“To travel is to live.” –Hans Christian Andersen
My sister sent me a photo this week, and my mind was instantly transported back in time.
It was the Summer of 1993. I was 21 years old, and my best buddy Johnny and I were embarking on a grand adventure. He had a blue Chevy Blazer—“The B”—and we packed that thing to the gills! We pictured ourselves as these rugged outdoorsmen, ready to sleep with the animals, catch our meals, and tear up all the trails of the great Rocky Mountains. The truth is that we were complete amateurs at everything and thus basically packed every item we owned into that car–you know, just in case—so that there wasn’t an inch of space left anywhere, including on my feet and lap. Camping gear, fishing gear, groceries, cooler, big garbage bags full of clothes, and a sweet, old-school camera that belonged to John’s old man (we thought we would become a couple of modern-day Ansel Adamses). Oh yeah, and our bikes on the back. You might have thought we were leaving for a year. We figured a few weeks.
As any two fools would, we set off on our eleven-hour first leg of the trip around ten o’clock at night. It was a narrow, two-lane highway across the pitch-black night of the empty prairie, lined with occasional white crosses where people had gone off the road and died, which served as not-so-subtle reminders to stay awake. There was no one out there but us, but our souls were on fire with visions of the mountains as we made our way through the night powered by Mountain Dew and Chicago’s “Greatest Hits 1982-1989” album. A couple of flatlanders headed for the high country.
In life, there are a small handful of exquisite moments when you are on the cusp of something truly game-changing. Something deep inside you is doing cartwheels because it knows that what you are about to experience is so special that you will never look at the world the same way again. Driving West across the black emptiness that night, I knew I was in the midst of one of those moments.
Those next few weeks were pure Bliss for me. I felt so much like a kid in a candy store every second of the day. Glacier National Park was our first and most-dreamed-about destination. Though I had skied every year in Montana when I was a kid, Glacier was like nothing I had ever seen before. The sheer majesty of the place was absolutely heart-stopping. I felt drunk as I climbed the steep trails, jumped across boulders in the middle of the rushing streams, and dipped my feet into the icy-cold, crystalline waters of the mountain lakes. I had found my Paradise.
It pained my heart to leave Glacier after those dream-like days of exploring, but I was buoyed by thoughts of all the unexplored miles ahead of us. We were just getting started! In the days that followed, we made our way through Western Montana and down to the shores of the Madison River, where my brother happened to be living in a tent for the Summer. He schooled us in the beauty of fly-fishing for a few days and led us up a crazy trail on our mountain bikes. After that, we headed South through the jagged Tetons and on down to the Great Salt Lake in Utah, where my other brother lived (not in a tent). Then it was time to turn back North and start for home.
On our last night on the road, again in the dark of night, we pulled into a remote Forest Service campground on one end of the Beartooth Highway outside of Yellowstone. The rain was pouring too hard to even attempt to get out and set up the tent, so we laughed at our luck and stayed right there in our seats for the rest of the night, because, as I mentioned, there was not even a hint of open space in the car, not even to recline our seats. It was a short, uncomfortable night, and we pulled out of our spot at first light to climb the Beartooth Pass, one of the most beautiful drives anywhere in the wide world. At the other end of the pass, all that was left was the last nine or ten hours to home.
It was truly one of those epic, journey-of-a-lifetime kind of deals: adventure, bonding with friends and family, and episodes both touching and silly, all set against a backdrop of Mother Nature’s most spectacular beauty. It was the best of times.
So, when my sister sent me a photo a couple days ago of her passing through Glacier National Park with her family, the memories came flooding back. It reminded me of all of the great Summer roadtrips I used to take out there. After that first trip 24 years ago, so enchanted was I that I made a point of getting to Glacier every Summer for several years in a row. It always left me completely spellbound.
Then my life changed. I moved further away and took on more commitments. I hate to admit how many years it been since I have been to my Glacier, or even to any of the mountains of the glorious Western range. So many years.
