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Our Lady, Queen of the Highways by @CoonanTim is a recommended read #memoir #nonfiction #bookboost
Title Our Lady, Queen of the Highways
Author Tim Coonan
Publisher Adelaide Books
Our Lady, Queen of the Highways is a memoir about growing up Catholic in California during the 1960s and 1970s, told through recollection of cross-country driving trips to the Midwest and the East. Each chapter describes a geographic leg of those transcontinental journeys journey, and explores the significance of these places to the family’s growing understanding of this country’s natural and cultural history as well as their Irish-Catholic roots, and ultimately to the author’s own life experiences, many of which occurred in these locales. The family’s route followed the Mother Road, Highway 66, and so the narrative is sprinkled with references to the landmarks of that classic route. Significant stops along the way are given longer treatment: his mother’s upbringing in Illinois; his father’s roots in Massachusetts and time at Notre Dame, where three of the six kids also attended college, and where the author’s dad proposed to his mom. The book ultimately explores the impact of these places and experiences on the author’s professional and personal growth. And as all journeys must come to an end: the book is also a reflection on the nature of the past, on our experiences and memories. Including the paths not taken.
Crossing the Rubicon. Er, the Colorado
Crossing the Colorado River at Needles was huge. A new state! The storied Colorado River! The Grand Canyon State! The Welcome to Arizona sign, with its rising sun state flag. Mom and Dad made sure we appreciated the significance of this milestone. It was a strange feeling to not be in California anymore. Instead, Arizona: a fairly landlocked state of rugged beauty, maybe not quite as sparse as the Mojave Desert. Once across the steel bridge spanning the Colorado, I40 jogged north toward Kingman and then east again, across the desert grasslands of the north central part of the state. Past small Route 66 towns such as Peach Springs, Seligman and Ash Fork; in future years I, being a wildlife biologist, would appreciate those lands as great habitat for American pronghorn, one of the fastest land mammals, and I would stop and look for pronghorn herds in that great expanse. Those towns are portals for entry to the Hualapi and Havasupai reservations, home to peoples who have lived on the edge of the Grand Canyon for centuries. The Havasupai provide access to some of the most spectacular parts of the canyon, the magical waterfalls in Havasu Canyon. Years later I made a solo trek to these falls while at a training course at Grand Canyon National Park, and it was an unforgettable experience.
Past those high desert grassland towns the land, and I40, starts climbing higher out of the desert grasslands. After Ash Fork the highway heads toward the high country, the San Francisco Peaks of northern Arizona. The long-dormant volcanic peaks are surrounded by the ponderosa pines of the Coconino National Forest, much like the hair on a tonsured monk’s scalp. The initial portal to this high country is Williams, ”Gateway to the Grand Canyon”, really just a small logging town that boasts a spur railroad track running north to the canyon. Back in the day, before I40 skirted the town, you drove right through it on Route 66. We kids were always impressed by the ads for Rod’s Steak House, a venerable cowboy-themed place, with its neon cow above the door. Never ate there.
Then, 30 or so miles to Flagstaff. Flag! City of dreams for me. I would eventually live in Flagstaff while attending grad school at Northern Arizona University, and for a number of years I just wanted to get back to Flag. More on that later. In June of 1967, we were just passing through. The day’s driving destination was Gallup, New Mexico, just over the Arizona-New Mexico state line. After Flag, we headed down the mountain the other way, to the east, toward New Mexico. Past the two big arrows by the side of the road. Toward Winslow and Holbrook, and the Painted Desert and Petrified Forest, a weird and wonderful stop for us. Again, a barren landscape, and I would have preferred to stay in mountainous Flagstaff; I watched the Peaks receding in the distance, through the back window. But a second new state lay ahead, New Mexico, Land of Enchantment.
We crossed all of Arizona in a day’s drive, and it was, for us, a standard vacation day’s drive: eight hours and 500 miles. That’s still a standard day’s drive for me. Drive straight though? 12, 16, 20 hours? No thanks. And I don’t know how Dad did it, driving all day on the few hours’ sleep he caught in the desert the night before. At that point Mom didn’t drive. But she’d pour him an afternoon cup of coffee from the thermos.
On this first full day of driving, our routine had kicked in. Kids, fairly well-behaved, in the middle seat and way back. The youngest kid or baby in the front, between Mom and Dad, on the wide bench front seat those station wagons had. One kid, the second youngest, had to take the “hump” in the middle seat. We read and listened to AM radio, piped to the back speaker on later models of station wagons. We were amazed to be able to pick up baseball games all across the country. Mom would pull out maybe one car game per day; a tiny chess set, with the pieces attached to the squares by pegs; coloring books; the old drawing pad you drew on with a stylus and erased by lifting the cellophane off the wax pad. Those little puzzles with 16 squares and one empty. Games you had to tilt to get the little ball to sit in the hole. Rest areas occasionally had these kinds of toys in vending machines. But we were not a stop-and-buy-a-snack kind of traveling family. Not even at the ubiquitous Stuckey’s roadside stops.
I probably preferred to watch the land roll by. The country went on forever, a brighter and kinder view of Fitzgerald’s dark fields of the republic. Telephone poles and fenceposts marking the miles and the hours, with the New World starting just on the other side of that barbed-wire fence. Did I long to climb over that fence and start walking? Is this when I first developed my appreciation for place? All my life, I have viscerally loved places. It affected my choice of college – what a beautiful campus Notre Dame had – and my decision to stay on campus all four years. I chose a grad school based in part on its location. When I was at Death Valley, waking up every morning to a view of the Panamint Mountains, I didn’t know if I could ever live in a city again. My choice of life’s work ended up being protection and stewardship of places. Maybe the seeds were sown by the views from the way back of a station wagon.
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Amazon.com: Our Lady, Queen of the Highways: A memoir: 9781958419052: Coonan, Tim: Books
Tim Coonan was born during the Eisenhower administration and grew up during the 60s and 70s, a fact which greatly influenced his consistent and questionable sense of hair style. He and his twin brother (who became a priest for a while) were the oldest in a large Irish-Catholic family growing up in southern California, from which their family made the epic family station wagon trips retold in this book. Tim’s dad went to Notre Dame, and thus Tim and his siblings grew up as Fighting Irish fans in hostile USC Trojan country, a siege mentality that no doubt affected his decision to leave idyllic southern California for the frozen tundra of northern Indiana, to attend college at Notre Dame (two of his brothers did, as well). Driving home from ND one spring, Tim passed through Flagstaff, Arizona, a Highway 66 town which he fondly remembered from family road trips, and he decided to attend grad school there, at Northern Arizona University, because, well, it was pretty. This led to a love of wildlife, wildlife biology and conservation, and several summers spent as a ranger at Canyon de Chelly National Monument. The rest, as they say, is history. Tim ended up spending 30 years as a wildlife biologist for the National Park Service, chasing bighorn sheep in Death Valley and getting bitten by island foxes in the Channel Islands. In fact, Tim, along with his ex-wife, wrote the definitive (all right, the only) book about that unique and rare endangered species, the island fox of the Channel Islands. Tim now teaches science to impressionable Catholic kids in Ventura, which means he has, ironically, come full circle, being a product of 16 years of Catholic schooling himself. Tim has two grown daughters and lives with a German shepherd and two cats. Tim has spent most of his life trying to be outdoors, and hates wearing shoes, except when hiking (he also wears shoes when teaching).
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