Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.
We’ve been home now for several weeks, and a new school year is getting underway. I am way overdue in putting up a post to wrap-up our summer odyssey and had better do so now before the teaching treadmill picks up too much speed.
Denali Highway, Alaska: a long, long way from home.
Looking back over my posts from the road, I’m struck by the way they fizzled out toward the end, partly due to technical issues but also partly due to languor, the daily demands of logging significant mileage often leaving little time and less energy for blogging at the end of the day. Compared to the posts from my 2008 trip with the boys, a journey with no real agenda or timetable, the writing just didn’t measure up. And besides the tyranny of the timetable, there was another significant difference with this trip: I had adult company for the duration. After the boys went to sleep, I still had someone to talk with. And, while my dad was with us, someone to knock back a few Alaskan Ambers with.
Anyway, unlike my blog posts, the trip most definitely didn’t fizzle out toward the end. In fact we ended on a real high before I put Belinda and the boys on a plane in Salt Lake City and drove the rest of the way back. But more on that later.
First, a couple of general reflections:
- The boys and I talked about our journey as “the Mount Everest of road trips,” an expedition requiring careful planning, precise execution, a healthy degree of good fortune, and loads of patience and stamina. In every respect, our expedition went flawlessly. Will’s brief illness in Lewiston was the only real hiccup along the way. The boys deserve effusive praise for their stamina, their sense of adventure, and their shared friendship. I cannot imagine attempting a trip like this with obstreperous passengers. It wasn’t always easy going, but they did just fine.
- As rich as the trip was, as satisfied as I am with how well it went, I wouldn’t rush off next summer to repeat the experience. Five weeks was a very long time for the boys to be away from home. Moreover, the four weeks that we were apart from Belinda, difficult as they were for us at times, seemed like an eternity to her. While we were off having adventures, she was coming home to an empty house. You can’t mount a major expedition without commitment and sacrifice and hardship, but these burdens fell disproportionately on her. And that was something of a constant burden for me, too.
- Moreover, if the trip was in some ways too long, then it was also in some ways too short. I’ve already mentioned how our need to keep moving and stay on schedule impacted my ability to blog the trip. But I became more and more aware of how it impacted the boys’ experience. Time and again along the way, they’d ask “Can we go for a hike here?” or “Can we play in that creek?” or “Can we go fishing?” and I’d have to say “no” and get us moving again. By my standards or my dad’s standards, our pace was quite leisurely, but it could have been even more so for the boys. The simple fact is that adults can relate intellectually to a landscape as we drive through it, paying attention to changes in geology and ecology and thinking about the history and wondering about the people and soaking up the aesthetics. I can do this for hours. But for the boys to find a landscape truly rewarding at this age, they really need to get out of the car. The more “play value” they can find in a place, the better.
- Case in point: one of the boys’ favorite adventures of the trip was a short, impromptu hike we took in Denali National Park. We really didn’t go far at all, covering a circuit maybe a mile long in total, but it was all off trail. We had to bash through the willows and make some interesting creek crossings and yell out “Hey bear!” at regular intervals, and there was animal sign everywhere to discover, including a beautiful set of wolf tracks in a boggy spot. They absolutely luxuriated in the experience and continue to talk about it weeks later. With more time to spend (or less distance to cover), we could have done more of that. I hated to have to frustrate them again and again. Now that we’ve accomplished “the Mount Everest of road trips,” I’ll be very happy to scale back and attempt “the Grand Teton or Mount Rainier of road trips” next time.
More of this, please: wandering around off-trail in Denali.
Nonetheless, even as I felt a little guilty for our not having enough time to really experience many of the places we drove through, my dad reminded me of a trip that my brother and I took with him when we were younger, a grand loop through the Rockies and the Four Corners country that must have been similar in duration. He says that he was sure my brother and I were mostly bored and miserable the entire time (not just occasionally frustrated) and couldn’t wait to get home but that he’s been surprised how much the two of us have talked about that trip in the decades since. I’m still surprised by this news, as indeed I do think back on that trip with incredible fondness after nearly thirty years. In fact, it’s not a stretch to say that it changed my life—we drove Utah Hwy 12 through Escalante, and my impressions of that landscape were the seed that led me to return and work there as a wilderness ranger after college.
And so I wonder how Will and Andrew will talk about this trip, what memories will stick with them. From time to time, they’d surprise me by recalling an obscure detail from our last trip, and it would reaffirm my hopes that this journey continue to bear interesting fruit in the years to come. If this wasn’t a particularly easy trip, it certainly was a richly textured one, and that’s perhaps the best that one can strive for.
With that, here are a few moments of texture:
Visiting the dog kennels at Denali.
Looking at the sea life just under the docks in Petersburg.
The sunset that went on for hours in Wrangell—when you are that far north, the sun doesn’t drop below the horizon; it slides into it like a carpenter’s plane. We began enjoying this sunset as we prepared to cook the fish we had caught that day. Later, after eating and washing up, we still had time to drive to a better spot to set up the tripod and snap a mass of pictures.
I mentioned that the last days Belinda and the boys were with me on the road were a real highlight—I can think of few places more interesting for two young boys than Craters of the Moon National Monument. How often does one get to look down into a volcano or crawl though a lava tube?
“I wish to be / an inspector of volcanoes” —Edward Abbey
I’d made brief stops at Craters four times previously while teaching Field Geology but had always wanted to go back and camp there, so this time we did. We were rewarded with a perfectly cool and still high desert night with stars like dust, and the next morning the boys capped off their trip by exploring a couple of lava caves with me (this was literally the last real stop of the trip before hitting the road for the airport). In terms of “play value” in a landscape, it doesn’t get much better than this.
Easing through a small tube off of the Indian Tunnel cave (which was as big as a subway tunnel yet not nearly as impressive in a photograph).
And now a final thought . . . While lying in the tent with Belinda, watching shooting stars over the Snake River Plain, she asked what I wished for when I saw one. My simple answer, after four weeks on the road with my dad and my boys, is that I wish to someday be able to have these sorts of rich adventures in healthy wild landscapes with Will and Andrew and their children. That’s a simple answer with a host of embedded hopes for myself and my family and the planet. As the incandescent trail of a burning meteor fades into blackness, I close my eyes and clench my fists and wish as hard as I know how.