In 1996, shortly after I graduated from high school, my parents announced we were going on a family vacation. "After all," they pointed out (not in unison, though this dialogue certainly suggests they speak in unison, like robots or brainwashed cultists), "who knows when we'll ever get a chance to vacation, just the four of us, again?"
Twenty-two years later, we did it again.
Granted, the circumstances had changed. In 1996, we splurged on a trip to Maui. This time around, we all piled into my mother's Ford Flex, and we drove a couple hundred miles to Spokane and back for a concert: Alison Krauss & Willie Nelson (though, as it turned out, they performed only separately).
The show was great, but the road trip, as all road-trippers know, was the best part. My father's driving stresses my sister out, so he generously offered up the wheel to me, and I chauffeured us there and back. We all had a job, of course:
- My mother shouted Trivial Pursuit questions: "Which of these people was not a member of the Beatles? John Lennon. Paul McCartney. Ringo Starr. Rodney Dangerfield." (Okay, that wasn't the precise question she read aloud, but I'm convinced that the Trivial Pursuit folks think way less of humans than they did thirty years ago, when the questions were about the common exports of Bolivia, or mildly complicated questions about which royal family reigned in what land and when. These days, the questions are like the above. Which of these is not a primary color? Red. Blue. Fuchsia. Yellow.)
- My sister spun a Spotify playlist based on embarrassing memories (me, age five, caterwauling The Oak Ridge Boys's "Elvira" at church) or longtime favorites (Barry Manilow for Mom, John Denver for Dad) or ad-hoc suggestions, which led to things like Steppenwolf followed by Radiohead, or Patty Griffin followed by The Guess Who.
- Dad bought the show tickets and covered the hotel rooms, which earned him the right to sleep most of the way to Spokane and back.
The show, of course, was terrific. We'd all seen Alison Krauss before, a few times, and she's always great. But we were really there for Willie, who is eighty-five years old and incredibly frank about his advanced age and current status: "I'm not dead yet," he sang, after which he growled, "Roll me up and smoke me when I die." He threw out a medley of his hits—"Mama, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys," "You Were Always On My Mind," "On the Road Again," etc.—as well as some one-off tributes to his late friends. "Let's do one for Merle," he'd say, or, "How about we sing a little something for ol' Waylon."
Willie doesn't so much sing these days as speak, and all of his songs were almost covers of themselves. Which I sort of loved. The guy just does his thing, shaky old hands and all. And those shaky hands tore up his old guitar—he turned every song into a coarse solo that was mesmerizing to watch. My sister, Liz, was particularly enraptured by Willie's forearm hair, which glowed in the lights: "There's so much of it, it's like he could just fly away." Willie threw a cowboy hat into the crowd, then later threw his bandanna, after which he put on another. Then he threw that one, and put on another. Everyone laughed when he threw that one, too, and tied another.
I'd gone there hoping for "Pancho & Lefty," my favorite old Willie & Merle song, and I didn't get it—but there was nothing disappointing about that. Willie gave a great show. When the show ended, he did a lap around the stage, waving happily with both hands at the crowd; at the end of the lap, he did an encore, then left for good.
It was a relief, however, to make it home at the end of our quick trip. Between my jaunt to their home in Washington and back, and the trip to Spokane and back, I spent about sixteen hours behind the wheel of one car or another. I spent most of Sunday asleep.
But it was all worth it to hear my folks sing "Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die."
Maybe in twenty years we'll do this again.
I bet Willie will still be onstage somewhere.