travel sketches: crossing the country in a few lines a day, part 1
Preparing for the coming summers travel always spurs me to look back on our past trips. In such a mood I recently read my travel journals from the last two summers, 2016 and 2017. For the most part my daily entries were brief and sketchy, written at night after the kids were asleep or scrolled in shaky pen, an attempt to get down a few lines during our days drive. I recall that many of these entries felt too simple at the time of their writing and likely of little future interest. But I wrote them anyway. And as I read them almost two years later I discovered that recollections in any form have the power to transport. Many passages were more eloquent than I had thought them to be, and those that were simple were poignant too because of their honesty and immediacy. Eloquent or slight - all of them meaningful because of the memories they conjured. Below are a few lines from each day of our travels during the summer of 2016: the lines that speak to me now because of or despite their eloquence.
July 7, 2016 (Poplar Grove, IL to Sioux Falls, SD)
The kids played and swam and we played together…bedtime not too early and not too late. No campfire. Us four adults sat in lawn chairs and talked for about an hour. We laughed and joked. It is good to have friends.
July 8, 2016 (Sioux Falls, SD to Badlands National Park, SD)
I notice repeatedly our fellow travelers on the highway. Trucks towing fifth-wheels and tiny sedans with New York license plates packed so the windows are full and I think back to college when that was me, and I think about all we have in common on the road… Mile after mile the landscape passes in the same low undulating pattern, green prairie, sometimes dotted by rolls of still green hay, sometimes cattle.
July 9, 2016 (Badlands National Park, SD to Black Hills National Forest, SD)
The Black Hills rose abruptly from the western prairie. We entered them through Rapid City, climbing quickly after a rain shower; the smell of the pine forest was enchanting and brought tears to my eyes.
July 10, 2016 (Black Hills National Forest, SD to Buffalo, WY)
We painstakingly completed the Junior Ranger workbooks at Jewel Cave National Monument. And all six, that is sixty toes, were sworn in as Junior Rangers and all received badges. The effort was more than worth it when we watched them, all standing together with their right hands raised promising to protect this park and all natural places.
July 11, 2016 (Buffalo, WY to Cody, WY)
As we neared the latter portion of our drive sheer rock faces began to reveal themselves: the Big Horn Mountains. We were met by rich colors and an expansive view that was quite simply, overwhelming. We have now driven nearly a thousand miles and the single constant we have encountered is change. The land changes subtly at times, moving gradually from prairie to precipice, or it can change almost without warning, sheer cliffs seeming to bound forth from the landscape. I have driven across this country before, but these miles have brought me to humility and reverence in the face of a vastness that our eyes cannot measure. Grand places stand before us as if they were finished presentations, complete works for us to enjoy. But change is the constant in the natural world and everything beneath and before us is changing at this moment and each moment that came before and that will come after. No, grandness was not made for us; we are the privileged ones, to live at this moment to witness it.
July 12, 2016 (Cody, WY to Yellowstone National Park)
It is Yellowstone day! There is nothing to say about Yellowstone National Park that has not already been said of its beauty, its vastness, its wonder. For me, entering this place was the realization of a life long obsession. For all of my conscious memory I have wanted to visit Yellowstone National Park. This desire was the making of Frances Joyce Farnsworth’s sweet little book Cubby in Wonderland and my mother’s reading of it to me with such a beautiful sense of wonder and imagination.
July 13, 2016 (Yellowstone National Park)
It is fourteen miles from the west entrance of the park at West Yellowstone, MT where we are camped, to Madison Junction inside the park, where you turn left to the northeast or right to the southern portion of the Grand Loop road and Lower, Midway and Upper Geyser Basins. Our drive in today was uneventful, but as we entered the geyser basin region the traffic and population of visitors exploded.
July 14, 2016 (Yellowstone National Park)
Sitting in a line of stopped cars, I brought out Cubby in Wonderland and started reading the chapters about places we have already visited in the park. We stopped at a pull out and saw a family of Elk crossing a river behind a herd of grazing bison. We spotted an Eagle and ate lunch at the edge of a meadow. Later in the day we walked the wooden boardwalks around Mammoth Hot Springs and we were stunned. This is my favorite place among those we have visited in the park. We had dinner in the lodge and made it back to the campground in time for a fire with friends. It was our last night together.
July 15, 2016 (West Yellowstone, MT to Jackson, WY)
Yellowstone was a wonder, but Grand Teton feels like paradise.
The Chapel of the Transfiguration was my grandmother’s favorite place in the Tetons. Seeking it out was a kind of pilgrimage, an homage to her that became transcendent for me. I do not have words to capture the experience of my visiting. Peace is palpable here. My eyes filled with tears and I continued to cry feeling overcome with emotion. This tiny chapel is a lens. The natural world is so immense, so much bigger than us in every scope and yet this tiny place guides us to be bigger.
July 16, 2016 (Jackson, WY to Boise, ID)
We left the campground at 11:30 am, driving out on highway 26 along the Snake River through the Targee National Forest. Slowly the road evened out and we entered fields flanked on both sides by low hills. Miles and miles of wheat fields line the road, bright green that spans out across the valley to the foothills. Elton John’s County Comfort on the radio seems the perfect soundtrack.
We have traveled 2,000 miles and this has been our first long, dare I say boring, driving day. Eastern Idaho is flat golden prairie spotted with sagebrush, a muted green that blends into the monotony. But the kids are traveling so well.
July 17, 2016 (Boise, ID to Bend, OR)
We arrived in Bend in mid-afternoon. On the eastern side of the Cascade mountain range the Oregon landscape seems otherworldly compared to the rolling mountains and lush forests of the Cascades and coastal range. As a youth I did not have very much appreciation for this seemingly barren land, drier and browner than the thick river valley surrounds of our home site. But driving through it now I was struck time and again by its arid beauty and ever-changing terrain; state highway 26 gracefully guiding us through it. Of course today was poignant for another reason: it marked the first time I have returned to my home state in four years. Any inch of Oregon would have felt like heaven today.
July 18, 2016 (Bend, OR)
We are camping two nights near Bend in La Pine State Park situated in the exquisite old-growth Deschutes National Forest. This is my favorite campsite yet on our trip.
On day two we went to the Newberry Crater Visitor Center and learned about volcanic activity from a very cool park ranger talking over a relief map. Late in the afternoon on Tuesday the 19th we headed farther west to Grants Pass. We passed through the heart of the Rouge River-Siskiyou National Forest nearly bordering Crater Lake on Highway 62. Growing up this was my favorite drive; the highway closely lined with immense Douglas Firs creates a passage that is almost transcendent. If there is a heaven, this passage would be my tunnel of light.
For reasons I won’t speculate about here, this is where my journal ends, although our trip lasted another two weeks and took us to some our yet to be favorite places. The Redwood forest of northern California, the California coast highway, Disneyland, Zion National Park, the Rocky Mountains and finishing with a long two day drive across the planes of Nebraska and Iowa to return home. I wish I could read the words I would have written in those places.