1972. As a teenager, I was keen on seeing the world outside the confines of Pittsburgh, PA—a fine city in the seventies for football (go Steelers), hockey (go Penguins) and Baseball (go Pirates). We had a symphony orchestra (go Mahler), a handful of respected universities, and a rich cultural heritage that rode on the flashy black and gold coattails of steel and oil barons, the savory scent of pierogi, and a peculiar Pittsburgh-ese dialect that caused most of us to sound like second-rate hillbillies crossed with Scottish nobility.
My family took vacations whenever my parents could scrape together enough money to haul us from the Golden Triangle to the distant shores of Lake Erie, Lake Chautauqua, Conneaut Lake, Lake Geneva. Lake people, we were. Usually my musician father had some sort of gig that financed these trips—a “sing for your supper” strategy that I admired early on and would one day adopt for my own travel purposes.
During the seventies, Mom worked as an executive secretary for a major steel company. Dad, who had a respectable career as drummer, worked around the clock. Money was tight but we managed to live stylishly on a budget. One of my friends—also from a working-class background—thought we were rich because we had matching towels in our bathroom. At our Chatham Village home on Pittsburgh’s Mount Washington (pronounced Mahnt Worshingtahn) we had cocktail hour every evening and sat down to a home-cooked dinner together before Dad dashed out the door to one of his many gigs (sometimes two a night). We argued and laughed and knew we were protected by some dumb luck version of light skin, decent parenting, humor, and adequate public-school education. Back then we didn’t call it middle-class white privilege—but that’s exactly what it was.
One summer our parents announced we would take five weeks off and drive cross country in our beige Plymouth station wagon (which may have had wood paneling) to learn more about our beautiful country and to experience first-hand its abundance of glory. Purple mountains majesty, amber waves of grain, all that. Sea to shining sea. The trip, paid for by my mom’s small inheritance from my grandfather, was presented to the three kids in my family as the adventure of a lifetime. My parents could have used the money for a new car (without panels) or a cruise to nowhere for themselves, but, sensing, as most parents do, the silent ticking of the empty nest clock, they opted for one last family experience, a trip we might all remember.
No GPS, no seatbelts, no internet. We had an AAA Trip-Tick, a roof rack with suitcases strapped to it, and, thanks to dad (AKA Mr. Maps) a detailed plan of where we wanted to be and when.
I was fourteen at the time—head over heels in love with Mark Anthony Lazzaro, the sweet-talking handsome star of the South Hills High School football team. I had yard-long dirty blond hair, braces that gave me a headache, and a gilded, gauzy idea of the future that didn’t extend much beyond winning the next swim meet, showing up at cheerleading camp, or practicing my latest piano assignment—activities that would be impossible to accomplish during a five-week road trip.
Costume opportunity! I packed multiple sets of hot-pants with matching halter tops. I owned a few dresses called “sizzlers” with skirts so short they were sold with matching underpants. Along with a collection of swimsuits and one inappropriate slinky evening gown that I planned to wear in Las Vegas, that was the extent of my wardrobe.
I have dozens of skewed recollections from that cross country trip. Almost half a century has slipped by since we piled into the car and— bouncing around like pubescent bean babies on the bench seat—set off to see the sights. Memories blur—but here are a few of them.
Heartbroken and missing Mark Anthony Lazzaro, I called him from a payphone somewhere in South Dakota. I had two dollars in change and intended to spend all of it on the call, but a giant bat flew into the phone booth. As much as I worshiped Mark Anthony Lazzaro, I wasn’t going to risk getting a bat tangled in in my hair, so I hung up on him while my sister, Badass Randy, sat in the car and laughed at me. Badass Randy has always adored bats.
The Badlands (which might as well be called the Batlands) of South Dakota looked like the landscape of Mars. I whistled the theme song from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and roamed through the pitted landscape like an outlaw in a sizzler dress.
We stopped in Jackson Hole, Wyoming and took a cable car into the Grand Tetons. From high in the sky we saw a moose running free. We went on a riding trip and Dad got a horse named Thunder who refused to move. I wrote to Mark Anthony Lazzaro every single day.
