The first rule of road trips is to never embark upon a road trip. At least not one like ours: 10 days and 2,500 miles of tent camping in the near triple digit heat.
Of course, our westward adventure had seemed a novel idea the previous December, when I curled up by the living room fire, hot cocoa in hand, and painstakingly plotted our route: South Dakota’s Badlands and Mount Rushmore, followed by a night in Douglas, Wyoming, a few more in Fort Collins, and a final night outside of Omaha.
Surely, it would be a trip for the ages.
The Dark Ages, more accurately.
But this observation would only become clear to me six months later, on the fourth night of our road trip, as lightning tore through the sky near our campsite in Hill City, S.D. Cloistered in our darkened tent, my wife (who, in addition to enduring the usual indignities of camping, was forced to endure them while five months pregnant) said nothing. But after a decade of marriage, her silence couldn’t have been clearer — this is all your fault.
“Don’t worry,” I whispered as the kids snoozed between us. “Nothing but a little rain.”
For once, I was right. The rain mostly held, ensuring that my nightmare of our muddy tent slaloming through the pine trees would remain unfounded.
“See?” I whispered to her in the pre-dawn light. “What’d I tell you?”
Because Mother Nature has a sense of humor, she repaid the relief she offered us from the rain with relentless heat a few hours later.
“Who’s ready to see Mount Rushmore?” I asked as the sun beat down.
That depends, my red-cheeked children pondered. Does it have a water slide?
After entering the national monument, we managed the half mile hike to the presidents’ heads without much trouble. By which I mean my children’s caterwauling wasn’t so offensive that security felt compelled to escort us out. Still, more than a few battles ensued along the way, my seven-year-old son and five-year-old daughter — perhaps channeling the hot-headedness of their inner Teddy Roosevelts — took to blaming each other for the blistering heat, the lack of shade, and the distance to those heads.
“Can’t we just keep the peace for like five minutes?” I called between their shouting.
But nothing short of a United Nations resolution could have managed such a feat, and likely, they wouldn’t have recognized that body’s authority anyway.
Sweaty and sleep-deprived myself, I was hardly an exemplar of optimism and patriotic fervor. Though I’d planned to pepper the park rangers with dozens of questions (“Is it true there’s a secret archive behind Lincoln’s ear?”), we cut our visit short to retreat to the air-conditioned minivan.
But not before we worked in one last embarrassment.
There, in the shadow of some of America’s greatest presidents, my daughter, completely unprompted, turned to the people nearest her and began to share a few candid thoughts on our current president.
“Okay, time to go!” I called, hustling her through the Avenue of Flags before she could start in on her critique of the administration’s environmental policies. “Everybody, in the van, pronto.”
Our circumstances only got hotter and harder from there. By day 7, the miles had begun to wear away at our better selves. Our irritability grew, our fuses shortened. Eventually, even the sun-cooked peanut butter sandwiches — a staple of our trip — began to lose their culinary luster.
While driving outside of Chugwater, Wyoming (home to some delectable chili, if the billboards are to be believed), I began reflecting on our trip’s success — or lack thereof. The problem, though, was that I struggled on how best to measure it. Do we measure our road trips by way of bathroom breaks, or rest areas, or pronghorn sightings, or s’mores? Do we count sunburns, and insect bites, and the number of tourist traps into which we’d been ensnared? How do we calculate the mini-golf holes, and the bouncy houses, and the paddle boats? And where do we put the more memorable moments: the heart-fluttering joy of hiking to the top of Saddle Pass Trail, or the pleasure of dousing ourselves in the icy waters of Horsetooth Falls?
Our trip, it seemed, defied analysis.
During one of the more trying moments in our journey (who can remember which one?), my wife, in her infinite wisdom, reminded us of a simple fact: “Years from now, we’ll only remember the good parts anyway.”
Truer words were never spoken.
Part of the pleasure of roads trips — and camping trips too — is the knowledge that they’ll end. Within a week or so, we all get to return to our previous lives. We stuff the maps in the glove compartment, hurl the sleeping bags in the basement and bask in the many luxuries (showers! refrigeration!) that are hard to come by in a car or a tent. We put ourselves into these only occasionally pleasurable predicaments, it seems, so that we might more fully enjoy all the days that come after.
Of course, there’s no reason to get too carried away with such self-imposed hardships.
Moments after my daughter nearly incited a riot with her political remarks at Mount Rushmore, my son and I — anticipating the need to ease our future suffering — masterminded our secret trip-saving plan. Rather than spend our last night in our tent, why not upgrade to an air-conditioned cabin? I called the campground near Omaha and made the request — which they were glad to accommodate for twice the price.
Best money I ever spent.
On that final night — after seven hours on the open road — we pulled into the last campground, at which point my son offered his grand reveal: “Our tent’s a cabin!”
None of us wept openly, but almost.
That night — because at last we had an inside to go into — we spent most of the evening outdoors. And for the first time in 2,000 miles, we spotted fireflies. Instinctually, we cupped our hands and gave chase. My daughter marveled at their wonder (“How does his butt light up?”), while I gave a masterclass (which no one attended) on how to catch them by anticipating the blink.
For a half an hour or so, we gathered those bugs by the fistful, and were so mesmerized by their glows that we hardly notice the lightning in the distance.
Let it rain, I thought as the kids ran barefoot through the Nebraska dark. They’ll never remember that part anyway.
Next Saturday: Everything must go when Patti See’s family cleans out her father’s home.