Celeste Choate | Woman retraces childhood road trip

Celeste Choate | Woman retraces childhood road trip

I heard a few minutes of an interview with Teresa Bruce on the Rick Steves radio show, and I just had to read her book, "The Drive: Searching for Lost Memories on the Pan-American Highway."

When Teresa was young, her young brother John John died in a tragic accident. Her father's response to his grief manifested itself in taking his wife and two young daughters on a family trip on the Pan-American Highway, driving through Central and South America. He was a truck driver, and he built a homemade camper that weighed more than 14,000 pounds — much heavier than a normal camper.

A lot of time was spent on the side of the road waiting for her father to hitchhike to town to get parts that could help them limp into town for real repairs. Teresa described it as "Frankenstein," but it was the one place she felt safe on their months of travels.

After 10 months on the road, the family broke and the camper broken down, the camper was sold to someone for their farm, and the family lost touch with the people who purchased it.

After 9/11 and using her mother's journal and the National Geographic map her parents used to navigate, she, her husband, Gary, and their dog, Wipeout, go on a quest to retrace her family's path and see if they can find the original camper. This was 30 years after the original trip, and although there are skeptics who couldn't imagine quitting jobs to go on this quest, Teresa and Gary make it happen.

As with much great travel writing, it is about the journey and not just about the goal. On the way, it gradually becomes clear to Teresa that reconnecting with the people she met 30 years ago and with her younger self are as necessary to her healing as finding the camper. In El Salvador, Teresa and Gary were able to find the dentist who helped her family when her sister had a dental emergency. He and his family had welcomed her family into their home for days, creating an oasis of safety as they began their dangerous, fraught, yet magical journey. Now, in 2003, he remembered Teresa's family, especially after seeing his deceased wife's handwriting in Teresa's mom's journal, and it brought back good memories for him.

"The Drive" is a thank-you to the people who helped them on their travels. On both journeys, Teresa relies on the kindness of strangers, who feed and shelter them, give them good advice and generally help them through difficult, emotional times. Camping next to an active volcano, being grounded in Panama while waiting for transportation to South America, their camper being overtaken with mold — all of the details are there.

I encourage you to read "The Drive" to see if Teresa finds her family's camper and if she and Gary make it to the end of the road in Tierra del Fuego. It is an intriguing, heart-rending and uplifting read.

Celeste Choate is the executive director of The Urbana Free Library and a Rotarian.

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