Family Story – Traveling

Informant: “They went on a motorcycle trip. Um, should I give names?”

Collector: “Yeah, sure.”

Informant: “Uh, Dan and David. Daniel and David. Um, and they were on a motorcycle that they got from a friend of theirs. He was a um, like an engineer. And it was a rare motocycle. It was a Zündapp made in Germany. It looked like a BMW. Um, but any rate, they planned and went on a trip. Actually they didn’t take the trip with a lot of money or a lot of forethought. Um, I’m not sure I had their parent’s permission – or I’m sure they did, but I’m not sure that my parents knew what they were getting themselves into by letting them go. But a’any rate they left Los Angeles and they drove up the coast to Washington and then onto Canada. And um, they were going to go to Alaska but I don’t think they made it. But on the way they had a lot of interesting experiences which included sleeping in um beside the road, sleeping in old farm houses. Ah, one story that I remember was that they were sleeping in a farm house and even then my brother, he was a gun collector. So he had a small caliber gun in his uh, uh his boot.”

Collector: “David did?”

Informant: “Uh, yeah, David did. And and so at any rate, uh, they were told be somebody who works at this ranch that they could actually stay in the farmhand house. So they did. But the owner come uh, comes in with a shotgun and um, and scares um. And my brother ah, um need to put his boot on but can’t because there’s a gun in his boot [laughing]. And so eh, uh s-s-someway he distracts him and pulls the gun out and puts it in his belt. I mean remember he’s got a shotgun in his uh, uh face you know. And so they gather their stuff and then they run out and jump on their motorcycle and jump off.”

Collector: “So how old were they?”

Informant: “Uh, they were 13- and 15-years-old. [Laughing.] That’s, yes. Uh, they had um a flat tire. Um, a blown tire – which meant that they needed to replace the tire. So they found, uh a tire shop that had some used tires and they went through the tire and they actually found a used tire that the guy gave them. Finally the – my brother was able to take the old tire off, put the new tire on and so they, so they did that. And uh, like I said they did it with very little money – it was quite an adventure and a lot of it – they met a lot of people and uh, I think that the uh, th-th-th-the thing, the thing about the trip was that they were really quite young to do it. They have actually a photograph of um, standing near the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco. I believe it was coming back on that motorcycle. So at any rate they had, uh ah a lot of nerve to do a, uh, trip like that and they did it. And they are uh, they’re alive today to tell the story.”

Collector: “Grandpa hitchhiked to Chicago when he was like…”

Informant: “Yes, he did, uh huh.”

Collector: “How old was he when he did that?”

Informant: “He was he was probably 15 or 16. So it was ah, they did it in a, in a, with a, with a good family history. I mean it was in the 50’s that they made that trip. And um, of course Grandpa did it when he was, in the 30’s. He went to the Chicago fair, the World Fair. And then the New York World Fair another year. Not the next year but – ah, he and a friend of his. And they, uh, they did it by hitchhiking cars but mainly they did it by hoping trains. Often times they would be in the tender which would be where the coal was so they would be ru-really dirty. And um, uh, uh there was a-a-a train detective – they called him a, a ‘dick’ –  but it uh, [Informant laughs] that meant detective that would look for people who would hop the train. But a’any rate they went all the way to New York and all the way back. So my brother, my two brothers, they were in good company. They did what their grandfather did uh, thirty years prior to that, or a 25 years prior to that.”

Collector: “Uh, their – what their Dad did?”

Informant: “Oh, uh,ouh, yeah, what their yeah that’s right what their Dad did. What your Grandfather did.”

The informant is a 67-year-old who works as a Substance Abuse Counselor and as caregiver to his aging parents. He has lived mainly in Iowa, Colorado, and California over his lifetime.

The informant seemed to want to frame the story as what his rebellious siblings did when they were teenagers and only made the connection between his father’s travels and brothers’ when I mentioned that there might be one. This tells me that he may have seen his brothers’ trip to Canada as teenagers doing crazy things rather than teenagers doing what their father had done a few decades before. The informant also seems to have seen this as a story that illustrated the difference between the 50’s and today – teenagers used to be able to travel on a motorcycle and sleep on the side of the road when they traveled. Even though the informant mentions that they were young, he doesn’t mention that them staying in barns or the like was unusual – while this today is something that would be considered very unsafe or simply not done.

I remember hearing this story, in a much shorter form, from my uncle David as well. In fact, I would probably consider it a fairly well known family story. When my uncle told me about the trip it was in an “I can’t believe I did that” vein similar to this rendition of my father. The craziness of it almost reaches to legendary heights in the retelling.

When considering these trips in conjunction with other stories of travel, a pattern begins to emerge: a tradition of males traveling as a way to go from this amorphous adolescent/emerging adulthood stage to actual adulthood. The two types of trips mentioned in the narrative are seen in various films that have come out recently. Train hopping is seen in both Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There, based on the life of Bob Dylan and in Sean Penn’s Into the Wild. Into the Wild is an interesting example because the main character, Chris Candless, appears to be trying to return to simpler times and takes up train hopping as a means of getting around. He ends up getting caught by a guard who threatens his life if he ever gets caught again. A fear of train detectives is expressed in the story about the informant’s father train hopping. The two are also in a similar time in their lives, though the informant’s father was maybe 8 years younger than Chris Candless in the film. And yet they are both young men at the age where they either would be entering society as contributing adults or would be soon. In fact, this is the case for the train-hopping in Into the Wild and at the start of I’m Not There as well as in a film about traveling by motorcycle in Walter Salles’ Motorcycle Diaries. In all three of these films (all of which were based on true stories) in the trips each of these young men take the young men grow up in a sense – whether they connect with others that are important for their lives or they go out in search for something that they couldn’t find back home or they just want to see the world. In a society where traditional rites of passage are growing fewer and father between, this may be a sort of exploratory rite of passage for young men into adulthood.

Haynes, Todd, Dir. I’m Not There. Weinstein Company: 2007, DVD.

Penn, Sean, Dir. Into the Wild. Paramont: 2007, Film.

Salles, Walter, Dir. Motorcycle Diaries. Focus Features: 2004, DVD.