The wild buffalo of Wyoming—hundreds of them!—approached our car and snorted in the windows. We went to a state park for a picnic and a little baseball activity. Dad, forgetting my unique inability to throw or catch anything, threw a fastball at me that grazed the top of my mitt, smashed into my fashionable aviator prescription glasses, and sliced my eyebrow wide open. Blood, so much blood. Dad almost fainted but Mom stayed remarkably calm (she has always been good in medical emergencies). My brother took one look at me and screamed: “She’s blind!” We staggered into a Jackson Hole ER and they stitched me up.
Dad dragged us to see the location commemorating Custer’s Last Stand (more precisely known as The Battle of Little Bighorn) on the Crow Indian reservation in Montana. If you ask any teenage girl what’s on her list of fabulous places to visit, the General Custer Memorial might take last place. I was sporting a large bandage on my forehead and, aside from the hot pants, looked like one of the wounded soldiers depicted in the museum mural. Mortifying. It was 1972, so we were insensitive but didn’t know it, walking the battle ground with Dad making inappropriate jokes about Chief Giant Eagle and his second in command, Walking Bass. To support the Crow community, we stayed in a chain hotel on the Crow reservation. It was a huge inn, with no guests, except for us. Bugs were everywhere and I remember being sad. We stopped making jokes.
We visited Yellowstone and had a snowball fight in our summer clothes. Dad, his fishing rod ever present, managed to catch a few trout, which some of us ate for dinner.
We cruised into Utah so we could drive really fast on the Bonneville Salt Flats. Without seatbelts we hurtled across the flats at what seemed like 500 MPH. The white family on the white ground speeding into the white sky toward a white horizon. We felt like we were fleeing the earth. I was scared and my eyes hurt from the glare.
We went to Great Salt Lake where we swam in stinking, viscous water with swarms of tiny insects circling our bobbing heads. Dad said “Float like a cork!” about one thousand times. We stopped to see the Mormon Tabernacle but visitors were not welcome.
One part of the trip involved a five-day rafting trip on the Green River that may have started in Idaho or Utah or Wyoming. Several buff, sun-polished young men with large biceps navigated the rubber rafts through red-stoned canyons, telling us when to hold on tight. During the course of the trip, I developed a crush on Davey the skipper and temporarily forgot about Mark Anthony Lazzaro.
Sleeping “under the stars” was part of the river trip—an idea that has never appealed to me, mainly because of, well, bats. An unexpected August monsoon also meant that sleeping under the stars meant sleeping in the mud. I got my first period and spent most of it concerned that Davey would see the wedge of pads and paper towels I had jammed in my hot-pants. Davey, I’m guessing, never looked in my direction.
Wounded eyebrow, first period, mud-sleeping. How much outdoor trauma could one fourteen-year-old girl take? On the day we were to travel through the white-water corridor appropriately called Hell’s Half Mile, Davey warned us the passage would be extremely dangerous due to the rainstorm and speed of the water. He advised us to strap ourselves down. Davey was in the middle of the raft with the oars. My brother and dad were up front with two other passengers. Badass Randy and I were in the back with our mother. Mom traversed the length of the raft making sure each of us was secure—tied to the boat with multiple ropes and secure knots. I rolled my one functioning eye and tried to flirt with Davey.
Mom—in a classic move from the motherhood playbook—was so concerned about her kids, that she didn’t bother to secure her own position, choosing to hold onto a thin piece of twine that was attached a heavy metal box of frozen chicken. Hell’s Half Mile lived up to its name—scary rapids, huge bolders, and actual valleys in the water’s surface. Mom, clinging to her twine, catapulted into the water. At first, we laughed. But then we couldn’t find her. She was under the raft, her claw-like hand still clutching the twine, which was connected to the chicken anvil, which was jammed against my left foot. Just what I needed—more blood and a missing mother. Davey, who never seemed to panic, panicked. Somehow, he convinced Mom to let go. Eventually, on the other side of Hell’s Half Mile, he fished her out.
