“This is what I love about travel—how it heightens my senses. Some say travel is a vanishing act, disappearing down a rabbit hole, but for me it’s appearing, coming into awareness. I look harder, I see better. Time seems to slow down, expand.” In her memoir, Hurtling Toward Happiness, Claudia Hunter Johnson, an award-winning writer, screenwriter, and documentary filmmaker takes a daunting journey—a week long road trip with her teenage son, Ross . . . in a really small car, as the subtitle notes. But a small car can foster big intimacy, and that is exactly Johnson’s plan.
Like many parents, Johnson found herself immersed in work and schedules and to-do lists, which left her deeply loving her son, but from a distance—saying hello in mornings and evenings, but not giving time for deeper conversation and connection. When her then-sixteen-year-old son tells her that he wants to go to college a year early, she startles, then panics. He has drifted from her, on the verge of leaving without giving her the time to regain the closeness they knew when he was a child. When Ross mentions dreaming about driving onto I10 and heading west, his mom is all in and they hatch a plan—spring break, nine hundred dollars, and the towns Johnson and her family grew up in.
Johnson sets the stakes for herself and her son. Ross, an academically accomplished student and a competitive ultimate Frisbee player, feels loved everywhere except school. Though he plays ultimate with a local college team, he longs for friends his own age. Johnson herself is in the sandwich of middle age, sending her children to college, and caring for her ailing mother, grieving her deceased father. In the midst of this, her seven-year writing project, tracing the case of African American Ruby McCollum, accused of killing her alleged lover, white doctor and Senator-elect Clifford LeRoy Adams Jr., fizzles after she receives a death threat demanding she abandon the project. Disheartened and lost, she takes her mother’s advice and visits site of significance on her trip with Ross through Texas.
As the pair move along the highway, each stop reveals something new—Johnson’s best childhood friend, an alcoholic abusive bully of a grandfather, an addicted, battered grandmother, her mother’s unexpected journey to academia. The travel steeps both Johnson and her son in family lore, and in her son’s reactions—his dismay and his pride—she begins to see the man he has become as well as the boy she raised.
Some chapters begin with a budget tally of gas, food, or activities, reminding readers of the decisions the two need to make together, and those decisions bring to light the fierceness with which a mother wants to please her child. They break the budget, spending almost a hundred dollars between tickets and a program for a Spurs game, but when Ross leaps from the car to hug her, he affirms her absolute faith that she can conjure the tickets. Little moments like this make sense of the duality of becoming a parent to an adult—the moments of being superwoman and the moments of confiding a whole truth, being both parent and peer. When Johnson decides to pass on a much discussed restaurant featured in Southern Living, Ross determines that she must go, and when they arrive underdressed, a waiter suggests they instead go to the lounge. Ross, “plants his feet and pulls himself up to full height—five feet eleven—like a rattlesnake coiled to strike. ‘No,’ he says, barely moving his lips, ‘we want to eat here in the Anaqua Grill. And we want to split the Chef’s Pasta.'” His mother marvels at her new defender: “I look across the table at Ross, backlit by the sun, his face in six o’clock shadow, and I don’t see a boy anymore. I see the man he’s going to be. Or just became.”
Both mother and son grow over the course of the trip, in part because, as Johnson says, “We’re facing the same dilemma—how to find our place in the world—and we have to create ways to solve it, as Kierkegaard says, or we shrink our Self and our freedom”. As Ross comes to terms with having neglected his friends at school, Johnson takes stock of her career and her writing.
In many ways, Johnson’s story begins with her grandparents and readers can see the movement from her abused and abusive grandparents, her inspiring mother, to her own relationship with her son and all of the lessons taught along the way. She deftly weaves these threads together with a rich attention to setting detail, bringing the sheer scale of Texas onto the page. She writes,
I came of age in a cow town called Kingsville, complete with all the clichés—oil wells, rattlesnakes, tumbleweeds, vast horizons—and a two block downtown that ended at the Texas Theater, where tiles drifted down from the ceiling and las cucarachas raced across the backs of the cracked red-leather seats during movies and the soft drink of choice was Suicide.
Johnson’s dialogue rings with verisimilitude, the banter of backseat driving, the inside jokes, the rhythm of family stories. Her own voice mixes with snippets from her mother–“The hell it won’t fit, give me a bigger hammer”–and comments from Ross–“And thanks for giving me a childhood that wasn’t traumatic”–in a kind of quilted family voice, each of them a detail-oriented, full-voiced storyteller in their own right.
The trip passes quickly on the page, driven by humor. Johnson offers snappy vignettes, moving seamlessly between the family’s past and April 1998, the relevant present of her memoir. The writing has a cinematic quality with its emphasis on dialogue and action.
Ultimately, this road trip did what travel does best: slows us down, forces us to be new again, a little uncomfortable, a little heightened, and in so doing allows us to see ourselves, and those we love, as new country. And Johnson did what writers do best: she made the journey worth it.