What is the best thing about our two-year trip across the United States? What is our favorite place? Answers were clear this Fourth of July.
Our trip across the United States has allowed us to become reacquainted with people we never really knew. Dozens of friends and family members have opened up their homes to us, allowed us to take part in their daily routines, given us their time and their love. These stopovers are the best things about our trip, especially when they coincide with holidays or special events.
Last year, we sang Happy Birthday to the United States in its heartland: Omaha, Nebraska with our dear friend Bruce Jones. This year, we thought we’d try someplace different. How about Paradise?
Paradise, California is home to my Great Aunt Martha and my Great Uncle Joe. Often referenced in familial conversations with the following sentence: “You know, your Aunt Martha lives in California….” This is often said with a mix of awe, admiration and curiosity. Among the older generations of the Opatt family, Martha is unique in that she chose to find her home outside of Western Pennsylvania.
Aunt Martha is the younger sister of my dad’s dad; daughter of my Great Grandma Opatt. Childhood trips to Washington (PA, that is) acquainted me with her siblings Uncle Harry, Aunt Mill and Aunt Betty, but Martha remained a mystery.
We knew she used to manage a hotel somewhere along the Pacific Coast. Or was it East of Los Angeles? The answer varied depending on who you asked. We knew that she and Uncle Joe were now retired and still living in the Golden State. But where? Dad called Aunt Betty who gave him a phone number, which he called and was greeted with a shriek:
Yes, Junior. My brother and I still get a kick out of the fact that our dad, towering at 6’3” will always and forever be known as Junior in all cities west of the Breezewood exit on the PA Turnpike. Junior reconnected with Aunt Martha and told her that we would soon be in her neck of the woods, which we now know is Paradise, Calif. A phone call from us confirmed the date and we were on our way.
Hugs and kisses and frenzied barks from Kaluha, an adorable Yorkshire terrier greeted us at the door. From that moment on, I had known Aunt Martha and Uncle Joe my entire life. We shared stories and pictures of relatives, including one of my dad as twelve year old with a devilish grin. We told them about our trip, how we met, the places we have been; they entertained us with stories about their own travels and life as hotel managers.
“We ran a motel in the Redlands with 18 rooms; sometimes we rented 24. Oh, it was an education!!” exclaimed Aunt Martha. We listened to tales of truck drivers, visiting dignitaries, shady characters and lifelong friends. We sat on the porch and talked and laughed until none of us could keep our eyes open any longer. Then we picked up the conversation the next morning.
That day happened to be the Fourth of July. We made plans to meet their son and his family for fireworks in Chico. A stop at the In-N-Out Burger also found its way into the itinerary. It wasn’t even our suggestion, I swear!
We drove to Chico, found a parking spot at Wal-Mart and went in search of the rest of the O’Connors. Once found, we spent next four hours tossing footballs, comparing camping notes and playing a dice game we were thankful that Martha and Joe taught us earlier in the day. Second cousins? Third cousins? After a few half-hearted attempts we quit trying to figure out the family tree and just had a good time.
In the first days of the trip, I feared that the west would be an unknown territory, void of familiarity and familial connections. I was wrong.
And our favorite place? A cozy kitchen, a comfy couch and into the arms of someone who is happy to see us - these are the destinations we look forward to the most.
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