The summer vacation. As I’ve mentioned a couple of times in the Basement Songs, during my childhood, when school let out for the summer, my parents would pack up the family and take us on long voyages around the country. We’d explore the great tourist attractions each state had to offer, camp in an Apache pop-up trailer at KOAs, and spend endless hours on the open road. While my dad drove and my mom worked on her current latch hook rug in the front of the van, my siblings and I would go off into our own worlds. As a young boy I invested hours in the lives of the Hardy Boys or Henry Huggins, then moved on to the supernatural tales of Poe and Stephen King as I got older.
One year, after pestering my parents for a comic book, they surprised me with the oversized “graphic novel,” Superman vs. Wonder Woman. I read that book so many times, it’s in tatters. Eventually I traded some kid from grade school my copy of X-Men #137, “Phoenix Must Die!” for a better copy of Superman vs. Wonder Woman. The X-Men comic is worth a lot of money now while Superman vs. Wonder Woman is a quaint novelty from a bygone era. I don’t regret the trade one bit.
Occasionally, while my brother Budd was stretched out in one of the seats and my older sister Beth read her own books and magazines, I would hang out in the back of the van with my younger sister, Heidi, creating stories with her Barbie dolls while the wheels of the van whirled underneath us on hot black asphalt. The time spent staring out the window as the countryside of the U.S. passed by me developed a yearning in me. To this day, I love to get in my car and just drive. The seed to become a writer was also planted in those summer road trips.
In first grade, after traveling to California that previous summer, my teacher suggested that I write a story about the experience. I dove in with enthusiasm, drawing pictures and carefully choosing the words. The project was never completed, though. I suppose I had a difficult time finding a way to describe the homeless man who walked by us in San Francisco and dropped trou, revealing that he was going commando. I can still see the shocked expression on Beth’s face. Why that image sticks with me and many of the historic landmarks we visited do not may be something I should discuss with a professional someday.
In 1985 we drove to Arizona with my aunt’s family to ride mules down the Grand Canyon in what would mark the last time the Malchus family collectively got in a car and traveled across the country. With Beth and Budd both having drivers licenses my parents would hand over the steering wheel, allowing Mom to read and Dad to catch a snooze in one of the back seats. As I idolized my older brother, I always tried to ride shotgun whenever he drove. It gave me a chance to act like an adult and the chance to man the controls of the radio.
Something magical occurs when you’re in the middle of nowhere searching for anything that sounds remotely familiar on the FM radio and you stumble across some soft rock station playing “Sentimental Lady” by Bob Welch or a rock station dipping into the Santana catalog. Occasionally we would hear something that reminded us of trips past, like Paul McCartney’s “Listen to What the Man Says” or “Life’s Been Good” by Joe Walsh, which was a staple of the 1978 summer vacation.
Sad to think that Walsh was getting overlooked by radio stations in ’85 when his latest album, The Confessor, was released, but the Eagles were history and Walsh was considered some old hippie trying to hang on in a constantly changing musical climate. He had some support in various pockets of the country, including Cleveland where the loyal DJs at WMMS played his cover of his buddy Michael Stanley’s “Rosewood Bitters” in spurts.
I find myself drawn to material that brims with emotion and I’m sure that’s why Walsh’s “Rosewood Bitters” caught my ear. Although he portrayed himself as an ordinary average party guy, Joe Walsh has experienced his share of tragedies, one in particular that fueled his alcoholism for years. This song, with its reflective lyrics and crying slide guitar, is full of melancholy. You can hear the sadness in Walsh’s voice right from the opening line: “So many roads to walk/Guess that’s how it goes.” Whatever the musician was experiencing during the recording of “Rosewood Bitters” came through in the mix.
I don’t recall hearing this song for the first time in the spring of ’85, but hearing it now reminds me of the trip to the Colorado Basin, the last of the Malchus summer drives. While there have been other getaways since then, none were just the six of us. After the trip, Beth, having graduated from college, moved out to live on her own. The following year Budd and I both stayed home while Mom, Dad and my younger sister went away by themselves.
Sadly, we may never have another family vacation for a myriad of reasons. Thankfully, there is that last trek to look back on with fondness. I recall the last times putting up the Apache camper; nights sitting around staring at the starry skies talking about music, school and baseball; the chill in the air the morning we began our descent down the canyon and the coarse fur of our mules; laughing at how the mules all knew to stop in the same spot to empty their bladders; watching in fear as my father’s spooked mule ran him close to the canyon edge; staring out at the magnificent landscape and feeling blessed to have each other, a family.
Life moves forward, as it always does, ever shifting like the Grand Canyon. And the rosewood bitters help me through the night when I feel blue.