When our family moves to Illinois in the early 1960s, we leave behind our California dreams for a new life in the Midwest. I am eight years old and the trip east feels like a journey out of time, to a place too far away for my young mind to quite comprehend. I do not want to go. But my forlorn feeling at leaving our familiar California home is temporarily eased as the adventure of the long automobile trip unfolds.
At Donner Pass in the high Sierras I encounter snow for the first time. Near the roadside rest stop, I scramble up the rocks with my younger brother and sister to throw our first snowballs.
In Reno, leaving a restaurant I will puzzle over the man on the sidewalk in a cowboy hat who asks my father for money. Leaving Reno, a wild beauty defines the desert’s stark expanse, a beauty that leaves me content to stare out the window for long stretches. At the end of the day come the Best Western motels with their swimming pools and coin-operated “vibrating massage” beds. They cost a quarter.
In Salt Lake City, we stay at the home of my great grandparents, Lorus and Isabel Pratt, both then over 80 years old and living touchstones to Utah’s pioneer past. Isabel is barely five feet tall, but her strong personality looms large over the extended Pratt family. There is a family story that she was the first woman in the state of Utah to acquire a driver’s license. Is it really true?
Her husband Lorus is soft-spoken, a kindly artistic man who in the 1940s was commissioned to paint a series of official portraits of the men who had served as presidents of the Mormon Church. His father by the same name was a 19th century Western painter who had studied in France under Church sponsorship and later contributed to the murals and frescoes of the Salt Lake Temple. Lorus takes me out back for a tour of his garage workroom where he likes to paint.
I like my Utah relatives. On our first morning in Salt Lake City, Great Grandma Pratt offers me lemon meringue pie for breakfast. Later, Dad drives us over to the Pink Palace, a Salt Lake ice cream shop owned by his Uncle Milt at the corner of 5th East and 17th South. There we all gorge on peppermint ice cream while Dad shares with us stories from his Utah boyhood.
The next day we are ready to leave. Amidst the bustle of loading up the station wagon and saying our goodbyes, Isabel calls me over to her at the kitchen table. The elderly lady has something for me and quietly slips a silver dollar into my hand. She whispers in my ear not to tell my parents until we are out on the highway. I thank her, an enthusiastic recruit to her conspiracy.
Leaving Salt Lake City, Dad wants to make one final stop. At Lookout Point on the edge of the mountains, just east of the city, we pose for a photo next to the statue of Orson Pratt, an original Mormon pioneer and leader of the scouting party that first came upon the Salt Lake Valley. Orson Pratt is the grandfather of my great grandfather, Lorus. When finally we are out on the highway, I pull the silver dollar out of my pocket, excitedly displaying my secret bounty to everyone. Mom and Dad smile. Mom says: What a lucky boy I am!
In our Chevrolet station wagon, we make the drive east in one week. As we enter Illinois, Mom teases us by claiming that the highway road sign, which abbreviates Illinois to “ILL” followed by the road number, indicates the number of sick people in Illinois that day. The news momentarily alarms my sister and I, the only young ones old enough to ponder the implications of this “news.” I wonder: Are people so sickly in this place that updates must be posted on public road signs?
But my mother is not one to let our young minds run with childish fears. Seeing the worried looks on our faces, she immediately lets us know she is just teasing. Later, we arrive at our new home in the Chicago suburbs.
And so begins our new life in the Midwest. The new four-bedroom home is twice the size of our California ranch home, costs $32,000, and has a long gravel driveway to a stand-alone garage in the back. We will live here for six years, before my father’s restless ambition once again uproots the family for a new life in Michigan.
In those early days, I will spend endless hours gazing from my bedroom window at the commercial jets as they fly west toward the horizon. They take off from nearby O’Hare Airport and fly low in the sky. With Dad’s binoculars, I make a game out of seeing how long I can keep the planes in sight before they disappear from view. In the far distance the aircraft will eventually fade in and out of view, before finally vanishing into the western sky. And in those brief final moments when the plane is but a faraway speck, I will wonder if it is now over California.
How my heart will yearn to be a passenger on one of those jets, to fly away from the loneliness and longings of our first Midwestern summer, to return home and wander forever in my California dreams.