The summer of 1935, like many before it, had been hot and dry. Dust storms were common, some worse than others, and everything was covered in a thick layer of dust.
A bead of sweat trickled down a young girl’s cheek and she wiped the sleeve of her dress across her face. It left a streak of brown on the material. The dress she wore had at one time been a beautiful cornflower blue color. Years of frequent wear and washing by four previous owners had left it threadbare and so faded that it had become light grey. She licked her dry lips and grit crunched between her teeth when she closed her mouth again. Sitting on the wooden fence next to her, another young girl in a tan dress that matched the dusty ground sighed heavily.
“Hey Helen, do you ever imagine what it would be like to see the ocean?” the girl in the tan dress asked as she watched the heat shimmer across the barren Kansas field. If she squinted hard enough the air rippled and she could picture what she believed waves would look like. The girl named Helen slowly nodded as she too stared into the distance.
“I’m not sure if we’ll ever get to see it, Anna. Nobody ever leaves this town,” Helen responded dejectedly. A 1925 Model TT truck drove down the road behind where the girls were sitting. A cloud of dry dirt was stirred up under the truck’s tires. After the dust settled, Anna shook it from her brown hair and jumped off the fence to the ground. “Someday we’re getting out of this town and we’ll drive across the country and see the ocean. We’ll float on the waves and be free. Promise me we’ll do it, Helen. Please?” Anna begged.
Helen turned around and slowly climbed down from the fence. She stood in front of her friend and said, “I promise, Anna. Someday we’ll get in a car and drive more than a thousand miles to the ocean. We’ll make a road trip out of it.” Anna beamed and gave Helen a hug, “It’s going to be amazing,” she stated.
Decades passed and every so often either Helen or Anna would mention leaving the small town and taking a trip to see the ocean. Twice they had made plans to leave; but both times the trip was postponed. When the women were in their mid-thirties, Anna’s son fell off the hay loft in their barn and needed to have emergency surgery. All the money Anna had saved for the trip was needed for hospital bills. Fifteen years later, Helen’s husband had a heart attack and passed away a few days before they planned to leave.
The time eventually came to leave the security and monotony of the small Kansas town where Anna and Helen were deeply rooted. Both women had raised families and had lived happy lives, though neither had ventured farther than an hour from home. Seeing the ocean had remained a far-fetched dream, one that they had stopped believing would ever happen.
Ninety-four-year-old Helen settled Anna into the passenger seat of the rundown beige 1978 Cadillac DeVille and slowly walked around the car to the driver’s side and carefully lowered herself onto the leather bench seat. For many years it was the two women alone in neighboring houses. Their children had grown and moved away from the small town to create families of their own; and both of their husbands had passed on leaving the women to comfort one another. No one watched as the Cadillac drove out of the quiet town.
Anna had planned the route they would travel. She had wanted to follow as much of Route 66 as possible. When the trip was originally planned, Route 66 was the Main Street of America. It was the most famous way to travel across the country, and the only route Anna would even consider traveling. Over the years Route 66 gave way to interstates and travel along the famous route dissipated. Eventually Route 66 was revitalized as Historic Route 66 and Anna began planning new ways to get to the ocean and see as much of the country as she could on the way. Every few years a new stop would be added to their road trip plan.
The Harvey Girls staring Judy Garland played for three weeks at the run-down theater in town in 1946. Anna and Helen gathered all their change and saw the movie three times. Both girls dreamed of leaving town and embarking upon the adventure of being a Harvey Girl. Dreams of being a Harvey Girl eventually ended; but it was decided that they would spend the night at the La Fonda Hotel, a former Harvey House when they took their trip.
“We have to stop and see the Round Barn in Oklahoma,” Anna exclaimed one spring day in the 1960’s. Helen raised an eyebrow and asked, “We have barns here in Kansas, why do we need to stop and see that one? What makes it so special?” Anna gave Helen an exasperated look and replied, “This one is round. I’ve never seen a round barn.” The stop was added to the list.
In 1974, Helen’s husband was reading the newspaper and started complaining, “Stupid hippies. What a waste of perfectly good cars.” He crumpled the paper up and threw it toward the garbage can before leaving the house for work. When Helen picked up the paper, she saw what her husband had seen, and she ran out the door and directly into Anna’s kitchen. Her newspaper was open to the same article on her kitchen table. The Cadillac Ranch joined the list.
