Each fall for the last 21 years my parents packed up their motorhome or (in recent years) their mini-van and headed south to spend some or all of the winter in Arizona. Some years the trip took weeks, with detours of hundreds of miles to meet friends or take in some new sight. Sometimes the trip was a race against the howling winds and snows of winter. Occasionally it was a slow slog through the first of those early storms. However, while the timing of the trip changed through the years (from after Christmas to after Thanksgiving to after Election Day) my parents always got on the road to make the trip south.
This year, with my father gone, my husband and I helped my mother load the mini-van and made the drive south with her.
We left in early November, driving through a dull-brown landscape just a day ahead of the season’s first winter storm. Our route took us through the core of the Great Plains – southern Minnesota, Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, the Oklahoma panhandle, and a corner of Texas – before we crossed the dry buttes of New Mexico, the mountains of Arizona, and down into the warmth of the Sonoran Desert. Along the way abandoned farmsteads and endless acres of corn and wheat became countless oil rigs and cattle. Wind towers standing high above it all. At last we hit the rugged landscape of New Mexico, the pine-covered mountains of northern Arizona, and the saguaros of the Sonoran Desert.
We made the 1,700 mile trip in four days, with overnight stops in the agricultural burg of York, Nebraska; the oil and cattle town of Dalhart, Texas; and the mountain get-away of Payson, Arizona.
We made few other stops along the way: lunch in the Danish village of Elk Horn, Iowa, where someday my mother and I will visit the Museum of Danish America together; an emergency room visit in Salina Kansas when my mother’s arthritis attack started to alarm all of us; lunch with a high school friend of mine in Albuquerque; and a quick break to check out the odd variety of merchandise at the over-advertised Flying C Ranch.
This annual pilgrimage south had always been an unknown part of my parents’ life. I knew they made this journey, often even knew exactly where they were along the way, but I had never made this journey myself. I had never seen the places so familiar to them, never felt the rhythm of the changing landscape along the way. Now I know.
It was a gift to accompany my mother on this trip, to experience with her this journey she knows so well.
This is probably the last time she will travel this way. Next year she will likely make the trip by air. It is a change my parents should have made years ago; a change my father resisted. He loved to be on the road with the landscape unfolding around him. For my father any trip – even a familiar one – was about the journey as much as the destination. Flying will be easier, faster, and safer for my mother and for the rest of us too. But it will also mark the end of yet one more familiar tradition in a year that has already seen the end of so many.