Hell’s Half Mile was a very long way from Pittsburgh’s Golden Triangle.
I slept in the mud under the stars that night, a roll of Bounty paper towels wedged in my pants, my foot throbbing, and thought: People pay to do this? Fifty years later, my periods have stopped, but I still have a scar on my ankle from the chicken box.
To my relief, we moved on to the West Coast. We visited the family of an FBI agent in San Francisco and he took us to lunch in Chinatown and spoke Mandarin to the waiters. In 1972 we didn’t have Chinese food in Pittsburgh, and this seemed beyond exotic. We swam in the Pacific and visited Disneyland. I remember the Small World ride and that God-awful song. I also recall my devastation when I realized I was way too tall to ever play the part of Tinkerbell, Snow White, or any other Disney princess. If I wanted to work at Disney—which seemed a reasonable career choice to me at the time—my only hope was a gig in a Goofy Costume, or maybe playing the piccolo in one of the bands.
Next stop, Las Vegas. Badass Randy and I wore hooker dresses (electric blue and lime-green Spandex) to see performances of Sammy Davis, Jr., Gladys Knight and the Pips, Steve and Edye. We stayed for three days—probably two days too long—and I spent most of the time feeling fake-glamorous on a lounge chair next to the huge pool at the Stardust Hotel. Dad gave each of us a few dollars in quarters and we played the slot machines. I won ten bucks on my first try and quit. I spent the money calling Mark Anthony Lazzaro from a payphone in the Stardust lobby.
Obstinate, sunburned, and fed up with my family, I refused to get out of the car to see the Grand Canyon. I actually slept through the Painted Desert, or pretended to, because I didn’t want to look at rainbow colored sand or another cactus. I pitched a teen-queen fit when Dad checked us into a seedy motel—the last one with a vacancy in Seven Flags, Arizona—and there were hundreds of crickets in the beds. Crickets! “Harmless,” he said. He moved us to another town, into a cricket-free truck stop with a pool that featured its own family of frogs. Wildlife. It was everywhere.
Other memories rise to the surface now and then: Hoover Dam, Lake Mead, Old Faithful, Lake Tahoe, Route 66, the Pacific Coast Highway, Yosemite, Wall Drug. Aside from the Chinese food and the damn frozen chicken on the rafting trip, I don’t really remember what we ate. I assume we stopped often at McDonalds. Plain hamburger, pickle and mustard, no fries, vanilla milkshake.
My parents were brave. Dad, determined to record our adventure, had purchased a Super-8 film camera before we left Pittsburgh. The first image in the film is one of my grandmother, her hand raised in a paralyzed, farewell salute—she didn’t understand the concept of a film camera, and posed like she would for a still photo.
I look back at the film now and marvel at our youthful selves, our ridiculous diving board shenanigans, my bandaged head, the buffalo. I keep returning to the start of the trip, the way my grandmother stood in the driveway, bidding farewell, attempting to stop time as the car rolls slowly away.
This land is our land. We saw potential and courage through the prism of privilege. We saw fruited plains, too many statues of white men, and manmade wonders built on the bent backs of immigrants. We crossed bridges and swam under the surface of emerald lakes. We hiked until our knees ached and rode weary horses over glittering, sunlit trails our ancestors had stolen from their rightful owners. We looked down from wind-whipped mountaintops and up from verdant fields into a sky that stretched to the stars and back. We watched waves crash against burning shores. Racism, intolerance, and ugliness were far from our minds.
I was an innocent teenage girl with a boyfriend, a good family, and a future.
I floated, like a cork.
Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist. She is the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl; Rhythm: A Novel. New: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about (what else?) musicians. Go here to buy Manhattan Road Trip.
Robin’s music is available on all streaming platforms. If you’re a Spotify fan, go here to listen. NEW! Listen to the Piano Girl Podcast. Stories, music, fun. Do you play the piano? Check out Robin’s solo piano sheet music here, including her popular arrangement of the Pachelbel Canon in D.