It was one of those mid 1980s vacations, the kind that Chevy Chase made movies about. We flew to Flagstaff, Arizona to see the Grand Canyon. It was me, my parents, my brother Kaz, my sister Chris, and my sister Margaret who lived in Tucson at the time. Marg took the bus up from there and met us in Flagstaff.

I remember going to Liberty Travel in Springfield with my mom. This was ages before we could book travel on our own online. We went to travel agents to get tickets, hotel reservations, car rentals, etc. I seriously don’t know how my mom managed to be a mom of five kids without the internet. I sat with her in the row of chairs positioned along the storefront windows and we waited for the next agent to be available. Then we went up to the desk of one of them, and Mom told her she wanted to go to the Grand Canyon and fly herself, Dad, and three of her five kids with her. There was probably an ash tray on this lady’s desk. It probably had cigarette butts in it. It was 1986. That was the done thing back then.

Mom liked to fly on Tuesdays. She liked to go anywhere there might be crowds on Tuesdays. We used to go to the amusement park on Tuesdays because she figured the lines would be shorter on that day. She wanted to fly on Tuesday because she figured the flights would be cheaper on a Tuesday morning than they would be on, say, Friday night.

I think we flew on TWA, years later someone would jokingly tell me it stood for Try Walking Across. There was a smoking section. I remember the plane being largely empty. I stretched out across an entire row and napped. I got irritated with the smokers in the row behind me and turned my vents on them to keep their smoke to their own row. I was 12 and already a complete snot about people smoking around me, and I still am like that.

We landed in Phoenix and changed planes to one that was way smaller with propellers to get to Flagstaff. Then we rented a blue chevy station wagon. I am not sure if Kaz had his license yet, as he’s 4 years older than me. But Chris definitely was old enough to have hers, but I can’t remember if she drove us. We drove to the Grand Canyon, and I think we spent 2 nights there. I remember we started to walk on a trail that would take us down into the Canyon. Dad was afraid that if we walked down too far we’d be too tired to go back up once the summer heat kicked in. At some point we had also picked up Margaret from the Greyhound station.

Then we drove everywhere we could to see everything we possibly could. It was an endless stream of desert, cacti, rock formations, on repeat like the background in a Flintstones cartoon when Fred and Barney flailed their feet and drove to work at the quarry.

We went to the meteor crater and marveled at the gigantic hole in the ground. We drove to Hoover Dam, to Vegas, we didn’t stay in Vegas for fear it would be too expensive. We stayed in the finest Best Western motels. At some point on the highway in the Mojave, Dad pulled the car over and had us all stand in the desert heat for a few minutes, just to feel the scorching dry desert heat. Our suitcases were strapped to the roof rack. There were 6 of us in that station wagon, and I’ll bet not one of us was wearing a seatbelt.

The heat formed watery mirages on the road in front of us as we headed back to Flagstaff. It was getting dark. We’d largely winged it with motel rooms. Getting two adjoining ones at Best Western, we peeled off the plastic wrappers from the plastic cups. Mom, Dad and Margaret probably drank something stronger than the soda that me, Chris and Kaz drank. I always wanted to be the first one to snap off the “sanitized for your protection” paper band from the toilet. Dad laughed when I flopped my entire body onto the motel bed to see if I could bounce back off of it again. “Test the bed,” he’d laugh whenever we entered a new motel room.

But there was no testing the bed or snapping off the paper band on that night in Flagstaff. We drove the strip where all the motels were located. No vacancy. No vacancy. No. No. No. No vacancy. The neon signs let us know that there would be nowhere to sleep on that night. Dad and I went in to one of them to see if there was any way we could be squeezed in. “No, sir. There’s a convention in town.” We went back out onto the strip and the neon seemed to scold us. No. No. No. No. No.

We pulled into Denny’s. By then it was approaching midnight. We needed to get out of the car. We needed to get something to eat. We needed to figure something out. I remember being very concerned at being homeless for a night. My dad asked the waiter if he knew of any motels that had vacancy. He didn’t. I sprawled on the booth, ready to sleep anywhere. I ate my Moons Over My Hammy with hash browns with my eyes stinging from trying to keep them open.

“You could stay at my place,” the waiter offered. “I’ll just call my roommate and let him know.” I looked at my parents and wondered what this guy’s place was like.

“It’s nice of you to offer,” my dad answered. “Thank you. But I think we’ll figure something out.”

We piled back into the wagon, under the brightly lit Denny’s sign. Mom and Dad were in the front, after Dad pulled the suitcases off the roof rack and put them into the car, so that blocked off the cargo area of the station wagon. Margaret was on the floor of the back seat, her back to the door, her knees bent over the hump that ran up the center of the car. I was sitting on the right side, there was nowhere to put my feet as her feet were where mine would go. So I put my feet up against the back of my mom’s seat in front of her. I think Kaz was wedged between the suitcases and the wall of the cargo area. Chris was sitting in the middle of the backseat, and I have no idea where her legs went.

I fell asleep. Then I woke to numbness in my legs. They were tipped upward, of course they would have gone numb. I tried to get circulation going without waking everyone up. Margaret was reading by the light of the Denny’s sign. Dad didn’t notice, and surely he would have gotten up in her grill about reading in such low light. There was snoring. The car was hot. I probably dozed off again until the sun came up. We went back in to Denny’s for breakfast, and lingered there until around 10, when the motels would be clearing out.

We found a motel. Mom and Dad conked out in a bed. I threw on Margaret’s suit and headed directly for the pool with Kaz and Margaret, I couldn’t find mine in my suitcase and I didn’t want to tear it all apart to find it. I think it was a day or so later, after visiting the Canyon again, that Margaret got on her bus back to Tucson, and we got on our plane back to Connecticut.

When I was visiting Iceland a few years ago, Kaz and I texted. “How’s the hotel?” he asked. “It’s nice. Not Flagstaff Denny’s parking lot nice, but still quite nice.”

BJ Knapp is the author of Beside the Music, available for purchase here. Please sign up for the Backstage with BJ Knapp mailing list to get updates on events, signings, dog pictures and so much more.

BJ Knapp is the author of Beside the Music, available for purchase here. Please sign up for the Backstage with BJ Knapp mailing list to get updates on events, signings, dog pictures and so much more.