As a kid going back to Riverside Elementary in the fall, one of the first things we did was to tell the class what we did on our summer vacation. My schoolmates talked about the great vacations they had in Yellowstone seeing the bears and Old Faithful geyser. Some talked about going to Bear Lake, camping and fishing, and some about traveling out of state in trailers with their families. But today, summer trips are being axed.

For me, summer travel consisted of going out of state and coming back in one day. It was a big deal because my father, who worked on the railroad as a day laborer, got an annual pass to travel anywhere along the railroad line. All we could afford was a one-day trip. We'd get up early in the morning to board the passenger train at the 300 South Rio Grande Depot in Salt Lake City and go to the depot in Denver. It was a fun trip because we got to see the great mountain scenery. Getting off the train in Denver, we'd walk to the closest restaurant, where Dad sprung for a meal for the five of us — my mother, sister, brother and me. Then we walked around the depot tired and happy, just waiting for a train back. That one-day trip was the highlight of my summer. For me it was like going to the moon and back.

The remainder of the summer was spent watching the workers tar the streets in the sweltering hot sun. A couple of my friends sat on the curb, watching with delight, waiting for them to finish so we could take pieces of the still-warm tar and chew it, then spit it out like the tobacco-chewing railroad workers. We walked on the railroad tracks seeing who could walk the farthest without falling. Needless to say, it was risky, but it was all living on the edge.

There were no structured play-dates, music lessons or sports camps. We had no one to give us trophies for showing up to make us feel good. As a matter of fact, we wandered around the railroad tracks surrounded by moving trains. And while we had no adult supervision, we somehow sensed that our parents were never too far away. I did have daily chores to tend to, such as picking up pieces of coal that fell from passing trains to take back to use in the stove my mother cooked on, and stacking kindling wood my father chopped from blocks of old railroad ties. I also helped my father carry water from the railroad water tower to our home — an old railroad car that had no running water. He made a water carrier for me out of two Rex Lard cans tied to each end of a stick, placed across my shoulders, while he did the same with big 5-gallon cans. It was what we might call today "father-son bonding time."

Today we worry as higher gas prices affect our summer travel plans, disrupting the comfortable way of life that many of us have become accustomed to and some even believe they are entitled to, but it has also made us stop and look at all we take for granted. I am reminded of that every time I turn the shower on and feel the warm water. This energy crisis could let us all — rich and poor — see the common problem we share and come together to help each other. It may be a godsend to take us back to basics.

Maybe it's time to stop taking our way of life for granted, count our blessings, care for one another and tell each other how we spent our summer vacation.


A Utah native, John Florez has founded several Hispanic civil rights organizations; been on the staff of Sen. Orrin Hatch, served on more than 45 state, local and volunteer boards; and filled White House appointments, including deputy assistant secretary of labor and as a member of the commission on Hispanic education. E-mail: [email protected]