When I was growing up, life was simple. We kids kept our mother busy, and my father worked long days. During weekends and vacations, we traveled in our station wagon to places like Seattle, Yellowstone, El Paso, Alberta (in Canada), and many parts of Mexico. We camped often because we never stayed in hotels.
My father would load up the station wagon, strap a mattress to the roof, and cram us all into the car. I remember singing songs in Spanish with my mother about life in Chihuahua and Mexico. We’d listen to mariachi music and my father would explain the lyrics to us. I learned a lot from my culture’s music, from these songs filled with fervor and passion. Hearing these songs still fills me with pride today.
I never understood how my father decided where we would go; I was convinced he just threw darts at a map. Have you ever driven from Los Angeles to Canada with six kids in a car and a mattress on the roof? It was unconventional, but it was family time, and we always managed to make it interesting.
Once, we were somewhere in Utah on our way to Yellowstone National Park. My father thought we could drive straight through to Wyoming, but after the long drive, we were a car full of irritable people. My father felt the tension in the air and began looking for a place to stop for the night. He saw lights on a hill and a lawn that looked like the entrance to a large park. He didn’t want to pay the overnight camping fee, so he stopped where he saw two picnic tables near a tree.
In the dark, we unloaded the car and leaned both picnic tables against one another. We threw a sheet over the tables to make a tent and slid the mattress in between. Some of us slept in the car while my older brothers slept under the stars in their Army & Navy Surplus Store sleeping bags. It wasn’t fancy but it was cheap. I fell asleep thinking about the breakfast my mother would make in the morning. It was usually eggs and chorizo burritos with homemade salsa from a mason jar, along with Tang to drink.
Just after daybreak, I woke up to a load knock on the window of the car. I screamed as I saw two large uniformed men peeking into the car asking if anyone was awake. My father poked his head out of the makeshift tent. In his broken English, he complimented the campgrounds and told the men, whom he assumed were park rangers, that he’d be out quickly. I think he even invited them to stay for breakfast.
My sisters and brothers translated for my parents. I still remember the look on my father’s face when he realized what had happened. My mother was mortified and began frantically cleaning up the campsite. The mattress was thrown back on the car, and we left before making breakfast. My brother and I complained that we were hungry, but everyone else in the car was silent.
About fifteen minutes later. my father erupted into laughter. He was laughing so hard he was wiping tears from his eyes. My mother tried to be mad but couldn’t help joining the hilarity. My brothers and sisters started to laugh. but I didn’t understand why at first.
Later, I found out the truth about our impromptu camping trip. The lighted city on the hill was a maximum-security prison. The lawn leading up to the entrance was a waiting area families could use when picking up loved ones. When the prison guards asked if he was waiting for someone, my father grandly complimented the “park rangers” on the beautiful park grounds - while wearing only his tighty whities.