Doug kicked over a full [pee] can. Packed and drove across Oregon all day. Camped at Farewell Bend State Park on the Snake River. Kids swam and fished but it was a miserable site—slept in the car because of wind.
Marge Binder, July 28, 1969
‘Twould appear from Mom’s musings that I might have caused the toppling of a full jar of urine in the tent. I don’t remember that, and I’m not copping to it. When you’re the youngest, a lot of bad stuff gets pinned on you. It’s a real burden, it is.
If Mom’s account is true, I’m sure I had a reason.
“Es mejor que nada, baby!” Part 2 (or more likely Part 54)
Mom is not one to complain. Especially after six weeks on the road with three boys, one of whom recently tipped over the pee jar (or was unjustly implicated). So for Mom to call this campground a “miserable site” makes it clear: It must have been a new low.
Camping in a tent is typically not that comfortable. I haven’t done it in a while so I don’t know what tent innovations have been made. Back then, our tent’s floor, made of some sort of thin poly-something (cancerous? we’ll see), took on the contours of what was directly underneath. If it was jagged rocks, so was the floor. Concrete begat concrete. We had cotton/flannel sleeping bags that provided warmth, but not much in the way of support, aeration or water resistance.
I don’t remember this, but Mom recently assured me that we also employed air mattresses, inflated using the Chevy’s engine. She conceded, though, by morning the mattresses had deflated.
In the case of Farewell Bend, turns out we slept in the car anyway, due to the weather. For Maw, sleeping in the car with three boys must have been a whole ‘nother level of restful bliss.
The above photo is likely NOT the Farewell Bend misery that Mom describes. I think she’d actually consider this a better-than-many situation — flat concrete slab, a garden bed, and there was an outhouse right there!
I know I’ve gone soft, but every time I look at this photo, my mind conjures up the lobby bar at any W or JW.
Waited for Tim & Doug to return from fishing. Drove to Jo’s and we went to the beach for a picnic—2 hours plus drive but it was beautiful. Saw 2 accidents on the way home. Tim stayed at camp and caught several more large bass.
Marge Binder, July 27, 1969
This is the first time Mom mentions car accidents along the way. The data in the chart below shows that Americans are driving almost 3-times the miles we were in 1969, and traffic deaths are less than half of what they were. Some of the other numbers aren’t as encouraging. For more happiness, check out the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s website.
Some other fun facts: When it comes to the deadliest states for highway travel, you might want to avoid South Carolina and Mississippi. But I probably didn’t have to tell you to avoid those places. You’ll drive more miles without dying in a fiery collision in Minnesota and Massachusetts.
For cocktail chatter, mention Henry Bliss, the first person killed by a motor vehicle in the US. There is a plaque at 74th and CPW in New York City to commemorate the fateful moment when he stepped off a street car and into the path of a taxi in 1899.
Roadtrip Movies: Part 2
In the post two days ago, I introduced the first in a series recounting the best films about roadtrips. Scroll back to check out some of my Siskel & Ebert psycho babble, the definition of a roadtrip film and some pointers from Aaron Sorkin. You can also review my list of five movies in which the roadtrip leads nowhere.
Given today’s blog topic “Drive Safely,” I thought it’d be fitting to take a look at roadtrip films with a body count — auto bodies and otherwise. Herewith…
Honorable Mentions: Movies with a Body Count — Automotive and Otherwise
“The Blues Brothers” 1980
It didn’t even occur to me to include this when I jotted down a list of roadtrip films a few months back. That might be for two reasons: 1) Is this a roadtrip or a musical? Or both? Are there any other roadtrip musicals? …and 2) the forward momentum of this film is interrupted every few minutes by a car crash of epic proportions. It’s like a Greek tragedy on wheels in Chicagoland: their journey starts at the gates of a Joliet jail and careens through a shopping mall, diners, churches and orphanages, a Nazi rally, Bob’s Country Bunker, Chicago’s North Side and more. Ultimately, in good Greek roadtrip form, the Brothers get themselves to the Cook County Assessor’s Office (near that new Picasso) to pay the back taxes for the Penguin’s orphanage. Mission (from God) accomplished. And then they go back to jail. Along the way, we meet Aretha, Ray Charles, James Brown, Cab Calloway, John Candy, an armed and dangerous Carrie Fisher, Twiggy, as well as cameos by Steven Spielberg and Frank Oz. Next time you see me, ask me this: “Orange whip? Orange whip?” Do it.
