From the Back Seat of a Station Wagon

The Alabama Humanities Foundation will sponsor a traveling exhibition called “Journey Stories” in collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution beginning June 25 in Jasper. This post is the first in a series that will highlight our own personal journey stories. Our stories may include how our ancestors traveled from far away lands to come to America, or it could be about a memorable family trip to anywhere in the world, or perhaps it’s a story about our first car or train ride. Anything that includes travel and transportation can be considered our own journey story. If you would like to submit your own journey story, please email Jennifer Dome at: jdome@ahf.net.

By Jennifer Dome, AHF public relations and publications manager

One of my earliest memories is traveling in the back seat of my parents’ station wagon from North Carolina to South Dakota where we were going to live while my father attended Air Force Officer Training School in Illinois. I always seemed to be in the back seat of a station wagon, or mini van, or some vehicle while growing up. As the daughter of an Air Force captain, such was my lot in life from age 1 through 16 when we finally made our last trek, from California to New Jersey, where my father retired.

It was on those trips, though, that I got to see a vast majority of our amazing country. From the plains of Kansas, to the mountains of Grand Teton National Park, to the snowy peaks of the Rockies, there are very few states that I haven’t at least driven through. And along the way I’ve learned a lot about our country’s history.

I was born in New Hampshire and left New England before I could walk to live in North Carolina. I only attended school through first grade there, but it was time enough to pick up my teacher, Mrs. Best’s, southern drawl and learn to say “you make me ill” for just about any reason at all. What I remember most about North Carolina is the beautiful beach, and bouncing in the waves of the Atlantic Ocean.

Next up was a short stint in South Dakota where we stayed with friends, the Mortons, and got a first-hand look at the Badlands, an amazing landscape east of Rapid City where prairie dogs seemed to be the only life that existed.

When my dad finished school, our next post was Minot, North Dakota, where the snows piled high and frost bite was a scary thought to this seven-year-old. Here I traveled to water parks near the Canadian border, and the International Peace Gardens across that border. What I remember most about those trips are the fields and fields of wheat, and the rows of sunflowers, blooming and stretching their yellow faces to the hot summer sun.

We moved back to South Dakota as a family and had our first taste of living off the Air Force base, in Rapid City itself. It was there that I got my largest taste of American history: Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse, the plight of the Sioux. South Dakota is a rich state, with a deep history buried in the Black Hills. I’ll always remember the sunrise Easter church service we attended at Mount Rushmore, seeing the sun come up and shine like a spotlight on those four faces.

It was during this time that we traveled to Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park, two of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited, besides Hawaii. Between Old Faithful and the mountains that rise out of Jenny Lake, I’d never seen a landscape so grand.

California was next on the map and traveling through Utah to get there was an interesting experience. I remember getting stuck in Utah for a few days because my mother was sick, and dad taking my sister and I to see “Aladdin” to pass the time. The landscape there seemed rugged, but the orange glow the sun produced as it set was stunning.

Then, California, with its wide beaches and traffic congestion and hazy, palm-tree-lined horizons, was unlike anywhere I’d ever seen. Especially because we lived far from the glitz and glamor of L.A. in the middle of the Mojave Dessert, at Edwards Air Force Base. As a middle school and high school student, it became common to be out on the base’s golf course late at night with friends, and have to stand still, in scared, hushed silence, as coyotes traipsed nearby. Witnessing shuttle landings, and hearing sonic booms, tied this place to history as the place where Chuck Yeager first broke the speed of sound.

It’s the move from California to New Jersey that I remember best, going through the Rockies and stopping in Breckenridge, Colorado, for a night. The mountains rise out of the ground and shoot straight for the sky, snow on the tops even in July. On to Texas we drove, getting my first look at the metropolis of Dallas, then on to the East Coast, where I finished high school and now call home, despite having lived in Pennsylvania, Chicago, London and now Birmingham, Alabama, since high school.

From D.C. up to my father’s hometown of Boston, the East Coast has always seemed so accessible and the opportunities to learn endless. From the Smithsonian museums to the Liberty Bell, to Wall Street and then Quincy Market, the East Coast is a fruitful trail that tells the story of our country’s birth.

I’ve been very lucky, to be raised this way and see the states I’ve seen. Sure, there were miles on the road when I propped up baby doll blankets to block out my sister and her peskiness, and no doubt we tested my parents’ patience numerous times. But now I look at the travels I took as a child and I’m thankful for the experience, thankful that I live in such a free and beautiful country where I can drive from state to state, taking in the bounty. Without the journeys I had as a child, I might not appreciate Alabama as much, with its wonderful landscapes, from the ocean in Mobile, to the mountains up north, and all the historical sites in between.