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Family road trip covers 5,000 miles and some old ground

Three 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.

February 04, 2013|By John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times
  • Reporter John M. Glionna drove his 90-year-old father, with help from two sisters, from Florida to Alaska in a rented RV.
Reporter John M. Glionna drove his 90-year-old father, with help from two… (John M. Glionna / Los Angeles…)

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 Pat, 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?"

***

John Steinbeck once said that we don't take a trip; a trip takes us. Some have omens. Mine came 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 over-used 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 state in 10 days and none of us knew what time we would make.

We traveled north. When we passed our first landmark — the city of Ocala, where my mother died — no one said anything, figuring it would upset my father. He'd often comment, "Jeannie left us in an awful hurry." Once he said in his sleep: "Jeannie, where are you? If you can hear me, smile; turn on your charm."

In between crossword puzzles, he would fire off lines from his favorite Westerns and break into song, including an ode to Mom: I want a girl just like the girl that married dear old Dad. He'd quote from a Tennessee Ernie Ford version of "Sixteen Tons" — If you see me comin', better step aside / A lotta men didn't, a lotta men died — and one from Burl Ives, "Big Rock Candy Mountain":

I'm bound to go

Where there ain't no snow

Where the sleet don't fall

And the wind don't blow

In the Big Rock Candy Mountain.

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