It can’t be easy to make a full-length feature about a truck chasing a car, especially when neither of them is a Transformer. But if you can make it really suspenseful and scary though, you deserve a long and storied Hollywood career. This was Steven Spielberg’s directorial debut, and the rest is history.
“The Great Race” 1965
I had this one filed under Screwball, but I will play it here. Jack Lemmon, Peter Falk, Natalie Wood and an ensemble of greats race from New York to Paris — the long way — and encounter a slew of smoky sabotage and relentless silliness, icy peril and epic pie fights. It has no reason to exist except for pure fun and good old fashioned vengeance. Professor Fate’s “Push the button, Max!” became one of the family’s random references in my youth.
“The Hitcher” 1986
What happens when C. Thomas Howell stops to give Rutger Hauer a lift in the middle of nowhere in the dead of night? Answer: I redouble my resolve to never pick up a hitchhiker. This one had an such an exquisite sinister appeal and a shocking body count, but I don’t remember how many of them were cars. RIP Rutger.
“Smokey & the Bandit” 1977
To a nerdy 7th grader with horn-rim glasses, braces, acne and b.o., the Bandit was the idol of escapist idols. This film has everything: Burt Reynolds, a Trans-Am, CB radios, bootleg beer, a ride-along basset hound and lots of good-natured traffic violations and non-life-threatening vehicular pile-ups. It’s actually a pretty tight film – go fetch beer and come back — but it somehow has room for Sally Field, Jackie Gleason, Paul Williams and a gratuitous romp in the woods set to a Jerry Reed country ballad. I watched it again recently and damn if it doesn’t hold up after 40 years, if you can forgive some wince-inducing reminders of 70s culture.
And now, let’s drop this morbidity at the next exit and get on with our life-affirming adventure. Eastword ho!
Must have been a dreadful way to start the day: 4AM alarm so that Mom could drive Dad to the airport. And, just like that, he was gone, leaving Maw with her three boys to navigate 3000+ miles back east.
Oh, and Tim fished.
Jim and I got up at 4 AM and took him to catch the 6:10 plane for Seattle. Got Mike’s shot, did the laundry, washed my hair, bought groceries etc. Tim caught some nice fish in the Lewis River.
Marge Binder, July 25, 1969
Open Road. Big Screen: Roadtrip Movies
A few weeks ago we looked at books about roadtrips. There weren’t a lot to include, best, worst or otherwise. But movies? Oh yeah, the movies were invented for the roadtrip.
There’s a great chapter in Aaron Sorkin’s Masterclass program that uses the roadtrip as a means to explain intention and obstacle — the basics of story. It’s simple but brilliant. You can’t just go from point A to B, you’ve got to want to get there so bad — money, love, freedom, salvation. You have to be willing to put your life on the line for it. And, of course, obstacles arise that must be overcome.
Intention and obstacle make for great stories (especially movies), but for this series of posts, I’m going to veer into other roadtrip films that are merely good or special to this scribe.
As with the post about books, we need to define what is a true roadtrip film. Because film is a modern invention, compared with the written word, most tales of travel tend to rely on a motorized vehicle and a surface on which to operate it. Unlike, say, The Odyssey or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I also considered films like “The Wizard of Oz” but called a DQ. So basically, I consider a roadtrip movie to be any movie where the plot centers on people who quest to go somewhere in a motorized vehicle that follows a road or surface. Nuance: it’s not about the car, it’s about the journey, so no “Herbie the Lovebug” or James Bond.
And, as with any list based on personal opinion, this list will rile critics and detractors. I don’t care. Make you own list if you feel the need.
Herewith, the first of a few lists of roadtrip films, starting with the five honorable mentions for films about roadtrips without destination.
