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Voices from the Road

The Mother Road: One last road trip with my mom, to her final resting place in New Mexico

Mom passed away in 2020 with quarantine and travel restrictions in full swing at the start of the pandemic. I’m the oldest of six kids and live in San Diego; my sisters live in Texas, Florida, and Oregon, and two brothers live in Missouri. There was no way to have a funeral or for all of us scattered around the country to travel for our final farewells. Tearful phone calls were the only thing we could manage while comforting each other in what seemed like a very unfair twist of fate. 

Mom wanted to be cremated and she requested that some of her ashes be sent to each of her children; the funeral home accomplished this with meticulous care after my sister made the arrangements. My box arrived a couple of weeks later and I pondered what to do with her ashes.

She had a difficult life at certain periods. She was married four times, but spent many years as a single parent raising six children without child support—or any support for that matter. She worked two jobs most of the time on her feet up to 16 hours a day. She left her home in Indiana with my dad, a career military man, and had me when she was 17 years old. 

A photo of the author's mother.

Getting married and having a child so young—and moving many states away from home—wasn’t something folks did back then. Some folks live their entire lives in one state, or even one county. But this was the start of a wanderlust my mom embraced. Initially she followed her husband’s career, but subsequently she changed her environment, or circumstances. Was she looking for greener pastures somewhere else, or an escape from her current situations? I’m not sure I’ll ever know the full story, but I’m thankful that she instilled in me the joy of experiencing different places.

Bucket list

I joined the Navy at 17 and while Mom’s travels took her to the lower 48, mine took me to 28 other countries. My wife and I lived in Japan for 2 years; I spent extended time in Egypt and Korea and visited many fascinating places. I sat on top of a large stone at the top of Cheops pyramid at Giza, much like Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson did in the 2007 movie Bucket List

But back to Mom: After three marriages that didn’t work out, she found Lee, her one true love and the person who she shared her life with until his death in 1996. He was a kind man and the most fitting word I can use to describe him is that he was a gentleman. The answer to the question of what to do with her ashes was simple: take them to Lee’s grave in Clovis, New Mexico, where they could be united once again. This is how the idea of taking a road trip from San Diego to Clovis was born. 

A truck bed serves as the home base for a tent.

I used Roadtrippers to plan out the trip, choosing a route that would allow me to see parts of old Route 66 and then return home on a southern route. My mom and dad would have driven the Mother Road when they came to California in a Ford coupe in the 1950s. With the funeral home box sitting next to me, she would take the same route east—one final road trip. This would be a solo trip for me as my wife had returned to work. Well maybe not totally solo, as I had my trusty camp dog Miss Mali, our Pembroke Welsh corgi along for the ride.

I also used Campendium to find campgrounds during the overnight stops. With my truck rack-mounted tent and PullKitchen that slides out of the truck bed in 30 seconds, I could quickly set up for overnight stops. With the trip planned and the truck packed, it was time to hit the road. 

Tropical storms and traffic

The weather wasn’t particularly pleasant. Tropical Storm Kay brought a lot of rain, and traffic was slow due to accidents. It’s always interesting to mix wet roads with Southern California drivers. Our first stop was the California Route 66 Museum in Victorville. Unfortunately the museum was closed. Disappointed, but not deterred, we continued on to the Calico Ghost Town. I visited Calico when I was 12 years old and it was mostly in dilapidated, but original, condition. Today it’s restored to perfect tourist attraction status, complete with a parking lot full of tour buses—I think I like the old version better. Still, the history of the gold and silver mining towns is fascinating. I found the story of Dorsey the Mail Dog my favorite. In 1885, Dorsey, a border collie, carried mail 3 miles between Bismark and Calico with a special mailbag and leather booties. A song and a TV movie were later dedicated to the collie by Kenny Rogers and Walt Disney.

I replaced the first two overnight camping stops with motels as the rain followed us for the first 2 days. It hailed in Winslow, Arizona, and I pulled off the road until visibility improved. I took pictures at the new Route 66 neon drive-thru sign in Kingman, Arizona, which is a large shield sign with a portal roomy enough for a truck. I was there in daylight, but they say dusk is the most ideal time to visit when the neon lights are on. 

You can get your kicks and overload on all things Route 66 in Seligman Arizona. There are so many kitschy Route 66 pit stops—everything from the Historic Route 66 General Store and Delgadillo’s Snow Cap Drive-In to several shops specializing in cultural icons of the ’50s, and, of course, the Route 66 memorabilia in the historic district. We visited two national parks, including the Petrified Forest in Arizona and White Sands in New Mexico.

Arriving in Clovis was anticlimactic for me. I spent my formative high school years here with many fond memories. I was looking forward to coming back after such a long absence. But, coming back after 40 years wasn’t as exciting as I imagined. No one I knew lived there anymore. The house my family lived in was run down and the entire neighborhood had seen better days. It was depressing. The town has moved on and I wasn’t the same person 40 years later either. We can’t make time stand still. 

Foxy Drive-In was still there, as was the Twin Cronnie Drive-In where we would get a burger between laps dragging Main Street. Main Street was still paved with cobblestones and looked much the same. But, other parts of town were built up with modernized shopping centers you might see in any town today. The grocery store where I bagged groceries for gas money was demolished and replaced by a brand new library. Over and over again, I saw this scenario play out for the places and buildings that played an influential role in my life.

Reunited with rainbows

Finding Lee’s grave turned out to be a challenge. It was a small graveyard belonging to a small church 13 miles away from town in the middle of nowhere. The GPS coordinates turned out to be in China somewhere. After driving for 2 hours, mostly in circles, I found it. I pulled some weeds, laid a flower wreath, and placed Mom’s ashes in the middle. I said a few private words to my mom and Lee. I had nothing prepared and what came out seemed totally inadequate. 

A gravestone reads "Lester Lee Martin, US Army, World War II. Oct. 11, 1914 - Nov. 16, 1996"

Somehow it was comforting to me just knowing that Lee’s remains and my mom’s remains were together in one place. As I locked the cemetery gate on my way out, some raindrops hit my face, and lightning flashed in the sky.

With Mom’s final road trip complete, I drove back to town, the rain was heavy and within 30 minutes a large rainbow appeared in the sky in the direction of the cemetery. My oldest sister said, “You really brought them back together, that was their thank you.” I generally don’t believe in such things, but on this occasion I’m willing to keep an open mind to the possibility. Goodnight, sweet Mom. May you rest in peace.

Michael’s road trip

Meet the Roadtripper

Michael Rhodes

Michael is a retired U.S. Navy Senior Chief and retired DoD Civilian. He’s been married to his wife Sandys for 41 years and has one son, Mike Jr., who’s been working and living in Japan for the last 3 years… what is it about acorns falling from trees? He still enjoys the occasions when they can travel together and hopes to explore more places with his Ridgeline truck. His Pembroke Welsh Corgi loves the outdoors and has adapted to traveling like a fish to water.