Road Tripping With Sophia

Road Tripping With Sophia
You came home from the hospital in this 4Runner, and now you are flying the nest in it

2020 is one for the record books in terms of catastrophes – 190,000 dead of COVID, the pandemic raging out of control, soaring unemployment. Now, also, wildfires spurred by lightning storms, in the midst of one of the worst heat waves in decades. Still, life marches on despite all of this wreckage and uncertainty: babies are being born, love stories are unfolding, jobs are being started, kids are leaving home for the first time.

It has been a fraught time for you – your last few weeks of school were by video, your track team didn’t get to go to the state meet, your graduation was online, prom was cancelled. Now, you are joining the great exodus from California, fleeing from the fires and toward your freshman year at an east coast university, where you will be quarantined for two weeks and then attend class online while living in a single occupancy dorm room.

We’ve decided to make a cross country roadtrip of it, stopping along the way in Oregon, Montana, Michigan, Chicago, Ohio etc, camping and visiting national parks and socially distanced family along the way. We’re driving our trusty Toyota 4Runner, which at the start of the journey has 247,390 miles, towing our 16 ft Airstream Basecamp,

Your dad spends weeks getting the car and the camper ready – new spark plugs, tires rotated, fluids topped, and finally the day arrives and you kiss Jake and take a final look at your room, denuded of everything important and leaving behind the relics of your childhood. You leave the big nodding daisy but take a stuffed rolypoly bug, he with the secret pocket among his bristles.

You’ll be back of course. Christmas is only a few months away. But a lot can happen in a few months; a lot will happen in these few months – you will become a college student, run for a college cross country team, make new friends, develop new routines. You will return changed – a young woman who no longer lives at home, even knowing you can return here, sure of welcome.

We leave San Francisco for Tahoe just as the smoke from wine country fires begins filtering across the bay.  As we head east to north Lake Tahoe to pick up the trailer, Highway 80 is closed down and cars begin stacking up for miles. Luckily we are paying attention via Waze and slip over to side roads to join a little conga line of cars – presumably also using Waze – and jump on Highway 50, where there is no traffic.  

The smoke from the Loyalton fires in the Sierra foothills means we go from bad air quality to worse, with the air quality index hitting 200 (it is normally 15 or less).

We stop at REI and the h reports they are out of tents, sleeping bags, roof bins, and most other camping related items. Luckily they have what we need and we are quickly on our way. 

At the cabin, we stay inside – there will be no biking or running or paddle boarding in the super heated, hazy air. Every breath outside tastes of smoke. In the morning our eyes are puffy and red, our noses dry, our throats scratchy. Family in Calistoga texts us to say they are being evacuated to the city where the air quality is actually worse. For the first time since I moved here to the Bay Area, all the staycation options are problematic.

Day 2

Your dad installs the new rods the Yakima roof rack fastens to – after decades of use the contraption has become rattly with both a roof rack and mountain bike mounted to it. He stays up ’til 1a and rises at 6a to finish. By mid afternoon we have the camper packed and at 2p we depart for Oregon. As we head through Reno the h is concerned about the tires on the trailer which are holding air pressure fine but displaying a fine fissure of cracks in the sidewalls. Baking summers have taken their toll and we decide they need replacing now rather than later – no way can we make it 3,000+ miles on them. Lady Luck smiles on us and the second place we call has the specialty tires we need in stock and can take us immediately, so we head over. 

With all the cars on the road and crowded shopping center parking lots it seems like normal times, but the signs on the doors of the tire store and the gas station convenience store are stark reminders – MASK REQUIRED.  After 20 minutes or so we are on our way. Highway 395 is a two lane desert highway, surrounded by scrub sage and little else. We see ranches with cattle, the spring calves frisky. We spot one nursing while mama calmly crops grass. We pull over for a pee stop and see a herd of horses running gracefully in the distance. 

