Over the years I’ve been both passenger and driver of many road trips. Between work and pleasure I’ve visited all 50 states and for many of those I arrived in a car. I will take a vacation stateside to one overseas any time and I’d rather drive than fly. And so when our house became quiet, Lori and I decided to embark on our own adult road trip. We called it the Empty-Nest Cross-Country Tour.
Eleven days, seven states, 3,200 miles, three national parks, two national monuments, including Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, the Wall Drug Store in Wall, S.D., Kum & Go, and Loaf & Jug. We saw bears, antelope, elk, deer, breathtaking beauty in the Bighorn River and woke up to a dusting of snow at Yellowstone Lake in mid-September. Throughout the trip we gazed at thousands of miles of rolling hills, cliffs and buttes that make up Montana, Wyoming and northern Colorado, landscape unchanged through thousands of years.
Along the way we enjoyed a few modern conveniences, like satellite radio, cranking 70s on 7, belting out “I am Woman Hear Me Roar.” And conversation; long thoughtful, reflective discussions, solving our problems — and some of yours too. Never in a week and a half did we hear the words, “REALLY DAD?”
And we brought one book on tape, picked up at the Corinth Library, a highly entertaining listen, Regis Philbin’s “How I Got this way.”
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We had a blast.
I could write a year’s worth of columns about Yellowstone, Teton National Park and the Badlands. Mount Rushmore I visited as a 13 year old and returned once again; the monument was the only thing unchanged. In 1972 there was a small parking lot, a modest viewing area comprised of two by fours with an Indian standing by for photographs. In the 1990s they embarked on a significant buildout of the facilities. It now accredits what the mountain offers.
Yellowstone is a national treasure, of course, and remains a lasting tribute to the legacy of President Ulysses S. Grant. I read where Yellowstone is thought to be the first national park in the world. Every year it sees more than 3 million visitors. So naturally when you call at the last minute you go to the last of the line. The only vacancy on the entire property was cabin C-10 at Yellowstone Lake. This lake, with 136 square miles, is devoid of McMansions abutting the shoreline, jet skis and cigarette boats. How refreshing.
The Lodge at Lake Yellowstone is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Cabin C-10 on other hand? Uh, no. Officially described as “cozy,” the size took a backseat to something else: a large space between the bottom of the door and the floor. Like a welcome mat for nature’s finest. Just outside the cabin door there was a round hole in the ground. So imagine one door next to another. Before we retired for the evening, Lori covered the hole with a small rock. In the morning — the rock was gone. Not moved. Missing. We had a good laugh. Or at least I did. I couldn’t tell Lori’s reaction. She was in the car, locking the doors.
National parks and historic monuments do not attract the selfie crowd. Those who drive to these venues appreciate the views of something other than their own face. Each of our destinations intersected with tour buses loaded with the senior set. The Greatest Generation seeing our country’s greatest treasures. I found conversation everywhere, and no Keenan kid was there to stop me.
But the star of the trip was something decidedly old school. A map. I mean a real map, made of paper. Something you can grip, hold, fold, notate, carry in your pocket. Something that doesn’t tell you “take an immediate U-turn.” One you don’t have to charge, worry about a signal or go blind trying to read something the size of a thimble.
I’m talking the stuff of Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, Buffalo Bill Cody and Daniel Boone. And Larry and Ramona Keenan. Our family excursions to Colorado would include mom reaching in the glove box and pulling it out, studying it carefully, and then declaring, in a kind but “here we go again” manner — “Larry, it’s that way!”
This trip required three — North/South Dakota, Wyoming/Montana and Yellowstone. Purchased at something called a bookstore — Barnes and Noble — and for weeks in advance of our journey, I placed them on the dining room table and navigated our path, circling points of interest.
Today those maps are the diary of our adventure. Last week, I tucked them away in the glove box, realizing it’s not a box and no longer used for gloves. Months or maybe years from now one of the kids will open up the compartment, looking for some electronic connection. The maps will spill out, tattered and torn, and I will grab and expand them and say, “Let me show you our trip.”
Matthew Keenan writes alternate weeks. Reach him at email@example.com