Tip #3: Slow down and check out everything.
Thankfully, nothing of historical significance apparently ever happened between Tillamook and Pacific City, the beach town we stumble upon ten miles off Highway 101. Taking a little Eric time, I buy a double scoop of mint chocolate chip and rent a purple Shredder 9.0 foam–top surfboard. Glorious. I even catch a wave. I return to the RV to find Grandma and Glenys feeding a pack of bunnies and seasoning wholesome beef stew with salt packets poached from the Tillamook cheese factory.
The next day, our last on the road, we take off for the central coast. State parks, pullouts, and historic sites dot the map like chicken pox, and we cover just 62 miles between 10:15 and five o'clock, averaging around nine miles per hour.
"Oooh," Grandma says at our first stop, high above the dunes at Winema Wayfinding Point. "Look at the seeeeeagull."
I do. Why not. And because I've never really looked at a seagull before—I mean, I've seen thousands but never looked—it strikes me as a little mystery to see him, a fully ambulatory creature, standing on his right leg with the left tucked up under his chest, the Ralph Macchio of shorebirds.
Similar amusements occupy our time at mile 354 on the tripometer, mile 357, mile 365.At mile 369, the empty Rodea Point lookout, Grandma spots whales. The guidebook would have said that most gray whales had already migrated past, but there they are, a third of a mile out, their slick backs shimmering in the sun.
"Ha–ha! There's a third!" Grandma says, then: "You know, times were tough when I met your grandfather…"
I can already hear the end of the tangent—"Marry the wild ones: You can tame the wild ones, but you can't make the tame ones wild"—but so what. It dawns on me, perhaps belatedly, that Grandma's lessons aren't in her words but in her example. Without expensive meals, smooth roads, or even a college education, she got out in the world. And rather than grow hardened, like a true explorer she grew more sensitive, more appreciative and curious about little marvels like steep roads and overlooks, sights easily dismissed. Here I thought I was the adventurous one. I was wrong.
After a late–afternoon grilled cheese at historic Nye Beach, Grandma falls asleep in the front seat, hands still clutching the camera.
"Grandma, you wanna move to the back, take a nap?"
She startles awake. "I just did!"
Looking out on the dogs sprinting around the shallows, the long–winged birds trying to take off over rolling swells, the hundreds of people silhouetted against the bright seahand in hand, alone, or following kids—she turns to me and says, "Just think: This is the last time I'll see the Oregon coast."
Whoa. She's so stubbornly alive that I'd sort of forgotten she was 94.
"How's that make you feel?" I ask.
She smiles. "Just about right."