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My Life-Changing Road Trip

“Driving can be meditative. You can focus on things far away from yourself and become part of the landscape.”

Alease Frieson recalls a life-changing road trip that she took as a girl with her mother, sister and a cousin through Nevada and California in the wake of her father’s death. Along the way, the family found joy and healing.

To this day, whenever Alease Frieson hears the album, “Synchronicity,” by the U.K. band, The Police, she thinks of the Nevada desert. For the Tacoma native, the songs on that LP remind her of a significant family road trip in the summer of 1994 that changed her life and the way she thinks about herself and the world at large. A mere days before the Christmas holiday in 1993, Alease was weeks away from turning 10 years old. Sadly, her father had just passed away after a long battle with cancer (on Dec. 10, 1993).

To help the family cope, Alease’s mother planned a road trip down the West Coast for Alease, her younger sister and older cousin. During a time when sadness could have easily overtaken them, the chance to see the country and later connect with family in Los Angeles provided the catharsis and the metaphorical medicine needed to get past the family tragedy.

“It was like everything was happening in slow motion all around me,” Alease says.

“I knew that being a newly widowed parent I would need to go back to work soon,” says Alease’s mother, Jeannette. “I knew that it would be a long time before I could take a trip once starting back to work. So the summer of 1994 was to be the time when we could search for fun, answers and possibly find ourselves.”

Alease Frieson
Alease Frieson in Tacoma, Washington. Photo by Flourish Photography by Bree.

Bittersweet Memories

Today, Alease is a 39-year-old Pilates and gyrotonic teacher, studio and café-lounge owner in Tacoma, Washington. With her longtime partner, she is raising two young kids. She is established and thriving. But life is precarious, and her sense of strength may not have become quite what it is today had it not been for that family excursion. Around the time of her father’s death, Alease remembers feeling prepared for his passing — he struggled with nose and throat cancer for two years — but at the same time, she was shaken by a sadness that ran through her family. Her mother, too, was sensitive to the emotional state of Alease, her sister and her cousin, so she proposed the trip.

“I think my mom was facing the fact that my dad was not going to make it,” Alease says. “But when he was gone, my mom had a lot of grief and anger. Why would my dad be taken so quickly? And also feeling, like, ‘how am I going to raise these two strong-willed know-it-all girls by myself?’”

Alease’s mother had family who lived in Southern California. So, with that destination in mind, the four of them piled into their white Camry and hit Interstate 5 with plans to make stops at Las Vegas, San Francisco and eventually the City of Angels and visits to Six Flags Magic Mountain and Universal Studios. For as long as she can remember, Alease’s family has sung in the car. Her parents met in the military on the Fort Lewis Army Base in Washington while participating in community theater on base. Art, expression and learning are fundamental tenets in their family unit. And as the four gals headed south along I-5, music was a big part of the drive. The rotation included Basia, Nirvana, Queen, ABBA, the Beatles and — yes — The Police. She still can hear those songs in her head today.

“My travel plans were to visit my sister in Orange County, visit LA, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Universal Studios and Six Flags,” Jeannette says.

“We had gone on trips before,” Alease recalls. “But this was the first time without my dad.”

Alease remembers one prior family trip, which included a flight on the Nordstrom family’s private jet down to Disneyland. Her father had worked for Nordstrom’s and toward the end of his life, while he was wheelchair bound, the department-store family flew him and his family to the Happiest Place on Earth. Now, however, without him, feelings were different. Music was a tool to keep the vibe high. But Alease remembers her mother being forlorn. But, as the course of the trip continued, moods started to change. The road trip signified a new start, a way to see the world and remember that life does go on.

“Just driving can be meditative,” Alease says. “You can focus on things far away from yourself and become part of the landscape.”

Collage of destinations in California and Nevada
Destinations in California and Nevada. Photo by Adobe Stock. Collage by Karen Steichen. 

Along the Journey

During the trip, Alease began to change, too. Not only did she learn not to eat beef jerky at every stop (you might get sick!), she also was reaching young adulthood. She remembers drawing a lot at that age. So, her pictures began to represent newer-to-her places, too: California, Nevada and the redwood forests. She found herself gravitating more toward her older cousin, who was about 14, than her younger sister who was still clinging to her mother. In Las Vegas, Alease and her cousin were allowed to go out to dinner in a restaurant at their Hilton Hotel by themselves.

“I felt so cool and so old!” Alease remembers.

In San Francisco, the group went to the theater and saw “The Phantom of the Opera.” They also saw Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Starlight Express.” They ate in San Francisco’s Asian neighborhood, Japantown. This is significant because Alease’s mother is half-Japanese and Alease, therefore, is part-Japanese. In the Bay Area, she saw that culture celebrated, unified and flourishing. She enjoyed eating sushi and other traditional Japanese dishes.

“The trip opened my eyes to the West Coast in general,” Alease says. “Everything was so much bigger than what I had been feeling and going through for the past year. I imagine for my mom, that was a big part of why she wanted to go on the trip, too: It was a reminder that there’s a lot more out there. That there’s more to us, and life’s going to keep going.”

Alease says she began to dream bigger thanks to the trip. In addition, being in the white Camry for such a long trip brought the four of them closer together. At a time when they might naturally self-isolate and go in separate directions as the result of death, they were bonded by shared travel and adventure. Finally, when the four of them got to see the family in Los Angeles, Alease and her cousin also had time to flirt with a few neighbor boys — yet another sign of her maturation — while her mom caught up with family.

When the group eventually returned home, Alease and her family sold their house and moved from Spanaway to University Place. Their new location was less diverse and more cliquey, Alease says. But on the first days of school, she was able to tell her new classmates about her adventure, raising eyebrows with tales of the famed Circus Circus Hotel in Vegas and the lights of the city glowing in the otherwise black desert night.

“It was so fun,” Alease says of those more grown-up moments. “Coming up on the lights and just thinking about it again, I can hear, ‘Don’t stand — don’t stand — don’t stand so close to me!’”

When a person, say, breaks up with a longtime partner, many choose to exercise; to go for long runs to process the fissure and burn off extra pent-up energy. Similarly, in the face of death and losing her father, Alease and family chose to get in a car and drive to remember how big life can be and that they can still fit in it.

They saw world-class entertainment, ate new food and became closer in a moment of potential peril. They experienced different pockets of culture along the coast and saw family at the end of their journey. It’s funny; when Alease and the others made it to her aunt and uncle’s house, she had a realization: They had their own lives, too. Her aunt and uncle were once people she saw only at holidays. Now she saw their home, their lawn, the neighbors — and cute neighbor boys. It clicked. Alease’s eyes opened at a time when they may have otherwise been shut with sorrow.

“It felt natural to be nomadic at the time,” Alease says. “It felt good to see the changing landscape.”

–Written by Jake Uitti
–Top photo by Flourish Photography by Bree

Interested in planning your next road trip with AAA Washington? Call your travel agent directly or your nearest AAA store to get pro tips, TripTik maps, and more. Find more Pacific Northwest scenic drives and road trips.

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