We drive on, the mountains dimly visible through the scrim of smoke. The setting sun is a big red eye in the sky.   We are startled when a person materializes in the distance walking along the shoulder. As we pass we see it’s a girl with dredlocks and a medium sized pack. We’ve passed no broken down cars, we’re well out of Reno, and the nearest homes and businesses are at least a mile or two from where she is. She does not stick out her thumb or even look around. Often we pick up hitchers in Tahoe, usually workers at the local ski hills headed to or from work. This time we don’t stop – there is a pandemic after all. But I feel bad and watch her recede in the side mirror ’til she merges with the hot, scrubby, unforgiving landscape. 

We decide to stop at Howard’s Gulch campground before it gets dark. Your dad (who I will be sometimes calling “the h” in this journey record) needs to deal with the trailer lights which are not coming on with the 4Runner headlights – dirty connections, he thinks. My nose gets so dry it starts to bleed. The haze in the air is constant, and apocalyptic, like Cormack McCarthy’s The Road. The dried grasses glow golden in the eerie light. 

Nothing gold can stay

We pass hundreds, maybe thousands of bales of hay. One farm flaunts a flagpole with two enormous flags – American on top, and a custom blue flag beneath that is easily read as we pass by 500 yards away at 70 mph: TRUMP. 

As we pass Alturas the spruce trees become thicker, denser. It’s reassuring to be surrounded by green things. We pass through a town named Sagehead, then Likely, a likely little place with a general store and the well-named Most Likely cafe. We are past the whole town in less than 15 seconds, driving under a sky with great bands of salmon and purple, like the walls of an ancient canyon. 

Driving through the purply light, a fingernail moon hangs low in the sky above a bank of scarlet clouds. A great horned owl swoops across the road just in front of us. We pull into the campsite in the MODOC National forest right as it falls full dark. 

Dinner is rehydrated chicken pad Thai. It’s too warm for a fire (and anyway we’re sick of fire) so we eat by the light of a string of battery operated party lights. After dinner it is 10p and we turn in – the h and I in the Basecamp, you choosing to set up in the bivvy.

first night in the bivvy

The air quality rating has dropped to 89 which is moderate, so we wear masks as we read a bit and ready ourselves for bed. The darkness is complete.  A gap amidst the treetops show the Big Dipper and the North Star, and we fall asleep gazing at them. All is well. 

Day 3 

We wake refreshed, rising with the sun. The car and the bivvy are covered with a light sprinkling of ash. The air carries a whiff of smoke. We have cereal, coffee and tea. We marvel at the super clean bathrooms. 

By 9a we are off to Oregon, where the the air quality is a blessed 19. From the backseat you check your phone and report the air quality of Tahoe – an incredible 195. Our mountain refuge has the same air quality of Beijing. 

We decide to visit the Lava Beds national monument, we have a national park pass just for this trip. But the road to the lava beds is closed so we go to the petroglyphs, etchings by early Native Americans on a huge monolith of black lava rock speckled with white guano from raptors, prairie falcons, cliff sparrows and horned owls, all of which nest in the lacy crevices.  

After a brief stretch of the legs, we pull into a  little town for gas. An attendant taps on the window, indicating we should stay in the car. Your dad unrolls his window. “You’re in Oregon now,” she reminds us. “Fill her up?” I had forgotten that about Oregon – the full service gas stations.  Your dad tells you how once upon a time the station attendant would check your fluids, and likely as not you could get the on-premise mechanic to take a look at a problem you might have. While we get gas two different people tap on the window to say “Love the camper!” It’s a friend maker, the Basecamp.

You take the wheel as we approach Eugene, 80 miles out. We decide to stop for a mountain bike ride and trail run on the way. In Eugene we plan to run a Steve Prefontaine memorial lap on the university of Oregon, long a dream of mine.

On the road to Eugene we pass another Basecamp, the 2020 edition, our first sighting of one (besides ours) in the wild. We decide we like ours better, with the double batwing-style doors in the back, which the new model does not have.

The h has researched two mountain bike rides and we find ourselves towing the trailer up some wild and wooly roads so deeply potholed they nearly jounce the bin off the top of the car, and we have to stop and secure it. 

