In the summer of ’76, my family–my father, mother, older brother, and myself–travelled from Michigan to Alaska and back by car.
Our family station wagon started out towing our trailer, which is where we slept, and where my parents cooked our meals. On the side of trailer, my father had painted a map of North America. His goal had been to visit all states and all provinces/territories at some point in his life.
I believe this is the last photo that was taken of the trailer. We had all but finished the ALCAN Highway, which at the time had significant portions of dirt, as evident on the trailer in this photo.
We were on that highway nearing the Alaska border when I asked what was burning. My father said that there were often forest fires during summer in that part of the world, that was probably it. I insisted that no, it didn’t smell like wood, it smelled more like rubber.
I was 8. He was an adult. I therefore didn’t know what I was talking about.
Shortly thereafter, there was a loud sound behind us. The axle on the trailer had burned through. We were in the middle of nowhere, presumably somewhere in the Yukon Territory.
We managed to drag it to the nearest gas station, which had no way to fix the trailer. It was a small place; it may have had a garage for emergency maintenance, but certainly nothing significant. They let us abandon the trailer. We filled the station wagon with everything of value that we could shove in there.
My brother and I spent the rest of the trip sitting on several layers of stuff in the back seat. Every night, unpacking the car for the motel was a game of Jenga, in a time before we knew what Jenga was.
We were told to never tell anyone what happened to the trailer, because my father was convinced that abandoning it was illegal.
He’s gone now. I didn’t tell anyone during his life except my wife.
So that’s the background of the photo. I don’t remember if he took that photo the day we abandoned it or a few days earlier; I think, though, that this is in its final resting space.
It is the subject of the photo. I am there for scale.
There aren’t many photos of me as a child. There are even fewer of me by myself, since a common theme was my older brother and me. During that trip, in particular, most of the photos were of landscapes. Flowers. Moose.
At eight, I wasn’t interesting.
Had it just been the photos, okay. I don’t have a lot of photos of my son, either, largely because he doesn’t like being photographed. And in those days, every photo cost money.
But the photos were symbolic of what interested, and didn’t interest, my father. In this photo, I am there for scale. My back is turned, and that’s fine for him. This is a photo of what my father loved, and what my father kept around for legal reasons.
That’s not entirely fair to my father. I know now that he loved me in the way that he thought he was allowed to. He had been raised in a culture of masculinity even more toxic than the one I was raised in.
But to my eight-year-old self, that was the message I got. I didn’t really get the subtle complexities of the cultural necessity of emotional aloofness. I got, “Sit here so I can take a picture of my trailer that wouldn’t have broken if I’d only taken you seriously and let the trailer rest an hour ago.”
He denied that, too. He said that, had he listened to me and investigated the smell, it might have broken thirty miles earlier, farther away from the gas station, and then we would have been in even worse trouble.
In his stated view, he was right to have ignored me.
It’s possible. But even at eight, I felt like his body language said that he was lying to himself, that had he listened he could, indeed, have salvaged his beloved trailer, at least into Alaska, where he could have gotten it repaired or sold it for real money.
He’s dead now, so I can’t ask him. And even if he were still alive, I don’t think he’d tell me the truth.
I didn’t hate the trailer. It’s not its fault.
He got another trailer later, but not during that trip. On the new trailer, he painted the map again, this time coding it so everyone could see: Solid if everyone in the family had been there. Striped if someone but not everyone had been there. Hollow for Hawaii and the few Canadian provinces that nobody had been to.
My younger brother spent a honeymoon in Hawaii.
By that point, I don’t think my father had the trailer anymore.
He didn’t really have me anymore, either.