What my sister’s photo produced, in addition to the glow from thoughts of those halcyon days, was a fantasy of another epic trip to the mountains and open spaces of the American West. And the road.
As much as I would love to do it again with my old buddy Johnny—and he would be up for it—and as much as I bask in a solo adventure, my life these days is about building wonderful memories for my kids and expanding their view of the world. So, this time anyway, this fantasy is a family road trip.
Here’s how I see it. We load up the car—though, maybe since it’s a fantasy, we say it’s a small RV–with camping gear and cool beverages and venture the two longest, least scenic days of the trip across our Minnesota, North Dakota (spending the night at my old house so it is just like leaving on my trip with Johnny), and Eastern Montana. We spend a day in Lewistown, Montana with my brother’s family. From there, we go straight for Glacier, where we spend a few days hiking in my Paradise and driving the Going To The Sun Road, stopping at all the scenic lookouts and taking in the bears, mountain goats, and big horn sheep. We may even give my wife a break from the tent and stay at the Lake McDonald Lodge.
Fully refreshed and invigorated from Glacier, we will head South through the Flathead Valley, through Missoula, and down through the Bitterroot National Forest into Idaho along the Salmon River. We will cut West across the Boise National Forest and into the middle of Oregon, turning South at Bend and through the forest to Crater Lake and beyond.
Leaving Oregon, we will come into all new territory for me (I have done the California coast, but never the Sierra Nevadas). We will travel inland through the many National Forests of Northern California before hitting the big National Parks: Yosemite, Kings Canyon, and Sequoia, finally cutting across Death Valley and zipping past Las Vegas on our way to the Grand Canyon.
From the Grand Canyon, we will turn back North to check out the National Parks of Utah: Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, and Arches.
By that point, I will be in serious need of seeing big trees again, so we will drive a little faster North through Utah and back into Idaho, veering slightly Northeast toward Jackson, Wyoming and Grand Teton National Park. Grand Teton is connected to Yellowstone, the oldest National Park in the world. We will spend a couple of days in that geological playground before getting on that same Beartooth Highway that Johnny and I took all those years ago. But instead of heading for North Dakota this time, we will turn back Southeast out of Montana, through Northeast Wyoming, and into the beautiful Black Hills of South Dakota, where we will check out Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse carved into the hillsides. And from there, it is a mere 600 miles straight back home.
Now, I realize that would get to be a pretty long trip (I am guessing a solid four weeks). I only know a few people who vacation for that long, and I am not one of them anymore. I have a shorter, smaller/“realistic” fantasy, though. In this case, I would start the same way through Glacier, but instead of leaving for Idaho and the West Coast from the Bitterroot Valley, I would work back toward Yellowstone, then hit Mount Rushmore on the way home. That could easily be done in less than two weeks. We would see a ton of beautiful country and make memories that would last a lifetime. I am grinning from ear to ear just thinking about it!
How about you? What does your dream Summer road trip look like? Open up your journal, your road atlas, and your Google Maps and start plotting the route. What part of the country comes immediately to your mind? What gives that area such a spark for you? Is it a famous landmark? A happy personal memory? Somewhere you have always wondered about? Somewhere a friend recommended? Is your fantasy trip to one main spot or a multi-spot journey like mine? How long will your trip take? Could you imagine moving to a spot on your trip? Have you been on this trip before? If so, how long ago was it? Who would you take along, if anyone? Who has been your favorite road trip partner in the past? What makes a good road companion? Does the vision of a long road trip stir the same type of romantic notions in you that it does in me, or are you more like, “Just fly me to my destination as quickly as possible.”? What would an adventure like this mean to you? Describe your most epic road adventure to date. How does your fantasy trip compare? How likely are you to take this dream drive? How soon can you make it happen? Leave me a reply and let me know: What is the itinerary for your dream Summer road trip?
Grow your world,
P.S. If today’s letter resonated with you, pass it on. Happy trails!