Miles of Asphalt

Katie Frankel

My band of women and I would always road trip back and forth across the western United States as I grew up. At first, it was to drive to California to stay for the summer, and then when we moved there, it was to drive back to Texas to visit periodically. From the time I was eight years old, I spent several days of every summer watching the burnt, yellowed grass of North Texas turn into desert. The scenery stayed brown all the way up until San Diego, with thick tumbleweeds blowing across the road just like in the Old West movies. I could see jack rabbits propelling forward on skinny legs, their long ears sticking straight up; I could always recognize this prominent feature, even all the way from the backseat of our dusty black Suburban.

At the time, I usually didn’t like those seemingly never-ending car rides. The cup holders and floors would fill up with the greasy wrappers from McDonald’s breakfast sandwiches, and no matter how frequently my mom would order us to throw out our trash, someone would always find a collection of rock-hard French fries under the seat weeks later. Even after the fast food trash had been cleaned out of the car to the best of our knowledge, the smell still lingered for days, making me feel nauseous every time I climbed inside.

Especially when I was younger, my grandma seemed to know that those road trips could be hard on us kids. The rise in elevation across the mountains of the desert always made my ears pop and throb in pain. Once, at a McDonald’s, despite my horrid mood, she placed her bony fingers to either side of my face and kissed me, smearing my cheek with the red lipstick she always donned, even on these road trips. She then tried to cheer me up with an Oreo McFlurry.

On the second day of one of our road trips, I slunk to the tile floor inside the bathroom of a Denny’s restaurant that we had stopped in, feeling sick. I was about ten, and still very susceptible to car sickness.

“Mommy said to get off the floor. It’s dirty,” my older sister told me after tattling on me to our mother. Slowly, I dragged myself up to my feet, wondering why I hadn’t been able to just puke in the toilet already.

Returning to the table, I sat down a stared at my plateful of pancakes before vomiting long and hard into them.

“Eww,” both of my sisters choked out in disgust.

My older sister was assigned the role of telling the waitress what had happened as the rest of us fled the scene.

Pulling away from the diner, I felt worse, not better, as I usually did after finally puking. “I need to stop,” I begged my mom in a gasp, the motion of the car only making my nausea intensify. My twin sister complained as well, but my mom and grandma adamantly refused; we had to make our time.

A few minutes later, my twin sister and I vomited into plastic grocery bags in unison, right from the backseat.

Staying in the seedy motels along the way was a mixture of horribleness and great fun.

“What are those white stains?” I asked in naïve curiosity, pointing to a dried splattering on the floor.

My mom refused to ever let us walk around the motel rooms barefoot.

Another time, late at night in maybe west Texas or Arizona, my sisters, mom and I toted our bags in the outdoor hallway to the room we had been assigned. A group of men lingering outside stared at us as we walked, smiling and lowering their voices as we passed.

“Mommy, what time’s Daddy gonna get here?” I asked loudly, just as we’d rehearsed.

Across miles and miles over the desert, Lucinda Williams, the Cranberries, Alanis Morissette and the Dixie Chicks provided the soundtrack to our road trips. Each time a song I particularly liked was over, I knew that I would get to hear it again in another hour or so, and then an hour after that. The wind that blew in at eighty miles an hour whistled loudly every time my mom cracked her window to smoke a cigarette, temporarily interrupting the song.

When we got out of the car for gas and snacks, the heat was always so intense that I would feel my entire body pulsating. I imagined if I placed my palm on the asphalt, the skin would sizzle and boil, like the time I accidentally burned my ear with the hair straightener. On these road trips we always had at least one dog with us – usually, Buddy, an Irish Setter – and he would struggle to find an excusable burnt patch of grass to pee on.

Gas stations became scarce out in the middle of nowhere, and sometimes we had to drive far into the night before we even found a motel to stop at. My mom always had the Suburban stocked with plenty of water, “just in case.” Once, probably around one in the morning, we were all just dying to pee and hadn’t seen a place to stop for hours. Somewhere in West Texas, we pulled up to an isolated, abandoned concrete building, a dim light shining down on it.

“It looks like haunted out here,” my sister said.

“They filmed one of the horror movies somewhere around here,” my mom confirmed. She didn’t say this to scare us; we all thought it was cool, and giggled loudly as we pulled down our pants, squatting down against the wall of the building as we all peed on the asphalt. There wasn’t a single soul around for miles, and we probably could have done anything we wanted in that creepy Texas ghost town.

Having traveled thousands of miles, my sisters and I had the routine down pat on who would stake claim to “the way back,” or the third row seating in the car. My twin sister got it in the morning, I got it in the afternoon, and my older sister got it in the evening and into the night. This was our treasured time to lie out across the seat and sleep, without having to sit in the second row with our large dog splayed out in between two of us.

The times my grandma would come with us, she would always speed down the dusty roads like a madwoman, intent on getting us where we needed to go with no time to lose. From the driver’s side back seat, I watched her red-dyed puffy hair sticking up over the headrest. Once, the flashing lights of a sheriff – a real old West sheriff, with a cowboy hat and everything – pulled us over.

“Who’s going to pretend they’re sick?” my mom asked urgently.

I shot my hand into the air. “Me! I can do it,” I promised.

When the sheriff asked, my grandma would be racing to the closest gas station to get me some Pepto Bismol because I was about ready to spew everywhere.

After hearing the carefully recited story, the sheriff peered into the backseat. He looked so serious, his big shades covering his eyes, the mustache on his upper lip resembling a furry caterpillar. I smiled, delicately placing a hand over my mouth as I bit my cheeks hard to keep from laughing.

I got yelled at as we drove away, but I knew I wasn’t in too much trouble because we still hadn’t gotten a ticket. “I’m sorry,” I murmured sheepishly. “I laugh when I get nervous.”

As I morphed from child to preteen to teenager, we still took those road trips. I would stare out the window as we drove across the desert, a thousand stars visible in the night sky even from looking out the car window. Obsessed with horses from the time I was ten years old, I imagined climbing bareback up onto a horse and galloping across the land, nothing in my way to stop me out there in the wild West.

I could never sleep in the car as much as my sisters and even my mom could. Sometimes, late at night if it was my grandma’s turn to drive, she would quietly ask, “Am I the only one awake?”

“I’m awake,” I would assure her quickly, feeling special in that moment. She knew that she could count on me to keep her company up until the earliest hours of the morning.

I hated those road trips. I loved those road trips.

My last road trip happened sometime in ninth grade. I didn’t know it would be the last one, of course; there’s a last time for everything, but no one ever realizes when they’re belting ‘Drunken Angel’ with their mom across the desert, or walking their Irish Setter, or kissing their speed demon grandma for the last time.

About the Author

Katie Frankel is a recent graduate of Texas Wesleyan University with a degree in English. She particularly enjoys memoirs and historical fiction, and, when not writing or reading, takes leisure in traveling and riding her horse.