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How I almost wrecked the car and ruined everything

Sydney just didn’t get what I wanted. That, or she wasn’t communicating with me in a way I could understand. We weren’t lost. I just didn’t know which way to go. I asked her to let me see the map. She wouldn’t.

I thought that if I could get a look at the map, I’d be a whole lot more comfortable. All I wanted to know was which way to turn. She said one way, I thought the other. Goddammit, Syd.

So, I pulled the car over quickly. A car honked and skidded. “Dad!” Syd screamed. “Oh, my god.” I damn near almost crashed into a car hidden in my blind spot. My fault. I hadn’t looked.

I looked up at the big wooden signpost that said “Moose Junction.” The Teton Basin spread out before us in sagebrush and lupine. Nothing puts you in a position of weakness with your kid than almost getting into a car wreck.

As the other car pulled up beside us, I was ready for a drubbing. I thought that it would be a guy, not ready to take anyone’s shit. I was ready to be pliant, easy to live with. It was a woman, however, and she looked scared and worried. I waved her by, as if to say, yes, I know I screwed up. Let’s get this over with. I was thinking the car we drove was my wife’s. It was only about a year old. She had hesitated to let us take it on this trip, but I convinced her that with Sydney, Nick, and me, we would be much more comfortable in this SUV than in my sedan.

The woman in the other car rolled down her window. “Did we crash?”

No, I said. I just pulled over too fast and had not seen her. I’m sorry. She did her best to smile and drove forward to take a right at the junction. I could see the tops of kiddie seats in the back window of her car. That would have really taken it, I thought. Who do you call for an accident report? What was this going to do to my insurance? What’s Virginia going to do?

I eased onto the shoulder after the woman pulled away. Sydney was already giving me the “I can’t believe this shit” look and folding her arms.

“Give me the map,” I said. She threw it at me.

It happened that we had to turn the way she had first indicated. But I was oriented in my world and with regard to the park. I wasn’t going to take Sydney’s guff. She could give it, but I wasn’t going to react to it.

I looked in the rearview at Nick. He rolled his eyes at me.

We were eight days into a nine-day journey to Yellowstone and Grand Teton. We’d met my friend Pat O’Kelley, who’d driven up from Salt Lake, in Lander. We overnighted outside the park, since it was later in the day and we were sure to miss getting a camping spot in one of the first-com, first-served campgrounds in Yellowstone.

It was a glorious night. We found a spot up in a National Forest campground near Togwotee Pass. The Forest Service had just done some thinning and huge piles of firewood stood all around the campground. O’Kelley had his truck with him. With a hand ax with split enough wood for that night and loaded his truck with wood for the days to come. Buying firewood in the park was an expensive proposition.

The next six days, we camped out at the Indian Creek Campground in Yellowstone. We made a daily foray from that spot. We set out to do one thing a day, visit one destination. We would eddy off that stream as we pleased, but we were going to avoid trying to take the whole of the park in.

The last time I did touristy stuff for a week in the park was when I was about seven years old. I have a few memories from that trip, the clearest of which is that of a hot spring bluer than I ever saw in my life. In my little kid way, I threw of piece of travertine into the pool, and to my surprise, it floated for several minutes before it sank. To me, it was a miracle. But a kid throwing anything into a thermal feature . . . it’s something I’d scold some parent over today.

I would later hike in the park. On my walking trip to Montana, I got stuck in the park. I did some backcountry trails and couldn’t get out. Yellowstone gets into your blood. Leaving the park proved difficult. The longer I stayed, the longer I wanted to stay. Even close calls with bears and moose didn’t dissuade me from my park adventure. Of the ten weeks I was underway, I spent almost two weeks in the park.

Sydney, Virginia, and I had been in the park with the O’Kelleys—Pat and his two kids, Erin and Dillion—in 2000. We did some touristy things but only stayed a couple of days before we lit out for Denver to drop Virginia off at the airport. Sydney and I went on to tour the West: Mesa Verde, Hovenweep, Canyon de Chelly, Grand Canyon. She still has fond memories of being nine and underway on a long road trip, just me and her.

This time was Nick’s first time in Yellowstone. Syd and I wanted him to have a special time, deeply in love with the park as we are. Syd also spent a summer working in Yellowstone when she was 19.

Each of us, Syd, Pat, and me, had places we wanted to see, and through our daily outings, we saw them. Everyday, we were done between 3 and 4 p.m., back in the campsite, reading, Nick splitting wood and getting the night’s fire ready. We napped. We talked. Pat and Nick played card games. Syd and I shared books.

Nick had a great time. He and O’Kelley hiked way ahead of Syd and me. My boots had blistered my feet and I never got up from it. I made my way at my own pace, which also happened to be Syd’s. He drew on his park map at the end of every day, marking the routes we took and the sites we had seen.

We stayed two days after O’Kelley left for home, continuing our daily trips. Evenings, Nick and I dropped flies into Indian Creek and the Gibbon River. We didn’t catch much, but that wasn’t the point.

We decided to spend one night in Grand Teton before we headed home. I picked out the Gros Ventre Campground, where Syd and I had stayed so many years before. We had set camp and decided to head to the visitor’s center, since our time in the park was so short.

So, here we were, our last night in the great parks, and I almost wrecked the car. It showed me just how much Syd and I needed space, and just how much Nick was the victim of our foibles. I made my mind up as I made the turn Syd had indicated that I was going to be easy to live with. I backed off of my needy ways. I’m sure Syd felt something of the same thing. After we made that turn, that was the last I ever heard of what a bonehead I’d been.

Nick keeps his maps up of Yellowstone and Grand Teton on his wall. I just asked him how he liked the trip to the parks we took last August. “Well, it’s not the trip of the century,” he said. “We have done some pretty good stuff, the week on the Missouri, backpacking, that sort of thing. But Yellowstone ranks up there among the best. It was pretty good.”

He paused a minute and brought his hand to his chin.

“Except when you almost wrecked the car.”

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