Family trip covers 5K miles, familiar ground

3 middle-aged siblings travel with their 90-year-old father from the Bahamas to Alaska, driving most of the way in a rented RV, and each packing years of baggage

John M. Glionna / Los Angeles Times /

Published Feb 15, 2013 at 04:00AM

We were someplace outside San Antonio, crossing the high plains of West Texas in a rented RV the size of a city bus, when the winter storm took hold.

On the radio, a forgotten Buck Owens rendition of “Truck Drivin’ Man” filled the darkness. Then the news flash: Snow and high winds had closed Interstate 10, not far down the road.

We had a deadline, so we kept moving. As we gassed up in Sonora, the first flakes began to fall — scouts for an oncoming army. Soon a blizzard blew horizontally, blanketing the highway.

With my sister, Peg, playing co-pilot, we peered into the abyss, the next exit miles away. The ice-caked windshield wipers smeared at eye level, making me hunch low to see the road ahead.

Then my 90-year-old father, perched in a wheelchair because of his wobbly legs, watched by my sister, began to cough — a deep, persistent bronchial hack.

He was the reason we were here: three children taking our aging patriarch on a 5,000-mile odyssey across an entire continent, from his old home in the Bahamas to his new one in Alaska.

Like any family embarking on a vacation, we’d had an idealized vision of the trip: motoring along in comfort, laughing like in some 1970s cigarette ad, pointing out landmarks to Dad.

The trip would bond us as a family; good times lay ahead.

Now, marooned in the emptiness of Texas, exhausted from 14 straight hours on the road that day, we said little. Yet we were all thinking the same thing:

“Why didn’t we just fly?”

Pedal to the metal

John Steinbeck once said that we don’t take a trip; a trip takes us. Some have omens. Mine came a day earlier while loading luggage in Florida — kneeling into a messy smear of gum.

On the sides of our RV were images of people kayaking off the Maine coast and horseback riding in Western high country. Nowhere was there any sign of three middle-aged siblings, a sometimes-grumpy dad, two Bahamian potcake dogs and an urn containing our mom’s ashes.

John and Jean Glionna raised five girls and two boys, the eldest now 64, the youngest 50, with me somewhere in the middle. My parents last lived together in Florida, where in 2008 my 79-year-old mother died in a car wreck after inexplicably blowing a stop sign while running errands.

Dad, who for years has suffered from creeping dementia, lost his wife of 61 years as well as his independence. The house was sold and Dad moved in with Pat, her husband, Greg, and their dogs, Conan and Yoda.

Since then, Pat has stepped up to care full time for my father. Greg, a maritime engineer, recently took a job in Alaska, and on Jan. 2 he flew to Ketchikan to start work as we embarked on an earthbound route. Driving, we assumed, would avoid the hassles and indignities of a lengthy flight for my father.

He had never been to Alaska, though on less- lucid days, his mind would mix details from books he’d read and he’d claim to have traveled there. Upon arriving in Florida via ferry from his old home in the Bahamas, he wondered aloud why he had to go.

“I’ve been around enough to know about Alaska,” he said. “It’s far away and cold, with igloos and icebergs.”

In Fort Lauderdale, as Pat wheeled him toward the waiting RV, he wore a wool hat and a shawl that made him resemble a sheik. He gasped. “Holy... Who’s gonna drive that thing?”

“I’m driving, Dad,” I said, then jokingly added, “pedal to the metal.” Hardly reassured, he grimaced.

“How many days are we gonna be in that box? What if I have to go to the bathroom? Do I pee in the sink? That’s a hell of a note.”

Although we’d reserved weeks in advance, our RV was an overused Florida lemon with 140,000 miles — enough to travel halfway to the moon — rattling windows and play in the steering wheel. This would be its last trip, and we were told that if we could take it to Mesa, Ariz., we could switch it out for a 2013 model.

With no other RVs available, we agreed, eager to hit the road. We had to catch a twice-a-month ferry in Washington in 10 days and none of us knew what time we would make.

