Remembering Dad One Vacation At A Time

I've written three posts in the last three days and deleted each one of them. Not because they weren't any good, but...wait, no, it's exactly because they weren't any good. Between the ongoing crisis centered in D.C. and the loss of my father, I'm struggling to concentrate on anything else.

So I won't. This is mostly for my own benefit, to remind myself. If you're interested, by all means read on, but I won't be upset if you decide to skip this one. Some of these memories could well be inaccurate, but that doesn't bother me. They're my memories and I don't love them any more or less if they're true.

The first vacation I remember taking with my father back when The Beatles were still a band. We lived in a big, two story rental home in Dallas. We had a wall calendar and there was a picture of an airplane on the day when we were leaving. About all I can remember is that we were flying Braniff back when they were still a major airline and they painted all of there planes in different solid colors with white tails.  I hoped we'd take a blue plane because it was my favorite color. I don't recall whether we did or not.

I don't remember our first proper camping trip. I do remember that the weather invariably turned rainy any time we camped. When I later became a Calvin & Hobbes fan, I really appreciated all of the strips where the dad insisted that they enjoy their camping trips no matter the weather, as camping in the rain "builds character." I remember swearing that, when I grew up, I would never again camp in the rain. I have kept that promise.

We owned a canoe and took semi-regular trips, mostly day trips, but sometimes overnight, to float the rivers in north central Texas. They were gentle floats, most of the time, as there was no white water anywhere near us. We floated the Trinity, the Caddo, and most often, the Brazos. The Brazos had a marvelous limestone bed which made the river incredibly clear. Dad did the bulk of the paddling as I was (and remain) lazy and preferred fishing to paddling. 

The Brazos was most definitely "our place." We had a preferred camp site, most likely on private property up a creek on the west side of the river below Lake Whitney. There was an enormous limestone boulder, a house-sized cube, just in front of the mouth of the creek. If you weren't prepared, you'd miss the entrance and have to paddle back upstream. The first hundred yards were wide and slow and had a very low canopy of branches which gave the impression of being in a tunnel. The creek turned to the right at another, smaller, cube of limestone and the canopy gave way to open sky. There was a small, white beach behind the boulder where we could tie up the canoes. 

You followed a short path up a ten foot cliff to and found yourself underneath a one hundred and fifty foot wide amphitheater carved out of a limestone cliff. Under the shelter of the shell was the softest, whitest sand you've ever seen. We often slept under in the amphitheater one just an air mattress and a sheet, no tents or sleeping bags, and watched the stars wheel by before falling asleep.

More often, we'd camp either using our travel trailer or a borrowed Merry Miler conversion van. I loved that van. The idea of having a house behind the driver's seat seemed very science-fictiony to my tween brain. We took it out to New Mexico, where I first smelled pinion pine fires and had my first sip of Jack Daniels by a camp fire on a cold, clear night at what was surely the highest altitude I'd ever experienced. We drove down to El Paso and I visited Mexico for the first time back when crossing the border was a simple thing to do. That night, my grandfather on my mother's side passed away and we drove overnight back home through an ice storm. We stopped in Clyde, Texas, and we found that there was more than an inch of ice on the van, but we kept going anyway.

The trailer wasn't quite as much fun since I was stuck in the very uncomfortable back seat of a 1970's Chevy Blazer. It was better for sleeping and cooking and showering, though. My mom always made her shrimp salad with iceberg lettuce, the smallest frozen shrimp I've ever seen, and Good Seasons Italian dressing.

We took the trailer up for an overnight camping trip, dads and sons, by some reservoir in north Texas (I can't remember which). The dads set up camp and started drinking bear and cooking beans and sausages and they laughed when we kids took off with fishing poles for a little sandbar near the camp sight. If you've never encountered a sand bass run, let me describe it for you: No matter what you throw out into the water, you will catch a sandy. The bait didn't matter. The lure didn't matter. We got to the point where we were tying multiple lures to the same line and catching more than one fish at once. When we returned to camp, each kid had a stringer or two full of pound to pound and a half sand bass. I still remember the look on all the dad's faces.

Alas, the trailer did not get a happy ending. One night, the night before we were going to go on a trip, my sister and I couldn't sleep, so we were moving around the house and we noticed a light outside. It turns out that gas lines are difficult to repair and the trailer burned down that night and we never got another one.

