Inviting Writing: Surviving Highway 1 With a Toddler in Tow

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Continuing our Inviting Writing theme of road food, today we'll take a backseat to the engaging prose of Deborah Linder, who writes and teaches in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. (Read previous road trip stories here.)

Two For the Road By Deborah Linder

It seemed like a simple-enough plan: my two-year-old son Henry and I would take a road trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco, much of it on the renowned Highway 1.

This was in the spring of 1993. Henry and I had been quarantined alone at home together with chicken pox for the past two weeks and needed an adventure. I’d long dreamed of taking the trip up the coast, although a toddler companion hadn’t figured prominently in those earlier dreams.

We set out on a sunny afternoon. I’d like to say that the trip promised a culinary bonanza, but in truth, we packed our boxy red Volvo with Cheerios, tiny boxes of raisins, string cheese and a well-hidden bag of emergency M&M’s.

“Wooeee,” Henry shouted as I honked the horn and we waved goodbye to our neighborhood. He fell sound asleep as soon as we hit the freeway, ensuring me a couple of undisturbed hours of driving. In fact, the only time he’d ever been stirred from road-slumber was the unfortunate detour I’d once made through a golf course. The thwack! from a golf ball slamming into our windshield had scared the bejeezus out of both of us that day.

We stopped for the night in San Luis Obispo, saving the scenic stretch of Highway 1 for the following day. My toddler was a happy traveler: the hotel beds made great trampolines, and the restaurant where we had dinner provided both a mariachi band and kiddie sundaes. (And a damn good margarita for me.)

The next day we were up early, thanks to the inner rooster of the young child. According to my map (ah, those pre-GPS days), the distance to our next scheduled stop, Monterey, was just a few inches away.  I predicted we’d be at the town’s famed aquarium by noon.

“Want to go see some big fish?” I asked Henry.

“Wooeee, Mama!”

Highway 1 is heartbreakingly beautiful. It’s the California landscape of legend, with postcard images that have inspired millions to travel to the Golden State. Cast your gaze to the west and you’ll see gorgeous ocean vistas, crashing waves, and perhaps, a glimpse of dolphins frolicking. Cast your gaze eastward and you’ll be stunned by the magical combination of green hills, craggy mountains, and endless blue sky.

Unless you’re the driver, that is. Before I’d gone too far, hairpin curves and sheer cliff drops made certain that there would be no ooh-ing and aah-ing from me. The scenery I’d heard so much about….I couldn’t see. When I dared to take my eyes off the road for even a second, I got shaky. Not to mention nauseated. Was it possible to be carsick when you were driving?

My passenger didn’t seem to be enjoying the scenery, either. After a short while, he began making demands.

“Juice, please,” he commanded as we rounded another curve. I reached into the cooler next to me and without turning around, passed back one of the small cartons.

Henry slurped. The juice box thunked to the floor.

Minutes dragged on. By now the late-morning sun was bright overhead. Hunched over the wheel, I shrugged my tense shoulders and forced myself to sit up straight. Deep breaths. In the rearview mirror, I could see another car tailing me too closely and although I looked for a place to pull over, I saw nothing but more curves ahead.

“Songs, please,” Henry said. I fumbled with a cassette tape and pressed play.

“Chicken lips, Mama!” At least the child had good musical taste, soon singing along (at high volume) with Bruce Springsteen to “Chicken Lips and Lizard Hips.”

When the song finished, he shouted, “again!”

And four minutes later, “again, Mama!”

Of course, a different song had begun playing in my head—that old Animals’ anthem, “We Gotta Get Out of This Place.” Venturing a quick glance to the horizon on my left, I gasped. It was a long way down. Since a modern-day philosopher had once claimed that the only way out was through, I focused my attention on the road and kept driving.

“Where are fish, Mama?” Henry asked.

“Soon,” I told him, although I could tell from the rare destination marker tell that my calculations hadn’t involved traveling at 15-mph for so much of the trip. “Later,” I amended.

“I’m hungry, Mama,” Henry said and began to shriek. “Now. Now. Now. Now! Now!

And then, after a pause, he whispered, “candy?”

Excellent idea. Except that the candy was in the trunk. So much for emergency preparedness.

Then, like a mirage, a restaurant sign appeared in the near distance. It was a place I’d heard about, a storied hamburger establishment that half a dozen people had recommended to me.  I turned on my blinker, swung into a parking spot and lifted my clammy hands from the steering wheel.

Stepping outside, my legs felt like I’d been traveling for thousands of miles in a bobbing dinghy instead of a mere 100 in a Swedish sedan. Henry seemed to feel no ill effects. He immediately ran across the broad patio and began dancing as we ordered our lunch.

We sat down at an outside table where we gazed out at last, safely, over Big Sur. The sun was bright, the air cool, the scenery majestic. We feasted on the aptly named “Ambrosia Burgers” and French fries. Henry made sure that the blue jays that swooped overhead feasted, too.

Afterwards, as I pulled a giggling Henry onto my lap, it occurred to me that, contrary to popular wisdom—at least when traveling with children—it’s not the journey, but the destination that matters.

And that a really good hamburger can make almost any situation better.

Together we stared off at the wide blue horizon.

“Wooeee!” said Henry.