Maybe we were all feeling a bit of trepidation. About the long trip, but also about Dad. Maybe that’s why little things flared into something more, like at the Okahumpka rest stop in northern Florida.

I had never driven a vehicle this huge and it took practice to wheel the monster in and out of parking lots. After a break to walk the dogs, the RV lurched, the momentum slamming a sister against the wall. Anger exploded over my driving.

Meanwhile, when I’d catch Dad’s eye in the rear-view mirror, he’d offer a two-fingered Robert De Niro point from his eyes to mine, letting me know he was watching me and the speedometer.

Jacked up on energy drinks, my eyes glued to the white lines ahead, I drove 15 hours that first day. Early morning mists greeted us in Alabama.

After stopping to sleep outside Mobile, I was back in the driver’s seat, passing New Orleans by noon.

Falling into old roles

The RV’s passenger seat was commandeered by Conan and Yoda, who smeared the side window with slobber. My sisters slid in for chats. Peg, the self-professed pacifist, talked about soon becoming a grandmother back home in Buffalo, N.Y., while Pat, a tough-talking drill sergeant when a job needed doing, offered a travelogue of places she’d hitchhiked in the 1960s. Together, we told stories about our childhood.

Dad has always been a teaser. As kids he gave us all nicknames. Mine morphed from Jay to Jaybird to Jasper to Jabber to Jabberwocky. Peg was Wrenny Digeon, an invented phrase that rhymed with Patty Pigeon. Pat was later christened Babble after walking along our street as a little girl, announcing to neighbors, “We just had Kool-Aid and pancakes for dinner!”

Somewhere along the road, we each reverted to those childhood personalities. My sisters started calling me Johnny, another boyhood name I shed decades ago. It irked me, but I said nothing. At one point, like the kid brother who used to rat out his teenage sisters to our parents, I corrected the way they pronounced “Oregon.”

A tension had settled on our little group that nobody could have put their finger on, even if they had bothered to try.

After the snowstorm hit us in West Texas, we sat for nearly four hours in a McDonald’s parking lot in Fort Stockton, feeding Egg McMuffins to the dogs, checking inside for rumors about when the I-10 would reopen. Just before noon, we got the word and joined the hordes for a sadistic scramble to beat one another back onto the highway.

For miles, the traffic was bumper to bumper on icy tarmac. At one point, I had to hit the brakes and gripped the steering wheel, white-knuckled, as the RV refused to stop, sliding toward the car ahead. My mind’s eye flashed to the upcoming impact, my dad possibly hurt, my sisters pointing their fingers. I remembered how, when I was 5, I had sent my father plunging into the lake water when I suddenly jumped out of our rowboat. The girls ran up to our cottage to tell Mom, “Johnny tried to kill Dad!”

The RV stopped in time. Peg, in the front passenger seat, didn’t say a word.

The next drama erupted outside El Paso, over walking the dogs. With this one, the words cut deeper. In arguments with friends, you hold back, fearful of saying something that might end the relationship. But there is no such filter among family. Old grudges were unsheathed like weapons. Accusations were made that had nothing to do with the moment.

My father nervously launched into another loop of questions — Where were we? Was John too tired to drive? — and that cut the tension that enveloped his children. He made us laugh, saying, “They should hang a sign on my back that says ‘Befuddled.’” And after a coughing binge: “I sound like a moose calling for its betrothed.”

But the damage had been done: Heartfelt talks turned into strained civility. We were like estranged relatives seated around yet another torturous Thanksgiving dinner, this one moving along at 70 mph.

Sometimes, the idea of family seems better than the reality.

Twelve days after we’d left Florida, we docked in dark and misty Ketchikan. Pat was glad to see her husband. He’d told her days earlier about a fire that had jumped from the hearth as he slept and gutted their rented house. He was lucky to be alive.

So the journey had served a purpose: It may have saved our father’s life. It also reminded us that, for all our warring, we were still his kids. That night in bed, Dad murmured in a half-sleep, “It’s good to be around family. I like it. I like it a lot.”

And that’s good enough for us.

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