Taking a break from scholarly work (I take an amazing number of breaks from it; gotta work on that), I decided to revisit my memoir-in-progress, the Little Shit Chronicles. This episode takes place nearer to the end of the cross-country trip; we were actually pretty close to our destination of Sacramento, but for reasons I’ve never known (and can only imagine as being not good), we spent some long, boring days at the Gold Trail Motor Lodge on Highway 50 in California. It’s only 37.9 miles from the house we were to be moving into. That’s not a typo, either. It’s 37.9 miles.
The Gold Trail Motor Lodge still exists, and still looks just the same. JUST THE SAME. The Mother Lode Motel is real and still exists, too. In fact, you have to check in at the Mother Lode to stay at the Gold Trail.
Highway 50 is very much busier than it was 45 years ago, and the town of Placerville is a bit more bustling.
I would not undertake the 2.7 mile walk along the highway from the motel into town that we took then. We shouldn’t have taken it then, but it wasn’t nearly as dangerous as it would be now. But we were young, bored, and desperate. And hungry. My teenaged brother needed food. We would get him food.
Don’t misundertand me. We weren’t that kind of hungry. Not the poor, starving childrren you see in the news, children of Appalachia or inner city food deserts. We were spoiled middle-class suburban kids who felt like we’d been deprived of a meal, and we had some money in our pockets. We had been eating at restaurants, some very nice ones, for 2 weeks and our expectations were of 3 solid meals a day. At the Gold Trail Motor Lodge, we relied a little too much on vending machine potato chips and Cokes. Fun at first, but eventually you need something else.
In 1972, I didn’t know much about Italian food, or American-style Italian food, except for spaghetti and lasagna and pizza. Minestrone and spumoni sounded very exotic and a little scary. But by this point, I’d already accidentally ordered and then eaten escargots in New Orleans, so a little soup wasn’t going to get in my way.
[text copyright Genevieve Cottraux 2017]
The Gold Trail Motor Lodge is right on the side of Highway 50. I’m not sure that anyone else is staying here but us. We are on our third day here. There is nothing to do. At least the equally plain and ugly Mother Lode Motel, next down the highway, lets us use the pool. The three of us sit in the water and spend the change we collected in Las Vegas in the vending machines, sipping cold sodas and eating potato chips while the hot sun beats down on us. An occasional car roars down the road that we can see through the chain link fence.
Steve has taken to studying the road atlas.
“It’s only 45 miles from Placerville to Sacramento,” he points out gloomily.
We hardly see Mom and Van.
“How far is it into town?” asks Ellen as she drags her hand through the blue water. I can’t see her eyes behind her sunglasses.
Steve uses his fingers as a ruler and tries to figure out where we are on the red line that is the highway in the atlas. “I think it’s about 3 miles.”
“We’ve walked that far before, going into Emory Village to Horton’s,” Ellen reminds us of the many treks to our favorite dime store and soda fountain. Will I ever see Horton’s again?
“But there are sidewalks and shade trees there. It’s not safe to walk on the side of the highway,” I say nervously.
“I could try to get the keys to the car,” Steve says. I can’t tell if he is joking. Ellen can’t drive; she’s afraid to take the drivers’ test to get her license. Steve is only 14, but he drives sometimes. Van lets him now and then when he’s tired or wants to smoke and drink without worrying about keeping his eyes on the road. I think Steve is the better driver.
“I’m getting really tired of potato chips and Cokes. There has to be a place to eat in Placerville. Or a grocery store. We’ll walk single file and be really careful.”
In my head I see us straggling down the busy highway, cars zooming past and the sun blazing down and me desperate to keep up with the others. Then my stomach growls thinking of a cafe with real food and drinks with ice.
“The television doesn’t work,” adds Steve. “I’m sick of this place.”
We go to our room, put on the sneakers none of us have worn for 3 days, and set off down Highway 50, the sun in our eyes. Ellen leads the way, with me in the middle so I will feel safer, and Steve bringing up the rear, singing “100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.”
At about 90 bottles, Ellen turns around. “Oh, shut up.”
“I wish Cathy was here. She knows all the good songs.”
Some summer nights, we would all pile in the car, even the dog Tripp, and Mom would start driving and the game was to get her lost. “Turn left here!” Cathy would start the sing-alongs. By the Light of the Silvery Moon, with extra made up choruses, Sipping Cider through a Straw, The Chicken Song. Knowing how much my mother hates to drive, I really don’t understand why she was willing to play this game with us. And we never got lost, how was that?