The temperature in Eugene is a super humidified 85 at 4:30p. I miss my cool, foggy, run anytime of day or night San Francisco. Surely these fires – the third year of them – will drive residents away from our beloved city, which is losing the climate and cultural draws that brought so many here in the first place. Already I know peeps who have moved out of the city.

We are sad but not surprised when we get to Hayward Field and find it COVID closed. There will be no victory lap in honor of the patron saint of middle distances. We pick up vegan sandwiches – the number of vegan choices in this city are off the hook – and head out to Portland. 

Your dad makes a surprise stop – for dessert he has ordered a dozen donuts from VooDoo Donuts. They are a visual carnival but we are disappointed in the actual taste. We were expecting real gourmet – something like blueberry cake donuts with lavender icing, lemon poppyseed cake with matcha green tea glaze, etc. These are more midwestern gourmet, piling ready-made sweets onto plain cake donuts with crazy sweet pink and purple frostings – Cap’n Crunch, Oreos, M&Ms. The only truly creative donut in terms of taste combinations is the bacon topped maple glazed. We end up throwing out about half of them over the next days. 

You share a picture of Hayward Field on your Williams Cross Country team chat and a team member in Portland says hey, let’s do a run! So we land at Mount Tabor Park in Portland and put in a couple of socially distanced miles with the classmate, a sophomore who informs me he loves to read and is the child of two poet parents. “They have other jobs, too” he adds, unnecessarily. I adore that he introduces his parents as poets first. 

After our run we head to an ice cream shop you have researched that has an amazing selection of vegan flavors – Bananas Foster, Lemongrass Coconut,  mango sticky rice. Everything the donuts weren’t, the ice cream is. As we stand in a socially distanced line in the rain, you notice a young boy, maybe 11, with a Williams logo baseball hat. You ask him about it and it turns out his whole family has just spent a month in Williamstown, where the whole family has gone to school. The school has barely 2,000 students and in one day, we’ve met a whole community of them. 

As we leave Portland we turn eastward, a course we will follow all the way to Williams. We find a campground 69 miles outside the city, crowded but with a few remaining empty bays. We luck out again, and are set up and ready for bed by 11p.  Looking through the moonroof, the sky is wild with stars, the Milky Way clearly visible. 

Day 4

Sunrise reveals the campground to be a beautiful place shaded with a surprising variety of huge mature trees, right next to the Columbia River flowing silkily between high precipices of rock wall. I pass you bivvied on the picnic table sleeping like a pro and can imagine you hanging from a rock wall on a 14,000 foot peak with the same peaceful expression.  Your calm demeanor almost never changes – the only way to tell you are stressed with an adrenaline surge is by the number of questions you start to ask. Normally quiet, you’ll suddenly begin asking highly specific questions.  You have been this way from the beginning, carefully observant, making sure to get it right, asking questions and, later, searching out videos to learn to do things like take care of your plants, now numbering a dozen or so, or how to fold a fitted sheet, which you taught me to do this trip but I still haven’t quite mastered.

It turns out camping is a good cure for the pandemic blues – it’s nice to see people interacting and doing people things. We are surrounded by young families, little kids and dogs everywhere. The campsites are naturally socially distant. A constant breeze blesses us as we go about our morning routine – breakfast is high fibre cereal and a bite of VooDoo donut.

Today we will head to Bozeman, the most roadtrippy day of our roadtrip so far, crossing through 4 states: Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana. With new tires on the trailer and a new top rack on the car, we head east on 84 riding parallel to the Columbia river gorge. Floating in the river is Miller Island, a barren looking mound with sparse foliage like hair implants on a dust-colored bald head, valiantly trying to take hold. Being a Miller, I take it as a metaphor for my life just now.

