The Summer Road Trip: Finding My Own Personal Shangri-La


The last week in July meant that Wedin’s summer camp let out, the tortures of swim team practice ended and Kansas City’s unbearable July humidity forced the Watson clan to migrate to Michigan. Like the Clampetts, nothing that could not be tied on to our fake wood-paneled hunter green Ford station wagon was left behind.The afternoon before departing, my oldest brother, Ridge, lanky and tall enough to catch the rope thrown by my dad through the wagon’s roof rack, would carefully thread the ropes (this tale obviously pre-dates bungee cords) and meticulously lay out the waxed canvas (trumpeted as waterproof but it never was) in preparation for encasing the trunks, suitcases, rackets, fishing rods and coolers. Coolers were filled with frozen ducks, geese, quail and, of course, Kansas City’s incomparable strip steaks and our homegrown beefsteak tomatoes.

My brother, Tom, and I would haul everything down to the car, which seemed to be an endless caravan of bulging bags, as my father’s sweaty face grew redder. An impossibly huge heap of bags got stacked so high that inevitably a nasty spat broke out between my mother and father over, to paraphrase my father, how in the hell my mother thought all of this crap could fit on top of this car? A gifted master at puzzles, Rubik’s Cubes and Christmas gift wrapping, my mother and her natural talents always shone forth.

“Of course we can fit this all in,” she would say as she doused her Philip Morris in her emptied gin-and-tonic tumbler.

Within the next 15 minutes, she would have ordered her three boys to “lift this here, slide that in there, top this with that” and a neat stack of our family’s worldly belongings miraculously sat wrapped in canvas and tied in Boy Scout knots (Ridge was an Eagle Scout, which came in handy).

Truthfully, the poor Ford station wagon appeared to be crushed by a mammoth Big Mac. And when driven, it swayed like a washing machine on wheels.

In a futile attempt to keep her three sons docile, mother stuffed a mattress in the rear end of our station wagon with mamman’s freshly starched linen sheets, that were thick as blankets, and a number of pillows. To entertain us, comic books, puzzles and games were stacked neatly.

In the second seat, Lilly, our overworked housekeeper, would silently sit in her blue gingham uniform, suffering beside the pots of tomato plants and tuberous begonias. While some well-known families may have lashed their pets to their car roof on family vacations, we squeezed our overfed Labrador between the cocktail-packed ice chest, the bags of golf clubs and more tuberous begonias.

Lilly tried to rein in our wanderlust Labrador, Dev (short for Devil), because Dev would wander down to the Carriage Club where the cook’s assistant would take pity on this sorrowful-eyed dog and feed her scraps, lots of scraps. Then she would wander over to Mission Hills Country Club and re-enact the same sorrowful scene only to be fed again! To be sure, the Watson family never had an inkling of this until after Dev’s girth became so great that one of us had to track her wanderings like the CIA.

As we drove to Michigan, it was not her girth that was the problem though; it was the clouds of gas. To be sure, in those days, smoking was considered to be healthy—so went our mother’s lecture when we complained—and she lit through two packs of unfiltered Philip Morris cigarettes a day. So, with windows rolled up to preserve the air conditioning on those 98-degree days, the Watsons’ station wagon tethered to a giant Big Mac with plants; golf clubs; three boys; a sweaty, red-faced father; suffering housekeeper; smoke-belching mother and a flatulent Labrador, embarked for Walloon Lake, Michigan.

By the time we reached St. Joseph, which was about 50 miles away, an hour into our three-day trip, the comic books had all been read and mother’s experiment in docility became a fight ring. Fortunately—or unfortunately—dad’s arm could not reach over the enormous cocktail stuffed cooler, the pots of tomatoes or the tuberous begonias to smack us. But he would accidentally get Dev, who would react with a flatulent reply.

Usually after three hours, close to St. Louis, the waxed canvas would have worked its way loose, flapping incessantly against Lilly’s window and driving her to mutter Swedish obscenities. Frequently, we shed something on the highway when Ridge’s knots loosened, so we would have to dangerously back up and retrieve the items.

However, once in Illinois, the signs advertising the motel “Shangri-La!” would start appearing. I was swept away, and insisted that we stay there. Nothing could be more exotic for this boy from Kansas City than a fantasy night’s stay at the Shangri-La. There was much resistance, but I persevered until I won.

The Shangri-La sign was a colorful extravaganza of neon palm trees and splashing mai tais with Chinese umbrellas in them. The mai tai glass shifted angles in bright greens and reds, tipping left and right. The sign was so big that it could be seen from five states.

The concrete-block motel had a shiny blue roof that flipped up at the corners like the temples in the movie “Lost Horizon.” I was transported.

The lobby had walls of concrete block, perforated with Oriental motifs and plastic statues of lions guarding the laminate reception desk, which glowed brightly and was lit from within. Red-, gold- and green beaded curtains separated a mysterious back office.

All the nylon shag carpets were bright red. And inside the rooms, fabrics were printed on dimpled car cloth featuring scenes of palm trees and parrots. From a Kansas City prospective, a palm tree and a parrot were foreign enough, and represented the Himalayas to us.

The rooms had Chinese lattice headboards and Danish modern teak furniture. My mother called it “tacky” as she swirled her mai tai. But I knew that life was different in the Himalayas, which was most likely filled with beaded curtains and Danish modern furniture.

Most exciting after a day on the road with the Watson clan was the kidney-shaped swimming pool. To us it was another vestige of exotic Orientalism, entered through an evocative chain-link fence. Once inside, we played Marco Polo (not realizing that this was probably the truest “Oriental” experience of the day) until the manager stormed in to rout out the “rowdies.”

With big appetites, we luxuriated in the Shangri-La’s restaurant, wolfing down chicken-fried steak and cracking open our fortune cookies. Just like I imagined other kids in the Himalayas were doing.

I have as yet traveled to the Himalayas, much less Asia. For this I regret.

I have been fortunate to see and experience a bit more of the world since the days of the Watson clan vacations, but I still cherish my parents for acquiescing to my childhood obsession. Falling asleep that hot July night beneath the Masonite headboard, mesmerized by the neon mai tai tilting back and forth, surrounded by my Lab, my family, and an Urbana-Illinois concrete motel, I just knew that I had arrived in my own personal Shangri-la. How often do you get to do that?

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