Anna’s granddaughter wrote a school report in the 1994 on the Petrified Forest and the Painted Desert in Arizona. She mailed the report to her grandmother after it was graded because she knew her grandmother loved planning places to stop on her future road trip. Both Anna and Helen’s families believed the road trip would never happen. The women were nearing seventy-years-old and not always in the best health.
Paper maps with big red circles around attractions guided the Cadillac’s path. Brochures, newspaper clippings, and magazine articles were bound together using yarn and placed in the middle of the bench seat. They joined the route in Oklahoma. Pictures were taken of the The Blue Whale of Catoosa and the Round Barn in Arcadia.
The Cadillac made a stop at the Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, Texas to see the 10 up-ended Cadillacs. Dinner was had at the Big-Texan Steak Ranch afterwards where the 72oz steak challenge was not even considered. They rolled up to the VW Slug Bug Ranch and then ventured on to New Mexico for a stop at the La Fonda Hotel in Santa Fe.
Though it was Anna’s idea to add the Painted Desert in Arizona to the trip, it was Helen that was reluctant to leave the colorful landscape. The brilliant colors in the rock layers mesmerized her. Brown, red, grey, green, and lavender stripes made up the hilly desert region. Peaks and valleys defined the eroded terrain. The Badlands stretched as far as she could see. As the sun moved across the sky, the colors became more vibrant against the backdrop of the clear blue sky. Helen felt a sense of peace settle over her as she stared into the distance. Eventually it was time to get back in the car and continue the drive.
After nearly a week of driving, the Cadillac rolled to a stop in the first handicapped parking spot at Santa Monica Pier in California. The only thing between the car and the Pacific Ocean was a wide stretch of sandy beach. Silence filled the car as the view said everything necessary. The sun was shining, the waves were softly crashing onto the beach, seagulls were cawing, and the wind was blowing off the ocean.
Minutes passed before the anticipation of feeling sand beneath bare feet overcame the feeling of awe at finally seeing the ocean. Socks and shoes were left on the carpeted floorboard of the Cadillac as wrinkled feet touched ocean sand for the first time. Step by agonizingly slow step, the distance to the ocean’s edge disintegrated.
The waves gently lapped at Helen’s feet; the temperature of the water was warmer than she had expected. She clutched her over-sized purse to her chest as a tear escaped her eye. Helen lifted a shaky arthritic hand up to brush the tear from her cheek before fumbling with the zipper on her purse. Carefully she opened the purse and then reached inside to remove a ceramic jar. “I’m sorry it took us so long to get here Anna. We should have gone years ago,” Helen whispered, her voice thick with emotion.
Two months before Helen embarked upon the trip that she and Anna had planned and delayed taking for years, Anna fell asleep in her favorite recliner and never woke again. Anna’s daughter discovered the pile of maps, articles, and plans in a dresser drawer and brought them next door to Helen’s house. After the funeral, Helen told Anna’s children that she was going to take the road trip that the two women had planned for years. Anna’s children asked if Helen would bring Anna’s remains with her and lay her to rest in the waves. Helen believed it was the least she could do for her best friend.
Helen waded into the Pacific Ocean until the waves soaked her knees and just before she completely lost hold of her footing. She grasped the lid of the jar and pulled with as much strength as she could muster until the lid finally loosened. Helen adjusted her footing in the wet sand as the water rushed under her feet. She waited until a wave passed toward the shore and then slowly tipped the jar forward. The jar emptied as the water retreated into the depths of the ocean. Helen stood in the water until she felt like she could no longer remain standing. She walked out of the water and sat down in the sand just out of the reach of the waves.
Helen sat on the beach and watched the ebb and flow of the waves for hours. As the waves crept closer, Helen knew her time at the ocean had come to an end. It took her a few minutes, but she finally was able to stand up in the sand. Before she turned to walk to her car, she took a deep breath of thick, salty ocean air. The sun shined brightly off the surface of the water and Helen simply said, “We made it to the ocean, Anna. Float on the waves and be free.”