It’s a beautiful highway to drive and man’s ingenuity is on full display – as we race along we are bracketed by trains on either side of the highway. To the north is a high ridge with slow turning windmills, below it a vineyard with a castle- shaped building perched above terraced grape arbors.  Ahead of us, grain elevators gleam whitely in the sun.  If I had the skill of a painter this is the scene I’d try to capture. The long line of windmills following the ridge line have a certain beauty against the soft blue, cloud-streaked sky.  We take in this view as we pass 1,000 miles on the odometer. 

Places with interesting names we’ve passed through: 

Likely, Oregon
Ravensdale, Oregon ( where I saw 2 ravens flapping across a field)
The Bridge of the Gods (OR)
Starvation Creek
Coffin (a town in WA)

We take turns driving, you in Washington, me in Idaho, the h in Montana. We stop at a roadside stand for fresh cherries, huckleberries and local huckleberry honey. No mask required, you report. But everyone inside was wearing one, you add. Hooray, Americans, I think to myself. 

Most places we go have large signs: masks required—this is the first place that has not. For the most part people are complying, though regularly about 10% do not. Half of these seem like they simply forgot, like the Latina mother and two young children in the campground bathroom last night, exiting as I entered – seeing my mask they hastily pull their t-shirts up over their noses and look chagrined. The other half are defiant and purposeful, moving closer to invade our six foot social distance bubble or like the couple yesterday evening walking two abreast on a campground path, unmasked and forcing anyone approaching them off the path to maintain distance. Assholes, I mutter behind my mask, but not loud. People like that are already spoiling for a fight and I have no desire to give them what they want, their selfishness having already been massively accommodated. “Don’t give in to fear”, they chirpily adjure, unaware that their stupid behavior is the biggest enabler of the disease that will probably mark the end of the American era. There is nothing I fear more than the blank, certain, smug face of stupidity, a condition that is unmoved by facts and reality.  

The fresh fruit makes us hungry for salad and veggies, so that’s our first planned stop in Missoula.

We all marvel when we see our first ever speed limit sign reading 80mph. I am shocked to see every motorcyclist passing us at speed is without a helmet, tempting fate to test the hardness of their heads. 

As we get closer to Bozeman the air quality begins to plummet, the index in Missoula at 18 turns to 124 in Bozeman just a few hours down the road – smoke from the California wildfires has blown East, following us like a bad dream.  Tomorrow night’s stay in Yellowstone will be another night of wearing N95 masks, the air quality index is at 145. With less than 10% containment and another round of dry thunderstorms predicted this weekend, the outlook for clean normal air looks poor for a couple of days. 

We pick a campsite outside of Deer Lodge, but it turns out to be nothing more than a massive gravel parking lot, packed with RVs. There is not a soul visible as we drive through looking for a spot, though most of the spots are taken and we can see lights on in some of the RVs. There is a casino and McDonalds about 500 yards away, and a lot packed with big trucks rumbling with their parking lights on like big sleeping dinosaurs. We don’t like the vibe at all, and the h checks his Hipcamp app and finds a boondocking alternative 10 miles down the highway in the town of Racetrack.  

We travel down a deeply rutted gravel road and you jump out to open a gate.  There are no street lights – it is utterly dark and for a moment I wish I didn’t like to scare myself watching horror movies like Wolf Creek. The app instructs us to drive through the pasture til we come to another gate which has the unexpected feature of a real live herd of cows sitting and standing in front of it. One cow lifts its tail and drops a few fresh cow patties in welcome. I am stressed – the host said nothing about navigating livestock. I look around anxiously for a bull as your dad texts the host. Dad shut the car off, you suggest. Don’t make them breathes our gas fumes.  “Just shoo them,“ the host texts back. “They won’t bother you!”

Your dad turns the car back on, the headlights revealing the cows have moved much closer, huddled around the front and driver’s side of the car and camper. He inches the truck slowly forward and the calves stand truculently in our way.