We can’t get lost on this outing; the motel is on the side of Highway 50 and it looks like whatever there is in Placerville is right on the highway too. Sweat trickles down between my shoulder blades and my braid feels really hot on the back of my neck. Ellen must be desperate to get out; she hates to do anything that involves dust or sweat.
It’s hard to talk with the cars roaring past so we don’t for a while. After what seems like hours, we finally get to town. I see a lot of bars. Maybe we’ll find Mom and Van if we go in, but then, we don’t really want to find them.
“Just down there.” Ellen points to a little side street and the neon lights of an Italian restaurant. We trudge forward, no longer in single file. It’s cool and dark and smells of garlic inside the restaurant. An older woman, wearing all black and a big black apron, comes over to us, concern on her face.
“The 3 of you are alone?” she asks.
“Oh, our mom is down the street. She sent us to get some dinner.” Ellen acts like we’ve been doing this all of our lives, not just the last few weeks. “We have money.”
“Of course. This way.” The woman takes us to a scarred old wooden table, and comes back with ice waters and menus. As I sit down, I can feel the muscles in my legs twitching from the long walk.
There are several pasta dishes; we call it macaroni at home. A choice of salad or something called minestrone. Ellen says it’s a soup. Dessert and coffee are included in the prices. Another thing I’ve never heard of, spumoni. Ellen doesn’t know what that one is.
The woman I think of as Mama comes to take our order. She looks at me first. I always want to go last because I’ve never made up my mind, but she looks so worried.
“Min…min…the soup,” I stutter.
“The minestrone. Good. You’ll like it. And?”
“Lasagna.” At least I know what that is. “Can I have iced tea instead of coffee?” I’ve learned to add the “iced”; otherwise I’ll get hot tea out here. In Georgia, tea always means on ice. If you want it hot, you say “hot tea”. It’s 100 degrees outside; why would I want hot tea?
“Of course. And I’ll think you’ll like the spumoni for dessert. It’s an ice cream.”
“Okay,” I say, relieved not to have make that decision.
As we wait for the food, Steve brings up again that Sacramento isn’t that far away, so why aren’t we just going there?
“I have a flight to catch in a few days,” Ellen reminds us. I don’t want to think about her leaving. Or, I don’t want to think about her not taking me with her.
“The sooner we get there and find a house, the sooner Cathy can send Tripp out to us. “I wish she could have come in the car.” Steve reminds me of how much I miss the pets.
“Don’t count on it,” says Ellen. “Van took all the other animals to the pound; he might not send Cathy the money for Tripp’s flight out. And you know how Cathy is about the dog. She might refuse to send her.”
Tripp joined the family before I was born. The story is that Cathy was getting tired of asking for a dog and instead getting a new little brother or sister. So Daddy took her to a neighbor’s house, where they were giving away black lab/Collie mix puppies. All of the other puppies were black and playful, but there was one brown and white one smaller than the others. Cathy picked her up and the pup licked her face and that was that. I was born about a year later, so Tripp is like one of my big sisters. When Mom is calling us in, she calls the names in order, Cathy, Ellen, Steve, Tripp, Gen!”
Tripp turned out to be epileptic. We’ve learned what to do when she has a seizure. What if she has one in her kennel on the plane? I miss her, but maybe she’d better stay with Cathy. We also had a younger dog, an Airedale named Sunshine, and three cats: Whiskers, the dignified, older long-hair orange tabby; Luke (previously Lulu), the short-hair orange tabby who is not very smart; and Christy, the youngest cat, who had the 4 kittens that all died earlier in the summer. One day I came home and only Tripp was left. “Van took them all to the pound,” Steve informed me gloomily. “He said we can’t take them to California.” I guess even Van isn’t mean enough to send an almost 12-year old epileptic dog to the pound.
Mama brings 3 little silver dishes of spumoni. It’s not like my favorite ice cream, mint chocolate chip, or the vanilla that Mom swirls coffee powder into. It’s filled with fruits and nuts, and is a pinkish/brownish color. It melts quickly, so I spoon it up as fast as I can.
Ellen pays the check. “Time to head back up the highway before it gets dark.”
“Do you think we will get in trouble?” I ask, the worrier of the family even if I am the youngest.
“I bet they don’t even know we’re gone,” says Steve. He’s right, as usual.
As usual, my apologies to my siblings for any exaggerations, embellishments, or misremembering.
Now, back to my scholarly work, already and always in progress.
Peace and hugs.