My father was very big on the traditional Big Family Vacation. He even had t-shirts screen printed with logos for the vacations, something that seemed very exotic at the time. The first one of these vacations I remember was to the Big Bend National Park. Our truck ran out of gas on the way down there and mobile phones were still a couple of decades away, so we flagged down a couple of French painters and I rode with them, by myself, to the camp site and found my aunt and uncle's camp. All in all , I think we had nine or ten people there, including my dad, his wife, my aunt and uncle, my cousins and my sisters.

We canoed on the Rio Grande for three days, going through the Boquillas and Mariscal canyons. We had an odd number of paddlers, so we had a one man kayak with us. I volunteered to take the kayak, heck, I begged for it. The kayak was magical going through the canyons, but it wasn't the sort of boat designed for long stretches of open water, so I struggled badly between the canyons and had to get some help on the last day.

We'd been eating dried food for three days when we finally reached our destination. We stopped at a little convenience store in the middle of nowhere and piled inside.  Everyone grabbed candy and chips and anything that could be immediately devoured. I found one, lone head of iceberg lettuce and got that and some salad dressing. Calling it a salad would be an overstatement, but after three days on the river, having fresh food to eat was absolute heaven.

The next trip was to the Gasconade river in Missouri and, weirdly enough, I don't remember nearly as much about this trip. I know I enjoyed it, but I suspect that that I'd become so involved with my friends at home that I was too cool to be on a family vacation. It's too bad, because it was lovely and my grandparents were there was well. The most vivid memory I have is that of eating a dead bug to gross out my cousins. It worked.

The last big family vacation I remember was in Panama City Beach in the Florida panhandle. We rented a big beach house that slept ten and was a few blocks from the beach. I remember making up stories to tell the younger members of the family, and visiting the beach a couple of times a day, and what was by far the best seafood I've ever eaten. In my mind, it was the literal expression of the phrase "fresh off the boat," a little shack that steamed fresh seafood. I have no clue what kind of a tab we ran up that night, but I suspect it was impressive, and, to my mind, worth it.

The strip in PCB had essentially three kinds of establishments: bars (duh), airbrush t-shirt shops, and miniature golf courses. They were the most elaborate miniature golf courses I've ever seen and I've still never seen anything quite like them. If you've never played a par 5 mini golf hole, you're missing out. Anyway, I have nothing but fond memories of this trip. Maybe I sensed it was going to be the last one, but I doubt it. It just felt more relaxed and less "scheduled" than the other trips. We spent more time together and less time having to do this or that.

The last trips I took with my father were a couple of visits to spring training, one in Florida and one in Arizona. The last one was in Arizona and it was the most memorable, and the most "dad" of my vacations with him. I flew out to meet him in Phoenix as he'd driven out the previous week. We stayed in a little Day's Inn with a single queen bed that we shared, but we didn't spend much time in the hotel. Every day, we drove out to the training complexes and watched the players work on the practice field, and then later, we drove to wherever that afternoon's game was. 

One afternoon, I think it was in Surprise, but maybe it was Maryvale, we were out on the outfield grass, watching the the players warm up before the game, drinking Shiners, and listening to Stevie Ray Vaughn on the PA, and we both decided that life had been very good to us indeed. We dined at a German restaurant with mottled amber candles with white plastic netting. There was an entertainer who sang along with karaoke tapes. I was the youngest person in there. My father was the second youngest, and he was not a young man. 

Driving back to Texas, we took the southern route along the Mexican border. We went through Bisbee and ate lasagna at Rosa's and I had to fix the wifi at the hotel because there's no such thing as a real vacation for a person in my line of work. We went up the side of mountains where we were in one hundred degree deserts when we started and we were making snowballs half an hour later. 

We talked and talked and talked and even after three days of driving we didn't get sick of one another which isn't a given even with people you love. Among his myriad virtues, my father was one heck of a travel companion. I don't need another reason to miss him, but the man was a heck of a lot of fun to be around on trips.

-RK

P.S. The header image for the post is a photo I took of my father during the last spring training trip. I wasn't particularly good at manually focusing my lenses, so of course the image of him is blurry while the background is razor sharp. This goes a long way towards explaining why I am not, and never will be, a professional photographer.