As you jump out to open the gate the cows gather around the basecamp and lick it. Stop that! your dad tells them. They moo back. We drive through and find a spot in the second pasture that is free of fresh cow poo though there are ancient patties everywhere. There is no picnic table to act as your platform, and I’m amazed and impressed when you choose to bivvy on a tarp in the pasture rather than shelter in the camper. You’ve always been independent but this is a whole ‘nother level. You are such a badass, standing in a pitch dark cow pasture with your headlamp, casually brushing spiders and bugs off your sleeping bag before crawling in. I take it as a good omen you are unperturbed and even delighted to be unexpectedly surrounded by a herd of cows at bedtime. “They are my school mascot, after all,” you remind me. You are going to do so well at college.

Places with interesting names: Phosphate, MT

Day 5

We wake to find a herd of cows and sheep staring at us from the fence line. You look like a sarcophagus bivvied up on your bamboo mat. 

Your dad and I take our morning coffee to the fence. The calves come nosing up to us, the mama mooing a warning. They react when we point our phones for pictures, not liking the dark oblongs in our hands. 

As we breakfast I have to smile at the picture you and your dad make, each of you stretched out on the ground, identically leaning on an elbow, long legs crossed at the ankle. You are even wearing the same pants (his gift to you before departing). You are your father’s daughter in every way, more and more each passing day, and its a joy – an ordinary one, but a joy nonetheless – to behold.

As we drive towards Yellowstone, the air quality steadily deteriorates – smoke from the wildfires back home has drifted this far north. Your dad texts some friends who report the air index is a stunning 300 in Corte Madeira, home of my favorite bookshop. Just outside of Butte the traffic on the highway comes to a dead stop – a truck has flipped over ahead and we park right on the highway with a long lineup of other cars for what a highway worker projects will be a 20 minute wait.

As we continue down the road we see the story of what happened – a dead deer in the median ditch, the skid marks of a truck swerving from road to ditch to road again before flipping helplessly on its side. The cab is smashed up, the trailer bent and bowed. There is no sign of the driver.  I think about those helmetless motorcyclists going faster than 80 mph and shudder. 

As we drive into Bozeman your dad plays disc jockey and you are treated to an 80s playlist: Van Halen, ACDC, the Eagles, Meatloaf, Metallica. 

In Bozeman the town is alive with pedestrians on the sidewalk, some dining at outdoor cafes, going in and out of the little shops that dot a Main Street made quaint with hanging baskets of flowers in ferocious bloom. About 70% of people are masked, but there is no predicting who: a young family with two toddlers are maskless but a knot of three teenage boys are masked. We grab some veggie sandwiches at a co-op and after gassing and airing up head out to Yellowstone. The smoke is thick now, the air quality in the red zone, the mountains dim in the distance. 

Blue hot spring

We arrive in Yellowstone by mid-afternoon, jumping out to view some mineral pools. We see bison in the distance but no wildlife up close.  Your dad takes a pedal around on his mountain bike to scope out the campground – when we booked, our site was the very last site available in the whole park. As I walk to the restroom I hear different campers talking about the smoky haze that blankets the region. We couldn’t even SEE the Tetons, I hear one lady say. For dinner we have Ramen and spend the evening reading and planning tomorrow’s route – checkout is at 11a and while we originally had hoped to spend a few nights in Yellowstone, we are glad to be leaving after just one night, in search of clean air. 

You bivvy in a small copse of trees a hundred feet from the camper, the only person in the whole campground to sleep under the stars. You don’t even mention the possibility of bears disturbing you, though there is a non-zero probability they will wander through at some point in the night. 

Day 6

We wake to a chilly, smoky-smelling morning.

your swimming hole

The air quality index is more than 150, and the air is hazy. We are stopped on our way out of the park – the south bound route is closed due to fire. It feels like the whole West is on fire. 

Your dad surprises us with a pancake breakfast with huckleberries. You go for a morning swim in the Gibbon-Madison river near our site, declaring it pretty cold but not as cold as the Yuba, or the fjords of Oslo. You and your dad are alike in your high tolerance for extreme cold, as if you have ice water running through your veins. 

The lower geyser basin is a lunar landscape not unlike Iceland – one of the many places you have been – with endless flat prairie land and steam erupting from the ground, sending dozens of plumes of vapor into the air.  I often think about the privileged upbringing you have had, so different from my own impoverished beginnings. That you’ve traveled to a dozen foreign countries before starting college is an undeniable advantage. It has given you a perspective on all the different ways there are to be in the world, a knowledge I didn’t come to until well into my 20s, after joining the workforce. It has made you curious and empathetic, and aware of yourself as part of a larger whole in ways that I didn’t attain til much later in life – your lack of consumerism, your insistence on a sustainable household, our vegan diet.

As we wind our way through the park the vastness and variety of the landscape is awesome – rivers that cut through huge swaths of prairie bordered by endless forests, the mountains rising up beyond. 

We pass lakes of bubbling, steaming water, reminding us the whole of Yellowstone is essentially the top of a volcano set to blow again some day.  Don’t give it any ideas, we say to your dad when he fills us in on this tidbit. 2020 be like that.

Lamar Pass is where we might be able to spot wolves or bears or elk; on the way, deer leap across the road as your dad comes to a quick stop. They are big and beautiful, with dun colored coats and flippy white tails. We are stopped once again in our quest by yet another closed road by yet another fire. We learn that a lightning strike has caused a fire just south of Old Faithful, so the increased smokiness is due to a fresh Wyoming fire plus smoke drift from California.

We pass an enormous bison sitting at the side of the road, placidly chewing.  This happens several times; In the valley there are great herds of them, along with ibex.  As we pass it, it stands leisurely and scratches itself behind the ear like Jake our chocolate Lab.

The drive out of Yellowstone is a steep, rapid descent. On the way down we see a cow stretching its legs, and a trailer parked to the side of the road, a farmer standing next to it looking aggravated at his escapee.  We pass a runner, a girl, headed up the steep grade. We pass no houses and wonder where she originated from – she was carrying no water.

We climb all the way to 10,900 ft and the air cools deliciously. Snow is on the peaks at our level and alpine lakes dot the landscape.  The 2 lane road banks into hairpin turn after hairpin turn in a way that is frankly terrifying, with sheer cliffs plummeting just beyond the road’s edge. Your dad laughs in delight and scares us repeatedly, pointing out the window at particularly hairy vistas. We tell him slow down! Slow down! Unsurprisingly, the guardrail is battered with dents. The mountains arrayed before us have snowcaps, and are robed in smoke.

We pass a sign that says Top of the World and it feels like we are.

Once we’re back on flat land we stop in Billings for a spinach pizza, then you take over the driving for a few hours while your dad rests and I search for campsites. You turn off to check out a blue camping and recreation sign; we follow a dark road called Slaughterhouse Creek Road which ends in a dead end. The campground is lit with a large neon cross. It is creepy af and we quickly decide to press on. As we circle the park and leave, a shadowy man in biballs watches us from a dark porch. We can’t get back on the highway fast enough, feeling as if we’ve narrowly escaped…something.

We decide to shoot for Mikoshika State Park in Montana mostly because every place in North Dakota (which is not a lot) is full, closed or not answering their phone this late.

You drive us on through the night down a deserted highway full of confusing reflectors and cones from an apparently endless highway construction project. A deer crosses in front of the car but you handle it calmly. 

The next place we try, we pass TWO neon crosses – one high on a hill, the other in a front yard, bright red and glowing demonically. The last sign we see is Trails End rifle and gun club, which is marginally better than Slaughterhouse Creek Road, and then we are driving in the pitch dark through the North Dakota badlands looking for the campsite. A few miles of bumpy road later we find the site, and thankfully there is still one empty campsite available, and so closes Day 6, with all of us going straight to bed. It is hot, there are flies, and the sound of snoring emanates from the camper in the site next to us, but we are road-hardened and are all sound asleep within an hour or arrival.

Day 7

Sunrise reveals the campground to be  a lovely place; we are surrounded by the strange alien beauty of the northern badlands.

Sophia in the North Dakota badlands

Your dad has rigged a shower with a bladder full of water with a shower head-style spout that he hangs from his bike mounted on top of the car. Wow, you say, gravity provides good water pressure! It’s a first shower on the trip for all of us, and we soap up in the mild Montana air. 

We are on the road by 9:30a, the temperature already climbing. 

We cross into North Dakota on a long flat two lane highway bracketed by endless wheat fields on the left and endless sunflower fields on the right, growing things stretching from horizon to horizon.  We break up the monotony visiting Theodore Roosevelt State Park where we see a sprawling prairie dog town, wild horses and bison. Then it’s back on the road again, beetling down this long lick of endless highway bisecting America’s bread basket.  We order salads and garlic fries from a restaurant called The Walrus in Bismarck, to be ready for us when we roll in at 3p.  It is, and we are back on the road. 

Note to Minnesota: your roads suck! 

Our campground for the night is in Wisconsin. We woke up in Montana, drove across the whole of North Dakota and Minnesota and will fall asleep in yet another state. We are pro road trippers! We roll into our campsite after midnight.  Tonight we have an electrical hookup and seal up the basecamp for a blessedly cool air conditioned sleep in the muggy midwestern heat. While we set up, a big toad hops slowly out of our way- maybe he is why there are so few insects about. You opt to bivvy, and my admiration for you ratchets up yet another notch. 

I sometimes forget you are just 18 – your maturity makes you seem older (also your height). You have been an equal driver on this trip, and are now well-equipped to handle a road trip basically anywhere.  From using a camp stove to make coffee, putting up a tent or even sleeping under the stars without one, to towing a 1900 lb trailer on steep mountain roads, you can now do it all.  I can see how proud your dad is, though you both maintain an identically laid back demeanor. 

Your dad and I take a late night walk around the campsite. It is pitch black, our footsteps crunch loudly on the gravel path. Everywhere is the sound of frogs, cicadas and insects chirping – the nighttime sounds of our childhoods, sounds you only know from camping, sounds we heard as we fell asleep as kids, as yet unknown to each other, lying in our childhood beds in our respective rooms, he in Michigan, me in southern Illinois, you as distant from our lives then as the moon and the stars. 

Day 8

We wake to a beautifully cool morning and the sound of the wind rushing through the cottonwoods. I have my coffee under the trees looking out at the lake and listening to the insects. Today we roll into Chicago. Your dad has already picked out the pizzeria from which we will pre-order a Chicago deep dish pizza. After a visit with family friend Gayle, we will go on to the fabled birthplace of your dad, Flint Michigan. 

We drive through Wisconsin and when we pull over to gas up and switch drivers your dad (who, with his long pandemic hair, is beginning to look more and more like Mick Jagger) notices, as he is checking the trailer, that the nut that holds the hitch has come clean off, meaning the trailer is attached to the car by its own weight. A few quick calls and he locates a parts store and unhitches the Basecamp to race off and get what he needs, leaving us in the back of the Basecamp in a trucker plaza to wait. A half hour later he is back, and with a little help from a friendly OTR driver with the necessary tools, we are back on the road, the whole incident delaying us less than an hour, though nightmares of the trailer detaching itself and seeing it receding in our rear view mirror will always be with me. 

You are finding out that towing the Basecamp is like being with a celebrity – people point, honk, and photograph it at nearly every stop. Older men in particular gaze at it with an admiring, wistful expression that always tugs at my heart. At a Wisconsin rest area, a man in his 70s approaches us before we get going again, asking us question after question and then asking if he can take a 30 second look around, promising not to touch it. We tell him to touch away (we have sanitizing cleaner with us) and he thanks us kindly and gets himself an eyeful. “I sure am glad I stopped y’all,” he says happily. “Be safe  on the road, there are lots of crazies out there.”  We wave and are off again, racing to pick up our deep dish pizza – your dad ordered “The Lou” – in Chicago at 6:30p.

