Family History Road Trip

We caught up with the wagon train at the California Trial interpretive center.

We caught up with the wagon train at the California Trail interpretive center.

I live in Vienna while the rest of my side of the family remains scattered across the western United States. Thanks to a confluence of favorable factors, we are able to make an annual visit to the old homestead each year for several weeks, which has led to a tradition of a trip within a trip–we fly home, spend about a week moving from couch to couch paying our respects, then take a week to be tourists and travel somewhere I never got around to visiting while growing up , and wrap things up by cooling our heels at the parental roost for a few days.

Last year the familiar rhythm of our annual trip–to say nothing of life in general–was interrupted by my mother’s losing battle with cancer and other health problems. For three brief weeks we shuttled between home and hospital in grim contemplation of what would come. This year we decided to try something a little different–we’d go on a three generation road trip with my father and our toddler to tour the ancestral stomping grounds. He and my mother hail from Nevada with strong ties to Utah. Relatives populate both states, so in addition to visiting the stations of my parents’ lives we would be able to see a few people off the beaten path.

This Carson City hotel was probably built just after Eisenhower's Atoms for Peace Initiative.

This Carson City hotel was probably built just after Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace initiative.

We set off on a hot winter day (80° at lunchtime in Bishop!) up US Route 395 toward Carson City. A weather event was brewing, and a strong tail wind helped us get 40 mpg in what Avis considers a full size sedan. The wind also flipped at least one semi-trailer truck and several trailers and fanned the flames of a brush fire a short distance from the road, causing emergency responders to slow down and eventually close the southbound landes. Heading north, we made it to Lee Vining unscathed, only to discover that the road was closed south of Bridgeport; with no other options, we’d have to detour to the east, traveling through Hawthorne and Fallon, Nevada, before turning southwest back to Carson City.

At first it felt like a setback. But our route took us through the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest where we used to cut Christmas trees in my youth, and the military installations at Hawthorne and Fallon prompted interesting discussions about my father’s work for the federal government. (Incidentally, I learned that when my father was recruited he was given the option of working in Pasadena or rural California. Well, he chose a place much like where he was from, and we grew up in an unincorporated part of the Mojave desert instead of among the bright lights of the most populous county in the United States.) As we turned toward Carson City, talk turned to college days when my father met my mother, and I learned new things about their early years that gave me a great appreciation for the challenges they faced and overcame as they began their lives together.


Moving on to Reno the next day, we visited the institute building near campus where my mother and father met, the trailer park where they made their first home in a travel trailer with no running water, and the library where mom worked for a quarter an hour.  The following day, we drove by the church ranch where grandpa worked until grandma couldn’t stand it any more and they moved to civilization (well, Elko). Driving east, we paralleled the tracks where dad spent a summer driving work gangs replacing rail to where they needed to be each day.

The world's most desolate playground?

The world’s most desolate playground? At any rate, it was built in what used to be the stockyards.

The days passed in typical road trip fashion–ice water served with breakfast (only in America, I dare say), spontaneous changes of plans and thousands of miles of open road. One of the things I miss about the US while living in Europe is the opportunity to use cruise control; here the roads are simply too busy, too narrow or too windy to put the car on auto pilot, but in Nevada there is hardly a need to turn it off except to stop for gas or to take in the brown-signed sites on the side of the road. At any rate, the loneliest road in America and other routes through the state provide largely distraction-free opportunities to chat in the car.

Home, sweet home.

Home, sweet home.

After several days on the road we arrived in the town of my father’s birth. Today it has a population of about 80, around a tenth of what is was before the railroad switched from steam to diesel and rendered most of the jobs there redundant. However, the town still boasts a motel, so with our quarters for the night secured we set out to find dinner. There was only a single establishment open, a bar purporting to also be a cafe. I poked my head in and inquired about the availability of food–sure enough, there was a menu. While the few locals seated at the bar looked on with bemusement, I herded the rest of our party inside. It turned out that there were three booths around the corner in the dance hall. We took our seats under the glitter of a disco ball and a historic picture of the town, taken sometime in the 1940s judging by the cars in the picture.

The school may have been small, but it boasted Nevada's first regulation-size indoor basketball court, or so I hear.

The school may have been small, but it boasted Nevada’s first regulation-size indoor basketball court, or so I hear.

The bartender came to take our order and heard the mixed languages of our conversation. Where were we from? Well, some of us are from Austria; he’s from right here. It turned out she was from Poland and had spent a year in an Austrian refugee camp after fleeing the communist regime in the early 1980s. As a transplant, she didn’t recognize the family name, but she called over a longtime resident. It turned out that she had “only” lived there since the 1970s, well after my dad and his family had moved on. But two of the regulars were sons of lifelong residents. Introductions were made and memories jogged. Yeah, the name sounded familiar. Sure, I remember him. Soon one of them was running home to get his dad’s yearbook from 1947-1948. Dad leafed through it–there he was with the rest of the junior high. And look, there was a program from the Christmas play of 1954–The Toys That Had to Wait–with dad’s sister as a nurse doll and his brother as a top.

By the time we returned home after nearly two weeks on the road, we had driven over 3000 miles and spent about 80 hours in the car. Next time I think we’ll find ways to enjoy each other’s company closer to home, but this road trip was one of the most rewarding activities I’ve had with my family since moving away. We met people and had experiences that wouldn’t have been possible had we not made our way to the stations of my parents’ lives, and just being there had prompted many stories about people and events that I’d never heard before and otherwise would be forgotten to history sooner rather than later.

Before embarking I had felt a little trepidation about tackling such an ambitious itinerary with a toddler and a senior citizen aboard, but our wanderings ended up being blessed by the spirit of Elijah. My toddler now thinks grandpa is pretty great (the feeling is mutual), and I have a better sense of the giants upon whose shoulders I stand.


  1. Terrific post!

  2. J. Stapley says:

    Pretty extraordinary and wonderful. Thanks.

  3. I really enjoyed this, Peter. Thanks.

  4. Thanks, Peter. This is great.

  5. Thank you all for your kind replies.

  6. So far from Vienna in so many ways. Great report, Pete.

  7. Kevin Barney says:

    Much appreciated.

  8. Enjoyed this much, too. Can’t help but wonder if lunchtime in Bishop = Schatts ?

  9. this is really cool.

  10. Having enjoyed similar experiences in remote corners of the Western United States, this speaks to me powerfully. Thank you so much for sharing.

  11. Peter LLC says:

    You read me like a book, DCL, Schatts it was.

  12. Wolverine1 says:

    Great post, Peter!!!!! Enjoyed reading it.

  13. Jason K. says:

    I love how the phrase “the stations of my parents’ lives” evokes the stations of the cross and thus lends a particularly worshipful air to your journey.

  14. A perfect devotional for this sabbath morning. Thank you Peter!

  15. Stargazer says:

    May family chose to settle in Elko when I was 12, and I have many lovely memories of my teens there. I get why Elko would be civilization compared to many places in NV. Fun story. I love NV. I miss the open road out here in the east.

  16. Jason, at least for me, there was a whiff of pilgrimage about the trip. Speaking of the stations of the cross, here’s an early guest post from a while back:

  17. Excellent. Thank you.

%d bloggers like this: