I recently took a trip to Yellowstone National Park with my son and two of his sons, my grandsons, and learned a some things along the way.
Friday: We left Dexter around 7:00 pm intending on driving through the night and the next day straight through to Yellowstone National Park. My grandsons, Brendan (age 7) and Drake (age 5), excited for the trip ahead with Dad and Grandpa, couldn’t possibly yet grasp the enormity and wonder of what lay ahead. Larry, and I were stoked to be reliving the old days once again.
First Thing: Pick a destination the boys are sure to love. Yellowstone National Park – animals, geysers, mountains, and camping. Perfect.
The first 3 hours of our 25 hour trip was a volleyball game of excited questions and statements served from the back seat and responses tossed back.
Back seat / Front seat
“Will we see a bear in Yellowstone?” / “I hope so.”
“Can we touch it?” / “We can slowly back away.”
“I’m hungry.” / “Have some more jerky.”
“I’m going to catch a bird!” / “We can look at birds.”
“I’m five!” / “Yes, I know.”
Just short of Indiana, we stopped at a non-chain for burgers. One thing Larry and I share is a love for the independents out there. The food is just better at Mom and Pop shops like Redamak’s. Back on I-94, we happily ate our food but I couldn’t help cringing at the thought of fries and chicken tenders mashed into the Navigator’s interior. But it’s what kids do. I practiced breathing and drove on into the night.
Second Thing: Be flexible. Four people on this trip means there’s three other agendas than mine. If I want to fly out west, but Larry wants to do a road trip like the old days, road trip it is. If my son wants to take time to hunt down a good burger, then that’s what we do. Spilled food will clean up.
Saturday: It’s past midnight and Larry’s at the wheel. The boys are asleep in the back with their neck pillows which was why I wanted to begin our trip in the evening. It would be easier if they slept through as much of the road trip as possible. The driver chooses the music and Larry put on a history podcast which lulled me into a fitful doze.
Somewhere around 2:00 am, I came fully alert when we were suddenly in a storm. It rained hard, not cats and dogs hard, more like bison and bears hard. “IT’S LIKE RIDING THROUGH A WASHING MACHINE!” a voice startled us from the back. Drake was awake. “Yes, it is like a washing machine,” I answered. “Go back to sleep Drakey.” He didn’t.
“Slow down,” I said to Larry. He was driving faster in the rain than my aging reflexes could handle if I’d been driving, making me feel out of control. He humored me and backed off. I peered through the wipers struggling to slap away sheets of water. So typical for us. It wouldn’t be a road trip out west without at least one mother of all thunderstorms. Twenty minutes later the rain stopped as abruptly as it began. I reclined my seat but couldn’t sleep.
I love road trips, especially at night – the calm of cloaked darkness, the rhythmic sway of the SUV, the surreal, hypnagogic feel of it all. I was suddenly overwhelmed with the richness of this moment here with my son and his sons, my grandsons. It is in the unexpected moments like these that whatever is wrong, is healed. Whatever is broken, is whole. For a bit anyway.
Third Thing: Know the real reason for the trip. Yellowstone is not the destination but rather a means to an end. I just wanted to do a few days of life together with my boys. The whats and whens took a distant back seat to The Why.
The boys came fully awake around 6:00 am. We stopped for gas, breakfast, and a chance to stretch our legs before moving on. Getting there was half over already, the easy half. But I packed a lot of road trip activities for Drake and Brendan to get them through the long ride.
None of the books, games, fidget spinners, activities nor DVD’s, surprisingly, held their attention. The only thing that interested the boys was happily resuming the volley of questions and answers from night before. They were eager to engage us. Lesson that is right there.
Back seat / Front seat
“What’s that? / “Those are cattle.”
“Why are they cattle?” / “They just are.”
“Are they buffalo?” / “No. They’re cattle. Like cows.”
“I saw a bird.” / “That’s cool. What did it look like?”
“Are buffalo cattle?” / “Kind of. You’ll see.”
Fourth Thing: Be present and involved no matter what it takes. It helped Larry and I to remember they didn’t really want answers as much as they just wanted our attention.
Brendan is more cerebral than active. Driven by an insatiable curiosity, he loves to read and figure stuff out, much like his dad. He’ll read anything, even directions to the DVD during Homeward Bound. He’s curious and bright as a result. I knew he would weather a long car ride, which by the way, he navigated using a National Geographic Kid’s Road Atlas.
I was a little concerned as to how Drake would handle being caged in the SUV for a day straight. Drakey is a man of action. He just loves to move. He’ll jump before he thinks about where he’s going to land. When we stopped for gas, he would hop down out of the Navigator and literally run circles around us happy as a lamb just to be free for a few minutes.
Twenty-two hours after leaving Dexter, we arrived in Lander WY. We were still 3 hours from Yellowstone but decided to spend the night in a motel. We would be rested and ready to rock ‘n roll when we reached Yellowstone Sunday.
We found a great micro brew for supper. The boys wouldn’t eat, each explaining “I’m not hungry” but in the same breath would ask “Can I get ice cream?” at the shop we passed on the way. I assured them they would get no ice cream if they didn’t eat supper. They didn’t eat their supper and I bought everybody ice cream on the way back to the motel. What a sucker.
Fifth Thing: Whatever the rules are at home, relax them on the trip. A little ice cream for supper won’t ruin Brendan’s and Drake’s future.
Sunday: We woke up after 11 hours of sleep. Back on the road, Brendan and Drake became fascinated by the snow-capped mountains in the distance. Closer at hand, there were lots of Pronghorn in the scrubland along Wind River where we were traveling. The boys got their first glimpse of an animal in the wild they had only seen pictures of. The power of reality over virtual grabbed them and their excitement grew. Every sighting of a Pronghorn created another chorus of “THERE’S A PRONGHORN!” again and again. Dear Lord there were a lot of pronghorn.
They turned their attention to the hills we were passing.
Back seat / Front seat
“Are those mountains?” / “No. They’re just hills.” I pointed ahead. “Those are mountains.”
“Ooooooooh man!” / “’Ooooooooh man!’ is exactly right!”
“Are we going there?” / “Heck yes. You can bet your sweet neck pillow we’re going there!”
“Why did you say ‘you can bet your sweet neck pillow’?” / “Nevermind. It’s just a saying.”
“Why is it a saying?” / “Hey! Was that a squirrel?!”
Larry and I have always been drawn to the mountains. It’s a place where we both come alive. Listening to Drake and Brendan’s excitement was like seeing the big peaks again for the first time. It felt good. Like the pronghorn, they’d seen pictures and videos, heard our stories, none of which could produce the exhilaration they were now experiencing from the real thing.
The Navigator easily made the long climb up to the Continental Divide, which is why I wanted to rent a big SUV. We stopped for some pictures. “Are we in the mountains now?” Brendan asked.
“We’re in the mountains now!” Larry answered enthusiastically. “This is what it’s like to be in the mountains Brendan!” We got out and Drake romped around in the grass. “I LIKE THE MOUNTAINS!”
There was still snow. It was cold. We put on our fleeces. The boys thought it was cool that there was snow in summer. Larry and I looked around and then gazed together over at the Tetons where we’d been years before. “I’d forgotten how much I loved the mountains,” he said almost reverently. I said nothing. I felt the same. This was church for us.
We stopped again down in the Tetons for more pictures. Drake quickly made friends with some other kids. Brendan read the interpretative signs and explained them to me. Larry took pictures. Looking at the snow on the peaks, waves of blowing grass, feeling the chill of the wind, and warm sun on my face, I continued to worship in my favorite cathedral.
Back in the Navigator, Brendan announced we would be at Yellowstone 12:00 noon. We patiently wound our way north behind the motor homes and around the bicyclists. Our excitement grew and we all cheered when the big Yellowstone National Park sign came into view. We stopped for a picture. Larry glanced at his phone. “Holy Cow!” he exclaimed. “It’s 12:02. Great job Brendan!”
We got out and the mosquitoes were as thick as campfire smoke. I hate bugs so much. We asked a fellow tourist for a group photo and stopped swatting long enough for a couple shots. Down the steep embankment/cliff, across the river, we saw our first elk. It was a cow with no horns and the boys didn’t understand the different between that and a deer.
The boys lingered at the edge watching the elk pick her way through the brush while Larry and I started back to the SUV. Larry and I turned back to get them moving. In their excitement they had moved closer to the edge. “STOP!” Larry barked. “GET BACK!” Drake stepped back. Brendan wasn’t paying attention, took another step, and slipped over the edge.
In Part Two, Brendan is OK and the boys are sworn in as Junior Rangers.
You can read more by Doug at intothewilderness.net
He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org