Part I of III
Throughout American history, when Jews went West, the adventures and travails they faced on the road were not unique to them. In our times, this continues to be true: witness the following tale of a Teaneck family who heard the “call of the wild” and answered it:
Back in 1989, my friend Jack, prone to assuming he knows more than he actually does, decided it was time for an unusual, family summer adventure: the outdoor type. Two weeks in Montana was the theme, national park visits, fresh air and happy trails under the stars. Jack’s family of seven brave, if somewhat misguided, Teaneck travelers determined to ride the Lewis and Clark highways, crisscrossing the Continental Divide near Canada. The cast of characters in our tale was not out of the ordinary: Jack, a self-described compulsive father of 39, living out childhood fantasies, had prepared for the adventure by studying multiple mile-by-mile guides, leaving nothing (he thought) to chance; his dutiful wife, Beverly, who, despite serious misgivings, agreed to accompany him on condition that they “have a good time” and “do things that everyone likes,” was glad to get away from home for a while. The family also consisted of five children: a boy of 14, a girl of 12, a boy of 8, a girl of 6, and an adorable 2-year-old boy. Jack had decided that they would fly to Calgary, Alberta in the Canadian West as the jumping-off spot for their trip. Once arriving there, the plan was to lease a 30-foot-long RV that would be their home for the following weeks of adventure.
Food, water, and shelter are the three essentials on any western trek. Our Easterners planned to stock up on provisions in Calgary before setting out towards the Montana border. They phoned ahead to order kosher provisions for the trip and on their date of arrival in early August they dutifully picked up their RV on the outskirts of town and motored to the Jewish Community Center to collect their food. Our travelers had never even been inside an RV before and marveled at all the details of their new “home on wheels.” They quickly learned how to convert couches, seats, and tables into sleeping areas and back again. They wondered why there were locks on the cabinet doors and how exactly to read all the gauges that measured water, refuse, and fuel levels. The short orientation session given them at the rental agency was woefully inadequate, but they had little time to waste. They loaded the RV with their belongings and started out for the JCC 15 minutes to the south. As they approached the Center, Jack at the controls attempted a left-hand turn into the parking lot adjacent to the building. Two things happened simultaneously: first the red engine light came on and the RV stalled, and second, all the contents that Jack’s family had stowed in the unlocked cabinets went flying through the interior of the RV, a missile attack on a grand scale! Jack’s wife was of course upset with the mess, but Jack was busy trying to restart the engine and ignored her.
“I’m really concerned that the engine stalled,” he said. “It’s one thing for it to stall here in town, but what if we’re on a mountain road and we lose power on a turn? It would be a disaster.”
“Well, try to get it to work,” Beverly exclaimed.
Jack carefully restarted the engine, but as he was driving into a parking space, the RV stalled again.
“Do you have the number of the rental place?” asked his wife.
Jack descended from the cab and went inside the Center. He asked if he could use the public phone and he was informed that the rental agency would bring another RV to them to replace the defective vehicle. It would take about a half hour to bring the replacement, just enough time for Jack to settle accounts with the food people inside the Center.
Luckily, the latter had everything packed and ready to go. Kosher hamburgers, hot dogs, steaks, and rolls were neatly frozen and packed in convenient boxes. The kids were impressed. Soon the new RV arrived; the family unloaded the first RV and uploaded their belongings onto the new one.
Jack took the wheel and headed south out of Calgary in the direction of the Montana border. Soon the terrain they were passing through altered, large individual mountains beginning to appear to the southwest. The first major sign they spotted declared they were entering Chief Mountain Road near the Canadian-US border. They were struck by the stark beauty of the view. They were traveling south on a road that contrasted the easternmost border of the Rocky Mountains with the absolute end of the vast prairie that extended from Minnesota to the middle of Montana.
“It’s amazing!” Jack shouted over the roar of the diesel engine powering the RV.
The mountains towered above the road like so many giant, cowled figures. As far as the eye could see looking westward, rows upon rows of mountains stood silently, blocking the setting sun to the west. To the east, the rolling prairie extended to the horizon. But one disturbing image marred Jack’s vision. Massive clouds were forming over the adjacent mountains they were passing, by far the blackest-looking clouds he had ever seen.
“Is it going to rain?” Beverly asked.
“Not likely,” said Jack. “This is what they call out here a ‘dry’ thunderstorm,” he opined, suddenly becoming an expert on Rocky Mountain weather systems.
Within the hour, our travelers were ascending the mountains to the west in the most horrific “wet” thunderstorm any of them could remember. Jack maneuvered the RV around twists and turns of the ascent, straining to see the road ahead through the dark, the windshield wipers, and the driving rain. They had been on the road from Calgary for about three hours when they arrived at the first of the many campgrounds they would visit on the trip. They were all relieved to reach their destination, but Jack’s job wasn’t complete until he backed up the RV into its designated slot and properly hooked up the electrical, refuse, and water attachments. Jack had never previously hooked up an RV in his life and, considering the storm raging outdoors, it took him a half hour to complete the job. In the meantime, Jack’s family undertook the conversion process necessary to go to sleep. It took quite some time to figure out who would sleep where, locate the bedding, and get comfortable. The (by then) exhausted travelers were all under covers by the time Jack removed his soaked clothing and tried to squeeze into the “master bed,” already occupied by his 2-year old son and Beverly. From across the length of the RV suddenly came the voice of his 14-year-old son, emanating from behind his curtained-bed perched directly above the cab:
“I don’t care if I have a good time on this trip, all I want to do is get home alive.”
Jack thought his son might have added, biblically: “Were there no graves in New Jersey so that you took us to die in Montana?”
By Joseph Rotenberg