About forty years ago, we began camping with my late aunt, who had just lost her husband to cancer. This occurred the first time she and my mother visited us in Alaska. We decided it would be fun to take the auto ferry from Whittier to Valdez, Alaska. This entailed being loaded on the train, which at the time was the only way to get from Anchorage to Whittier, then boarding the ferry for a six hour cruise to Valdez. Since the sun didn’t set until after 11 p.m., we would be at our terminus while it was still daylight.
The ferry trip was spectacular, we saw much of the wildlife found along the coasts, came close to one of the major Alaskan glaciers, where the ferry blew its horn, and huge chunks of blue ice fell from a height of about 200 feet above us into the inlet. We got to Valdez at dusk after a very long day, the sun was setting and I decided to turn on the headlights – no lights. Well that didn’t matter as the sun never really sets in Alaska, just dips below the horizon and pops back up about an hour later. These trips always seemed to be marked with some sort of minor disaster. On the long drive home, the camp stove decided not to work, and I have previously written about how the car’s electrical system died later in the week. That was trip #1.
In 1978, while stationed at the Air Force Academy, we took to the road again to drive to the Grand Canyon. The trip to the Canyon was in reality a lot longer distance than we anticipated. The western states are so big, it is hard to translate what looks like a short distance on a map into the reality of driving it. It was to be done over Labor Day Weekend, as I had to be back to teach on the following Tuesday.
Our route was to drive to Bryce and Zion Canyons in Utah, snake down to the north rim of the canyon in Arizona and go back to Colorado Springs. The first night the tent pole broke, but I was able to jam it back together and we continued on with my wife, a one year old baby, and aunt in tow. At Bryce all seemed to go well. Then it was on to the Canyon. We arrived late in the day. We walked to the edge of the canyon and my aunt suddenly said “I can’t do this.” She refused to go near the edge and wouldn’t even look in. I don’t know why, but after two long days on the road, I was ready to chuck her over the edge. The whole purpose of the trip was so she could see the Canyon. We spent the night in Page Arizona at a very noisy campground filled with many folks in a labor day party mood. The last day was – to be honest – brutal. We left at dawn and didn’t get back to Colorado Springs until well after dark, probably about 15 hours on the road. I think we, read that as I, had driven about 1800 miles in three days.
That doesn’t mean we stopped traveling and until nearly the end of her life, we had one adventure after another. Some trips were more calm than others: on one she left her luggage in her foyer of her home, she assumed we had put it in the trunk, on another the electricity in our cabin didn’t work, on a trip to Yosemite in November we forgot it snowed at high altitudes in California. As she became older it became more challenging to travel with her as she fell under the spell of Alzheimer’s.
Now that she is gone we think back and smile. All of these ups and downs became part of a special relationship with our own “Auntie Mame.” And in the end, I am glad I didn’t chuck her into the Grand Canyon so long ago, but at the time, it really seemed like a good option.