Honorable Mentions: Roadtrips that Lead Nowhere
With great writing and direction by Alexander Payne, it’s a buddy film set against the lush wine country of SoCal. Mix in a little mid-life crisis-times-two, lots of drinking and a star turn by Virginia Madsen, and there’s a lot to love about this movie.
A silly frat boy pic that involves a lot of driving with no destination. Good gags and great chemistry — Chris Farley is a one-man chemistry set; David Spade is a beaker. If only Brian Dennehy’s Big Tom had survived the inciting event, that would have been a great movie.
Another Alexander Payne film and one that got me hooked when I saw the trailer. Unfortunately, Jack Nicholson’s Schmidt is a miserable wretch, and in the end, he finds peace not on the road but in a letter from his adopted “pen pal” child in Africa. He didn’t need to leave the house for that.
“Thelma & Louise”
You can tell early on that T&L need more than a girls’ weekend. To me, what keeps this from being a top-tier roadtrip film is probably its most memorable scene. (Spoiler) Great roadtrips and films find a way to avoid the cliff. I suppose, though, that if you can’t find an alternative, gunning the gas into fiery oblivion makes for a spectacular send-off.
The “Tiny Dancer” scene epitomizes the joy of a true roadtrip: rolling together, warbling harmonious with conviction, even though everyone is royally hung over and the bus reeks of stale beer, old bathroom and bruised testosterone. Or, as I like to call it: my college days.
Got an early start—8 AM. Stopped at Medford for breakfast then Jim drove 300 miles to Portland. Camp there full so set up at Paradise Point, Washington. Cold & windy.
Marge Binder, July 24, 1969
One of the very few times Mom cites of not having a place to stay. She and Dad pushed on north of Portland for Paradise Point just over the border in Washington. We are one week removed from the hippies, and now we dwell among the hipsters. Actually, I’ll bet Portland was about the exact opposite of hip back then.
Long known as the Rose City, Portland once called itself “The Gateway to Health and Prosperity.” In 1995 it adopted “The City that Works” as its slogan. While the city has attracted some big corporations (I’ve been there for Intel), the mystique has become more of The City that Doesn’t Really Want to Work. Or, as Portlandia termed it: The place where 20-somethings go to retire.
In 2003 the city’s newest (and likely unofficial) slogan “Keep Portland Weird” took hold, “inspired,” they say, by Austin, Texas.
Tim rented a boat and fished all day. He took Doug out too and we all took a ride and a hike and collected pine cones. Cooked spaghetti and brownies. Battened down and had a rain storm.
Marge Binder, July 23, 1969
Mom’s diary clocks 30+ times that Tim fished on this 62-day trip. I wouldn’t be surprised if she omitted 10 or 20 other times. Tim loved to fish. All his life, that was his catharsis, his place to be alone, to captain his own ship and leave the rest of the world back on shore.
As an adult, when he visited our Lake Michigan home each summer with his own family, he’d set out on the big lake from Pentwater pretty much every single morning and return well after dark (which could be after 11 o’clock). Dad bought a real fishing boat — the Pequod — back in the 90s to encourage even more fishing. Tim rewarded him with dozens of huge Coho salmon and some other kinds too.
Dad would sometimes accompany Tim for one of their marathon conversations. (More often, Dad would beg to be released after a few hours.)
In the minutes after learning that Tim had died unexpectedly, I pictured him and Dad being reunited aboard the Pequod in the sky. This is the image that resulted, in time for what would have been his 61st birthday.
ADDENDUM: After I published this I realized this installment takes place in Oregon. Another eerie coincidence with this blog: When I got news of Tim’s death in 2015, I was on a business trip in Portland. As I wandered the downtown streets in a daze, this scene first began forming in my mind’s eye.
Got up and drove to Howard Prairie Lake near Ashland, stopping at a good store & bakery at Medford. The kids swam.
Marge Binder, July 22, 1969
Mom must have submitted her diary entry before the drama that unfolded later that night. My brother Tim, a gifted raconteur, was holding forth around the campfire after dinner, doing impressions, mimicking the Borscht Belt greats, “owning the room.”
