I was ten-years-old when my father took us on an epic vacation, aptly named The Great Western Trip. He smoothed a paper map on the kitchen table, and North America took over half our dining area. My kid brain didn’t have a clue about the road lit up with yellow highlighter. My father outfitted our blue Starcraft van with a chunky tape player and a television smaller than a cereal box. My brothers prepared by pirating as many films possible. Each VHS tape held two, sometime three movies. To this day, my father can quote entire sections of Pee Wee Herman’s Big Adventure. Even his custom license plate read Haji, which reflected his passion for Oriental rugs. One July morning before sunrise, we pilgrimed our way from Little Rock, Arkansas, to the Pacific Ocean.
I have two regrets about the trip. I was apathetic about the Badlands, and I slept through the Battle at Little Bighorn. My father still teases me about the latter, after having earned two conservation degrees in Montana. There are places, however, that I couldn’t get enough of. When I set foot on an Olympic Peninsula beach, the fog and muffled waves convinced me that hunks of driftwood were dinosaur bones. When my mother shouted that it was time to go, I was incredulous that we would leave this land trapped in time, especially after traveling through a primeval rainforest. Surely there were extinct creatures hiding in the sword ferns.
Some memories are lodestars. In Jackson Hole I saw a woman unlike any other. Had lightening not cracked over the mountains, she would have led a trail ride in Grand Teton National Park. She looked to me like a beautiful tomboy who knew how to use her hands and how to teach without people realizing they were being taught. She not only loved nature, it seemed part of her DNA. As she showed me how to approach a horse, I trusted her as a person who would not make fun of me for staring at the night sky. She was confident, clear, and friendly. I didn’t know tomboys could be beautiful. I didn’t know beautiful women didn’t have to have southern accents. More so, I didn’t know anyone like her in Little Rock. My peers could have been models for Laura Ashley. I wanted to be like the woman in Wyoming.
In Cannon Beach, I woke early to traverse the low tide toward Haystack Rock. The new phrase, tide pool, stayed in my mouth like hard candy. Clinging to the monolithic rock were purple and orange sea stars, anemones, barnacles and mussels. I marveled at kelp taller than my father. My oldest brother sunbathed, not realizing the cool air wouldn’t prevent a burn, and the oval welts on his skin were misery.
We even made our way to British Columbia. I felt helpless for my middle brother’s sea sickness on the ferry to Victoria. I had never been to a town with hanging flower baskets on every lamppost. A short ferry ride to Vancouver brought us to Expo 86. My photograph was taken with a cardboard cutout of Marty McFly. A creepy man hid behind me, his hand on my waist as if Michael J. Fox was my best bud, as if Michael J. Fox wore a pinky ring and had liver spots. This was during my unselfconscious dork phase, complete with jam shorts, a long-sleeve Panama Jack shirt tucked in the elastic waistband, a failed pixie hairstyle, and what now appears to be a Gilligan hat. I love this photo.
Mt. Rushmore was a blur of overpriced ice cream. The Pacific Northwest and the Tetons, though–they grabbed hold of me. Wildness wasn’t the stuff of movies in our basement rec room. It wasn’t even on a different continent. We were a tough day’s drive from unfathomable mysteries and social conventions that included wearing Carhartts.
Thirty years later, my parents do not travel as easily. The last family road trip was inadvertent in that we shared a car rental to a cousin’s wedding in unfamiliar territory. GPS recalculated continuously between Reagan International and a peninsula in Maryland. I wondered if this was the last time we would all be in a car together. My brothers were married and starting families. It felt strange and refreshing to relate to them without their wives and kids–for us to be the unit of five like we were in the 80s. It was a fleeting moment, but it was enough to remind me we were once a tangled mess of family that only had each other. Now I have fantasies about taking my nieces and nephews to wild places outside the South. I want to take them off the map to a place where they are free to imagine themselves as anyone, where the land shakes them like a snow globe, and they see curious and marvelous unknowns on the horizon.