Friday, May 20, 2011

Head West, Young Man (Part I)

“If you want to make a boy a man,

Send him out west with a rod in his hand

Turn him loose in the wide open land,

Teach him to live by his own two hands,

And he’ll come home a seasoned man.”

                                              Beth Daly

The best part about taking a thirty-six hour road trip with your college-aged son is that for thirty-six hours, you have him back again, just you and your boy, on the road, alone. He may not be the tow-headed boy who loved sticks and rocks and snakes and lizards and tall trees and cowboy hats, but for thirty-six hours, he’s your little boy again, and he’s all yours.

For any parent of a college-aged kid, you know how precious those hours can be. For those of you who aren’t there yet, be forewarned, and cherish each moment you have. Teach your children that when Christmas and Mother’s Day and birthdays roll around, they can forget about goofy gifts and cards and flowers and candy; what we really want is time—precious time with our children, and even more so when they are our all-grown-up-still-feel-like-our-babies-think-they-can-conquer-the-world-believe-they-are-invincible-only-call-home-for-cash-college-aged-kids.

For many years, I had made a point of carving out a week each spring to take a special road trip with my young son. I believed it was as important for mothers to allot time with their sons as we did with our daughters. I admit, I love to shop and get manicures and pedicures with my daughter. Nothing thrills me as much as having a girly-girl day with my favorite female offspring, but I am also the mother of a son, and my time with him is just as precious. So each March, Bro and I would set off an annual trip that was tailored around his interests, which fortunately, also happened to be mine. As much as I loved my pampering, I equally enjoyed hiking and fishing and the great outdoors, so my trips with Bro tended to be nature related and rugged. This meant sweaty treks through the Everglades, the Okefenokee Swamp, the mangrove forests of the Florida Keys, or any barrier island that would guarantee encounters with alligators, crocodiles, wild boars, manatees, big fish, raccoons, and mosquitoes. I loved every minute of hiking through muck and mud and sloshing through swamps and forests, and I dream about those trips still.

This past week, I was once again given the gift of time with my son as we barreled across ten states and two time zones, a thirty-six hour drive en route to his summer job as a fishing intern at Yellowstone National Park. It was reminiscent of our swamp journeys when he was younger, car loaded with binoculars and fly rods, hiking boots and water bottles, the only difference being we had traded bug spray for bear spray and Bro now did most of the driving.

Bro had wanted for years to head west to work in Yellowstone National Park, but his tightwad parents told him it didn’t make sense to drive ten states away and pay room and board to earn minimum wage. He’d end up owing somebody money-- probably us-- before it was all said and done, and the Scotch-Irish thriftiness that dominated my DNA just couldn’t settle with that. We insisted he dig ditches and work construction in the great state of Virginia instead, where by the sweat of his brow he could earn minimum wage rent free and come home to a home-cooked meal and free laundry service.

He did this for several years, laboring furiously in the intense heat of Virginia summers, applying blacktop to parking lots, painting fences, pouring cement, digging ditches and cutting grass. After a few summers of hard labor at minimum wage, the college scholar began to search for other options. Being the earnest and innovative young fisherman he is, he researched his options, applied for an internship with the Student Conservation Association (a group I had never heard of), and landed a job that paid his expenses to Yellowstone, gave him free room and board, paid him a stipend for the summer, gave him a $75 per week debit card for expenses, but even better, HE WAS BEING PAID TO FISH! We couldn’t argue with that, so it was “Head west, young man, head west” with a blessing from both his parents.

I had the great honor of being selected as the back-up driver to accompany him on his journey west. It was the first time since Bro had left for UVA that I had been invited to travel with him, as the first lesson he learned in college was that his fraternity brothers were much more interesting than his rapidly aging mother. I was practically giddy with excitement and anticipation. 

We left Richmond, Virginia shortly before 5 a.m. on a Friday morning, Friday, the thirteenth, to be exact. We were determined not to let superstitions ruin our excitement and were convinced we could haul across the country in two days time. We crammed our sleepy bodies into a tightly packed car loaded with fishing gear, groceries, clothes, boots, bedding, and a cream-cheese pound cake, and expected to roll through the gates of Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Park on Sunday. It was a 2175 mile drive and the current temperature in Wyoming was 24 degrees.

We listened to Spanish music and talked about religion as we drove through the foggy mountains of West Virginia; I was intensely interested in hearing Bro discuss his theological beliefs and hopes for the world and tried not to interrupt with my own ideas as he divulged his deepest thoughts. The sharp crests and deep gorges of the Mountaineer state softened into the rolling hills and blue-grass horse farms of Kentucky, where lush pastures protected by miles of fencing fairly oozed with the scent of deep pockets, blue blood and aged bourbon, a stark contrast from the sparsely populated but coal-rich hills of West Virginia.