At some point, he slung around and — phwoosh — off flung his glasses into the fire. While we all reacted in horror (and a bit of “what an showman!”), Tim went about trying to retrieve them. But they were already literally toast.
To a Binder boy, lost or broken glasses meant humiliation, like getting a C+ on a test (Tim was the exception to this analogy). Lost glasses was just one more piece of tinder to stoke our raging insecurities. Our childhoods were littered with such spectacles (pun intended), some involving snowball fights, scrapes at school or simple stupidity.
On top of the initial sting of loss, Tim would be blind for a while, until we were someplace long enough for lenses and glasses to be made — pretty much the remainder of the trip.
No matter, it was really funny. Mission accomplished, Timbo! You owned it!
Fun story: When I finally got contact lenses in 1978, I lost one before I even got out of the office. Must have been a sight (puns abound!) for arriving patients to see a half dozen nurses and admins crawling around on the floor.
Note the address: Dead Indian Road. Well certainly they’ve changed the name of that by now. Nope. It’s actually got a pretty significant history. You can learn about it here.
Dad was not a fan of the campsite along the Rogue River. Mom describes it as “dusty.” After all that she had endured on this trip, though, I’m sure she made due.
This occasion would have been ideal for Mom to proclaim her yet-to-be-TM’ed motto: Es mejor que nada. Spanish for, It’s better than nothing. The “baby” was tacked on later, probably during her tenure as a high school Spanish teacher in Fairfax County.
Mom voiced this mantra often in the past 40 years. It’s at the heart of who she is: a Depression baby who appreciates what you have, because it could be worse! Yeah, she was an optimist, a trait I did not inherit.
Years later, I had shirts printed.
Packed and left. Got a late start. Drove north along the coast then into Oregon. Camped in a dusty park on the Rogue River. Jim didn’t like it.
Cooked a big breakfast. Jim and I hiked on a trail up the hill. Hot again. Boys swam. I wrote letters & cooked. Roasted marshmallows with the neighbors. Our men walked on the moon.
Marge Binder, July 20, 1969
Once again, Mom employs few words to tell big stories. It’s the only time during the trip that Mom cites a current event. It was a big one, no doubt, and one that I actually recall.
The mental relics I have are of staring up at the moon and being surrounded by lots of people and massive trees. There was music and radio chatter, and everyone seemed a little extra buzzed. Once again, Dad was in the midst of hippies and seemed very contented. All us humans just looking to the sky.
Mom explained to me: “There are men walking on the moon.” I tried really hard to see them (I’m not being cute, I actually tried), but I couldn’t see them. Even so, I believed what Mom was saying, however implausible.
In 1979, 10 years to the day, a buddy and I took the DC Metro downtown to see Neil, Buzz and Michael appear at an anniversary event at the Air & Space Museum. A 14-year-old hanging in the Nation’s Capital standing a few feet from two men whose feet walked on the moon — that was not an atypical day in my youth, thanks to Maw’s encouragement.
Fun story: At the ceremony, the microphone kept failing. Someone in the crowd yelled out, “We can put a man on the moon, be we can’t hear him speak!” Oh, we had a good laugh. Hoo boy. Still gets me.
Packed everything down the hill and were ready to go by 9:15! Drove north to Richardson Grove State Park in the redwoods and set up in Oak Flats. The kids swam in the river. Tim had a narrow escape on a cliff.
Marge Binder, July 18, 1969
I checked with Maw recently about Tim’s “narrow escape.” She laughed and assured me that “that happened all the time.” Tomorrow we delve deeper into that topic.
Mom made full advantage of state parks along the way, opting for their modicum of luxury for a discounted fee or even none at all.
Richardson Grove looks to be an idyllic example with all of the right ingredients: rugged terrain, a swimmable river, robust flora and fauna (a stray dog tried to bite Mike), all set amidst the mighty redwoods.
Did you know there are now over 8,500 state parks in the country? Here’s a recent article all about state parks from The New York Times.
Ever think of becoming a park ranger? (I think you know who I’m talking about.) Here’s a good site to get started.
Feels like the blog needs a little tap on the gas. Might be that all those hippies got us digging our mellow.
