The Fellowship of the Ford Club Wagon

A glimpse inside the Trudelle family road trip experience. From the year 2000.  Family breakdown- Steve 18, Peter 15, Laura 13, Chrissa 10, Marie 7, Johnny 4.

At the turn of the millennium, my parents finally decided the time had come to take us kids to Montana, to see where they first met. Considering we rarely vacationed farther away than the Mt Hermon conference center–or occasionally Southern California on a good year—this 1200 mile gig, was a big deal. Climbing into our van stuffed with eight passengers, a dozen duffle bags, one oversized ice-chest, and an assortment of frisbees and volleyballs, we bid farewell to Portola Valley and headed due north.

Now, before delving into the details of this van ride vignette, I must include a prefacing side note. Sometimes based on social media, I catch a drift of a generalized assumption that the Trudelle family road trip experience resembled something akin to the Von Trapp family on wheels, or the modern day Chitty-chitty bang bang come to life. As in, a sweet musical sing-along of polite cooperative children for hours on end. And sure, it occasionally worked this way, if we were driving to the doctor’s office 20 minutes from home. But let’s be realistic; when the ages range from pre-kindergarten to pre-collegiate, the passenger preferences will not all align. On this particular trip, the majority of the disagreements centered around driving style and the musical selection.

Part 2 – Boston Driving and Kinetic Energy

Somewhere north of Tahoe but south of Sun Valley, everything seemed to be climbing. Our annoyance levels, the radio volume, the temperature, and thanks to Peter, the group’s newest driver–the speedometer. While the rest of us considered the drive as the means to our end destination, Peter thought otherwise. For him, the opportunity to drive north for hundreds of miles on an open road left him far more excited about the journey than anything else. However, the label of the learner’s permit has its limitations your parents are educators, and take the word “learning” with utmost seriousness.

Dad peered over Peter’s shoulder as the speedometer creep just shy of 80. “Ease off the lead foot there Pete, and if you do brake, pretend there is an egg between your foot and the pedal.” Peter’s brow furrowed below his bleach blonde hair and aviator sunglasses. “Just going with the flow of traffic Dad, like the learner’s manual says. And I’m trying to be assertive like the Boston drivers. Safety is my primary concern!” He rolled off the ending catchphrase in his best radio announcer voice. Dad was not impressed. “Um, we’re in Nevada, not Boston. Do you remember the kinetic energy equation? Double the speed, triple the stopping time. We got precious cargo here, and speeding is not worth the risk.” Then Mom entered the conversation adding a second back seat driver to the mix. “Actually Pete, it might be good to drive even slower than the speed limit. Chrissa is feeling a little carsick, back here.”

But Peter, could not see how anyone could possibly feel nauseous with such a smooth driver like himself. “Chrissa is feeling sick because she’s reading Harry Potter in the back seat. Hey Chrissa, why don’t you move up to the front and look out the window?” he suggested. Too absorbed in the book, I didn’t respond. My parents, however, responded immediately and seized this opportunity to take a pit stop and switch drivers.

Part 3 – Punk Rock and Princess Rock
For the next hour, or so, we rolled along in a peaceful coexistence of naps, word games, and cow counting. And just as we lulled ourselves into a false sense of security that this peace would last forever, the singalong, of all things, sparked a disagreement. This year, by default, playlist privileges fell to the Trudelle sisters. See, if left to our older brothers, our eardrums might have burst with dangerous decibel levels of NOfx, Pearl Jam, and Blink 182: basically, a bunch of punk music that my Dad deemed inappropriate and unnecessary for the younger crowd. Johnny, already attracted to electro beats at age 4, had cast his vote for Eiffel 65’s “ Blue da ba de,” on repeat. But he was vetoed. Mom suggested a tape of hymns on the harp, but the tranquilizing strums almost had a narcotic effect, making them a safety issue for the driver.

Thus entered the sister’s mixed tape masterpiece, including but not limited to, Britney Spears, Beach Boys, Spice Girls, Disney songs, and the Parent Trap soundtrack. This tape had its quirks. Lacking in musical appreciation at the time, we decided the best listening experience would come through the style of the mixtape mashup. We stripped songs of entire violin solos and removed instrumental introductions. Often, we were left only with the chorus: back, to back, to back… “As we go on, we remember all the times we had together and as our lives change come whatever, we will still be friends forever…”

As the chorus of this 90s teenage classic rang through the van for the third time in a row, my sisters and I belted out the words, but Steve had reached his limit. “Hey Dad, I think we’ve heard this Vitamin C, Graduation song, like 16 times already.” Dad, however, still reveling in sentimental memories of his first born son’s recent high school graduation, found meaning in these lyrics. “Son, I guarantee when you hear this song 10 years from now, and think of your Priory graduating class, you will weep.” Unamused, Steve shook his head. “Ehh… I doubt it. Can’t we listen to just a little Red Hot Chili Peppers?” Peter nodded in eager agreement before Dad responded, again. “You two can listen to whatever you want on your own headphones, but ‘Californication’ is not appropriate for Johnny and the girls,” Dad stated this matter of factly, as the van now echoed with Britney Spears. “Californication is just a metaphor,” Steve said. “And you and Mom never would have let me listen to Britney when I was a kid.” Dad looked at Steve with a quizzical expression. “We never thought you wanted to.”

“Steve and I have the Britney CD, Dad!” Peter added, in a bold attempt to help his brother’s case. But Dad didn’t fall for their apparent new found interest in teeny-bopper pop, and instead, took the chance to grill them. “Okay just admit it. You bought that CD for the picture.” Steve and Pete exchanged smirks, but ignored the comment, and continued to pull for Chili Peppers. “But these lyrics aren’t any better than the Chili’s, Dad. I mean, hit me baby one more time?”  Dad lowered his voice to a whisper, “Well, the kids don’t even know what that means.” Note to parents: whispering in a van full of curious children, naturally, increases the listening intensity by ten fold. Now, with our ears perked up, an inquisitive chorus of the four youngsters parroted back. “What does ‘hit me, baby, one more time’ mean!?!?” Steve cracked up, Dad groaned, and Peter had another idea.

Part 4- The Tolkien Solution

A hush fell over the van. When he wanted to, Peter could leverage his charisma to rivet the attention of every one us younger siblings. “Guys… let’s turn off this princess rock hogwash, and Dad can tell us Lord of the Rings! Hobbits to Isengard!” He punched the air with an enthusiastic fist pump. Finally, for the first time in hours, everyone agreed, especially Dad. “Now you’re speaking my language, Pete.” He exhaled in relief at the narrow escape of his downhill battle. “Let’s pick up around…Tom Bombadil shall we?” And so, for the next two hours, with his audience captivated in complete stillness, our Dad launched us on a middle earth adventure into the Prancing Pony and beyond. Driving through the darkness, we ventured into Idaho as what we now refer to as “the fellowship of the Ford club wagon.” Britney Spears and the Red Hot Chili Peppers could make a comeback later, but that evening, the best solution came simply, through a silent stereo and a Tolkien story.

*Ending note – Our family has since made great strides in our traveling abilities and Steve Trudelle continues to see the Red Hot Chili Peppers in concert, to this day.

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