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Canyons, Indians, and a long drive

The trip only remains with me in its broad strokes. I don’t remember if I kept notes of the journey. If I did, they’re in one of the journals sprawled across the top shelf of a bookcase. Typically, I may not have taken notes, not understanding at the time just what a momentous occasion the trip would become in the family memory.

We took out of Kansas City in summer of 2000. Virginia and I had been married two years. It was our first family excursion, the three of us in the family car, a Dodge Intrepid that had plenty of trunk space, a good air conditioner, and a trusty, 35 MPG engine. I have no recollection of getting the camping gear for the three of us in the car, but we had a new tent. It was a bulky, garish thing we bought for $90 at Sam’s Club. It slept three and had room for gear.

We hotfooted it up I-29 to Nebraska City, and then headed west to get on I-80 at Lincoln. We spent the night somewhere in Nebraska and arrived in Yellowstone late the next day. Somehow, we met our good friends Pat O’Kelley and his kids in the park, I think, at the Lewis Lake campground. From there, we toured the park for the next week from Lewis Lake to Mammoth, hitting the touristy spots–Norris Geyser Basin, Old Faithful, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, and points between.

We had a couple of good hikes off the trail. We spent at least one afternoon traipsing up to the Lone Star Geyser, about four miles up from the Old Faithful parking lot. I had overnighted near the geyser when I walked across the country and got stuck for a couple of weeks in Yellowstone. The geyser struck me not only while its physical presence was something to see but also because it erupted on a regular schedule, just like Old Faithful. The difference was that you got about five minutes out of Old Faithful. Lone Star erupted a full half hour.

At the end of our week, we bade goodbye to the O’Kelleys and headed toward Denver to drop Virginia off at the airport. She had to fly back to Kansas City to keep her appointed schedule. She had only been on the job about a year and couldn’t afford to take off more time. Goodbye hugs and tears at the airport. A rush to make the gate. Then, Syd and I were off on another three-week trek through the West.

This is where I wish I would have taken notes. There’s a book in that trip, one that might never be written. The details are too sketchy, the brushstrokes too broad.

There was a night in Gunnison at an old-timey inn where the price was right and atmosphere perfect. The suite had two rooms, one very small, nothing more than a writing table and lamp. The bed squeaked on old springs but the mattress was comfortable and covered with a hobnail bedspread of the kind my grandmother had.

Syd and I spend the evening walking around old Gunnison. We ate at the hotel restaurant and slipped out the windows to sit on a roof above a long porch. The town turned dead still after 9 p.m. and we listened to the Gunnison River rushing in the distance. The night was cool and dry. Occasionally, the old cottonwood next to the inn and overhanging the roof rattled in the breezes.

I remember feeling a great loneliness after Syd went to bed. I had no idea where we were going or what we were going to do. It struck me that I had the same feeling in my own life. The newspaper job I had was changing, new owners had taken over and considered us journalists that had won the paper so much acclaim were dinosaurs. Investigative journalism was out. Celebrity, sensation, and oddball was in. I knew I wasn’t going to stay. I just didn’t know what I wanted to do.

We wound our way down toward the Four Corners and drove into Mesa Verde National Park in the dark. I still have a small picture of a deer. Sydney snapped the shot with her kiddie Polaroid. The flash caught the deer looking straight into the camera, its eyes glowing eerie blue in the night.

We took tours of the cliff houses, which fascinated Syd. She wondered at the rock carvings and petroglyphs. We had a grand time three days running in the visitor’s center and museum.

From there, we make the drive to Hovenweep National Monument. This beautiful, isolated spot gave us time to be in a place without any people. At the time, the monument had one ranger, a lonely sort who gushed over the occasional visitor. We toured the ruins near the campground and made a long hike to one at some distance. It was then we got lost in the desert, a tense several hours when we had no idea what to do. By luck, I glimpsed a flash. That must be the car, I thought. Fortunately, it was.

We then headed to Canyon De Chelley, where we camped out in a campground so thick with locusts that we had to drag our feet around in the grass to make room for the tent. There were locusts everywhere. The covered the tent, got in our food, and crawled through our gear. We were happy to get up on the rim of the canyon and went for a hike with a park guide. Sydney found the cliff dwellings magnificent and the nightly ranger campfires to her liking.

Our trail led us through Navajo country to Kayenta. We drove among the pikes and spires in Monument Valley and parlayed with Navajo living down near them. Sydney and I will never forget an old man telling us the tribe’s creation story in a very solemn voice, and then, when he brought the tale to a close, saying, “That’s what we tell white people.”

Our next stop was Grand Canyon, where we stayed for four days. Sydney so wanted to stay in a motel with a pool before we went into the park. I had to convince her that we would do just that when we got finished with the canyon. For the next days, we make the 50-mile round-trip trek from the Desert View campground, where short rainstorms three days running made the desert roses bloom, to the South Rim visitor center.

One evening, we went to the visitor center to attend a ranger campfire. The evening was cool and there was no wind. The fire smelled of pine resin and the smoke stayed low in the forest. The ranger was an animated sort in his early 50s. I can’t remember the stories he told but he kept Sydney rapt for the two hours we were at the fire.

Heading back, we stopped at one of the viewing areas. Night had fallen and the stars were so heavy in the night the sky looked like fluttering layers of chiffon. The moon was up full and the canyon below was silver. We could see the lights a mile below at the Phantom Ranch. We whooped and yawped into the night.

When the time came to leave the canyon—I had made a motel reservation in Flagstaff—Sydney cried and cried. She didn’t want to leave, the canyon had so enchanted her. Plus, she knew that our stay in Flagstaff meant that we would be heading home.

Both of us had so come to love being underway, seeing these strange and wonderful sights, not knowing what came next, that the inevitable drive home and the end of our journey made us both very sad. We had come to know each other in those three weeks in ways that we did not at home. There was no distance between us but across the console and the width of our sleeping bags. At home, there were walls and doors, televisions and school and all the things home presents us. Our lives for three weeks were simple, straightforward, and always immediate.

Sydney often reminds me of that trip. She remembers things I don’t. The trip subsumed her differently that it did me. I was a worried father, hoping that I was doing enough to keep my kid happy and comfortable. She was on a romp with her dad, the likes of which she would never know again.

There’s a book in that trip. I might find the journal where I kept notes, or maybe I didn’t take notes. Nothing brings back memory for me like a map. Maybe someday I will sit down with a map and trace the lines of our journey. Until then, I will have to make do with what an old man remembers about a very special time in his life.

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  1. Love this! A book, maybe with Sydney’s memories interspersed.

  2. Love this one especially. Thank you for sharing!

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