Upon entering the farmlands of Illinois, the recent deluge of rain that had caused flooding in the Mississippi Valley became evident as most of the fields were submerged under a wide swath of water. At first glance, I thought perhaps all the water was retaining ponds or lakes or irrigation beds, but after passing miles and miles of water-drenched fields, I realized that much of the rural, agricultural land of Illinois was completely submerged under water. The rising cost of food prices was fairly audible as we passed flooded field after flooded field. I dreaded arriving in St. Louis and the banks of the swollen and rapidly cresting Mississippi, as reports of flood stages and cresting dates inundated the news on the radio. The Army Corp of Engineers was busily working to determine which flood gates to open to relieve pressure from the raging waters, which communities to sacrifice and which to save. It was a no-win situation, but decisions had to be made and sacrifices were imminent. Having lived through several episodes of flooding in my own home, it made me nauseous and depressed to think about what the families that lived along the banks of the raging Mississippi were facing. The smell of mildew permeated my memory and I mourned the loss of pictures and scrapbooks  that my own floods had consumed and I knew those raging waters would soon be consuming the memories of others.
I was shocked at how relatively calm and subdued the mighty river flowed through St. Louis, only slightly above flood level and leaving the downtown area safe and dry. It was hard to imagine the destruction and turmoil that was building downriver as the water gained momentum on its southern descent, and I prayed for the souls that bordered its banks and for the havoc that would soon consume their lives.

Missouri was not what I expected. For some reason, I had imagined wide open fields of brown and gold, but Missouri is lush and green, a land of rolling farmlands and trees. Not only that, but in Columbia there is one of the biggest Bass Pro Shops in the country and an outstanding little restaurant several miles down the road  called “Catfish Corner,” where for ten bucks you can get a blackened catfish with cole slaw that will make you cry for more.

Nebraska….God bless the Cornhuskers, but it takes FOREVER to drive across Nebraska and it all looks the same. Field after field after field, so similar I was bleary eyed trying to determine if we were moving forward or driving in circles. The only way I could tell we were making progress was by counting the flocks of Merriam turkeys that dominated the fields. Strutting gobblers and feeding hens dotted every field we passed…. twenty, thirty, forty to a flock. Gobblers in full strut marched proudly in front of oblivious hens, women interested only in securing the next meal necessary for good breeding. If not for the turkeys, I would have been delirious in Nebraska.

But then, after miles and miles of Nebraska, we finally, joyously, deliriously, exhaustedly arrived in Wyoming. Suddenly, the monotonous fields of Nebraska rose into the glorious hills and vast plains of Wyoming. Snow began to dot the hillsides, the sky seemed to expand, the horizon enlarged, and the air grew crisp and fresh. We had done it, not alone, but by the grace of God and with his angels watching over us, but we had done it. Thirty-six hours, ten states, and two time zones later, we were in Wyoming.

Now this is the funny thing about college kids. They live in insulated, isolated, surreal communities. Their connections seem small, but we adults are confused if we believe that. As we pulled into Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Bro glanced out of the window and casually said, “Oh, there’s Alexa

“What?” I yelled. “You already see someone you know? You have to be kidding me.” We had been on the road for 3 days and I had not run into a single soul I had ever met in my fifty years on earth, yet my son was already bumping into acquaintances on his first day in town.

Unfortunately, he was unable to respond to my questioning because he was on his cell phone chatting away with Alexa, who was in fact strolling casually down the sidewalk of Jackson Hole. He was busily making plans to meet up with her later in the week, along with the twenty-five friends of hers who were also working in Jackson for the summer.

“Oh, to be young again, to be young again!” It wasn’t the first time I cried that chorus on the trip.

We ate lunch at the Cadillac Bar in Jackson Hole, where we ravenously consumed wonton cigars of goat cheese and shrimp in a ginger sauce, a smoked turkey baguette, and a healthy chop salad. Three days of driving had ramped up an appetite, and we were hungry for hot food before we entered the park. I picked up my rental car at the airport in Jackson, and learned a good financial lesson. I had reserved an economy car for $17/day and was expecting something about the size of a tuna fish can on wheels. It was all I would need for just one person, and I wasn’t particularly picky about what I would be driving, but upon arrival at the rental car counter, I was immediately asked if I would like to upgrade to midsize car.

“No thanks,” I responded, “the economy car is fine for me.”

The agent waited a moment, fiddled behind the counter for  a second, and then said, “I’m sorry. We don’t have any economy cars. We’ve upgraded you to a midsize.”

I gave her a puzzled look but said, "OK, works for me."

Lesson learned. I received a brand new car with only three miles on the odometer for the same price as an economy compact. They didn’t even stock economy compact cars at the airport but would try to convince you to “upgrade” to a midsize, a car you were going to get anyway. Upon refusing, I got a brand new Nissan Rogue with all wheel drive for the same price as a tuna can on wheels. It made my Scottish blood just jump for joy, and I thought the trip was going very well.

We had been on the road for three hard days, travelling sixteen hours on Friday, twelve on Saturday, six on Sunday from Laramie to Jackson, and still had to travel several more hours through the breath-taking vistas of Teton National Park towards Yellowstone, where by nightfall we would arrive at the Old Faithful Inn.  The journey had been incredible so far as we had driven across our great country, but  the real adventure was just beginning as we left Jackson behind and headed deeper and deeper into the National Park...

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