Earlier I covered some of the diversions we had for long days in the car, one of which was Tim reading aloud from John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley. Even though we’re a little north of Steinbeck country by now, it got me thinking about some of the other books about roadtrips.
Of course, first we need to agree on what constitutes a roadtrip. Does any quest like The Hobbit suffice? The Odyssey? Huck Finn? I’m going to limit it to books that center on a motorized vehicle and the surfaces laid down for them. That’s going to constrict the scope a bit. But hey, I haven’t read that many books about roadtrips anyway, as you’ll see.
Five Favorite Books About Roadtrips
First off: Honorable Mention goes to Mom’s diary from the 1969 roadtrip. Friends and followers have praised her terse but comprehensive style as of “Hemingway.” Had she not documented the trip on a daily basis (no doubt a task past exhaustion most nights), this retracing would not have been possible or even conceivable. Thanks to her for allowing me to use it as the basis for this 50th anniversary project.
5. Travels with Charley, John Steinbeck. 1960
I jumped on the Steinbeck wagon after reading The Grapes of Wrath in middle school. Travels with Charley featured less angst than Grapes, and a dog. To a nerdy high schooler living in the suburbs in the early 80s, this book made solitude seem like a reward (and I was so winning!). Of course, a lot of us were craving “freedom” at that age; the open road, adventure and experience sounded pretty good. I got the impression from Charley that Steinbeck wasn’t looking for that anymore. That’s why this was not my favorite of Steinbeck’s and, for all the catharsis, I’ve heard it was not a favorite of his either.
4. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S. Thompson. 1971
I didn’t read it. I tried, I really did. But I never found a way in. Same with Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Yep, feels good to admit it. Perhaps I’ll start another blog of all the other staples and classic literature I didn’t read. First up: Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. If anyone actually made it all the way through that behemoth, I’d love to hear what it’s about.
Kerouac wrote the book on, well, roadtripping books. Reading it was an exhausting rite of passage, as most Beat books were, forcing you to wake up, get hip and keep up. It reads like the kind of frenzied work that went into it: three nico-caffeinated weeks typing on one continuously scrolling piece of paper. It oozed with the restless angst that Charley didn’t.
In the end, after all of the drama and adventure, the road leads nowhere and nothing really matters.
“‘Where we going, man?’ ‘I don’t know but we gotta go.’”
This book made me proud to have read it. Steinbeck was a master of restless dreaming, of seeking out a better life somewhere, someday. Of course, it doesn’t work out that way. It’s the journey that helps us arrive at who we really are. Okay, enough psycho babble. The Joads got a raw deal, and the raw deals kept coming everywhere they turned. There’s plenty of political and social symbolism (and the reality of migration, xenophobia, desperation and human nature) in here, but I always come back to this: Tom Joad was an idiot. I’m sure not everyone would agree.
1. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig. 1974
This was an assignment for a sociology class during college May session, and it changed my summer and my life. For one thing, it made me a pretentious ass — or, rather, it made me aspire for pretentious assiness. Example: the word chautauqua. For years (and even a recently as last month) I will refer to some occasions five or more people are chatting as a chautauqua. Someone needs to break an acoustic guitar over my head.
After 30 years, a few symbols still resonate with me from this book — forgive the brevity:
The road is time: the past, future and the present. Be conscious of which is most important at any given moment.
The motorcycle represents one’s life: there is the right way to make it work, and there are other ways. Seek out what is the right way for you. Understand the machine well enough so that when it acts up, you are able to make it right again.
“Helmets” (while a good idea, I suppose) prevent us from fully experiencing the world around us. Remove it and see the world with better clarity, feel the wind and breathe it in, and savor the nits and gnats as you encounter them along the way.
What really took me in was the indefinable matter of values and quality that we are immersed in everyday. At age 20, this was an epiphany. The prologue is a grabber:
“What is good, Phaedrus, and what is not good, Need we anyone to tell us these things?”
As for Phaedrus, I still spar my own Phaedrus every day. I’m happy to observe that with age comes wisdom, and so my Phaedrus and I have arrived at a healthy entente.
I encourage you all to meet, know and feed your own Phaedrus.