We arrive exactly on time and the pizza is delivered curbside within 5 minutes. Your dad is flat out delirious and wolfs his first slice right behind the wheel using a section of grocery bag for a plate. On the way to Gayle’s we are driving along and a large beefy truck pulls up on our left and pantomimes to your dad that the Basecamp back doors are open. He motions for us to pull over so he can close it and next thing he’s on the side of the highway beckoning us over. “This doesn’t feel right – something’s fishy,” your dad says and keeps going to the next exit where we pull over and find the doors are in fact shut tight. We wonder what this guy targeted us for but it sure wasn’t to help. 

Our visit with Gayle includes a mini tour of the University of Chicago campus. It is dusk and the lamp posts glow with warm yellow light. Small groups of students are scattered on the huge green lawns. Gayle points out the architectural points of interest which are many. It is a warm sticky evening, an occasional freshening breeze blessing us. The cicadas sing loudly “summer’s ending, summer’s ending, bye bye”. It is the sound of my childhood and I wonder, what will be the sound that takes you back to *your* childhood – the crashing of waves? The blanketing silence of fog? The smell of smoke and the sight of masks?

Gayle thoughtfully gives us fresh peaches and Michigan cherries and we are on our way by 9p. Once we cross into Indiana we decide to stop for the night at Indiana Dunes State Park. At first things don’t look good – there is a jackknifed trailer blocking our way. A park ranger approaches our car and when we tell him we don’t yet have a reservation he helpfully radios to the reservation station, then tells us it’s our lucky day, they are full up be there were two early departures just that evening. We roll in, and have a relatively leisurely evening, with you picking out your college classes online in the air conditioned Bascamp while your dad and I explore the site and end up hiking a trail with an unexpectedly steep dune that ascends 500 feet. It feels amazing to get our legs moving and our heart rate up after long days of driving. 

No one at the campsite wears a mask despite the signs in the bathroom requiring one. Even the park ranger is bare-faced, which is annoying as he clearly has sinus congestion and insists on leaning right into our car window to give us directions. Probably he just has allergies but it is startling he’d be so cavalier, he’s a state employee after all. 

You remain your responsible self, setting up your bivvy on the picnic table and in bed before midnight. And though you are riding in the backseat loaded with snacks, your diet has been as healthy as ever, even on a  roadtrip – another detail that makes me feel confident you’ll do great at school. 

The cicadas sing us to sleep and we wake relatively early to hit the road, pausing to dip our feet into the vast waters of Lake Michigan, which is a perfect temperature for swimming but alas, the beach is closed to swimmers.

We cross the Michigan state line by 10a, making this the 8th state you have passed through in 48 hours.  

We stop in Lansing for lunch with Thad, an old friend of your dad’s who has a vegan feast ready for us. You have never seen a Midwestern suburb and keep remarking on how indistinguishable the houses are. It’s your first time seeing a cul de sac too. It’s nice to sit down and have a meal with friends after a week on the road. We sit outside in the breeze with our masks at a socially distanced table and have samosas and hummus and other Mediterranean fare. You are amazed when Thad breaks out a photo album that contains a photographic history of his friendship with your dad, featuring outings all over the world. “Your dad got me out of my comfort zone, helped me see the world,” Thad tells you. You are shocked to see your two-year-old self in some of the photos. “Hey that’s me!” you exclaim. 

the fabled midwestern culd de sac

After lunch your dad takes us on a tour of his college town where the two of you pose before his old fraternity house.

Then it’s off to his hometown, Flint, then Detroit, where your dad’s family ran a string of motels. Both cities are scenes of simultaneous decay and renewal, their former grandeur still visible amidst the boarded up, broken windowed, smoke-blackened abandonment. 

One chance, one opportunity….

You ask your dad what the current state of Detroit portends for the US and he explains why he sees the city as a reflection of the country’s entire trajectory. We talk for awhile about how this happened, and how changing the role of private corporations in communities as a matter of public policy is the way forward, and how new technologies like blockchains can help enable that.

decrepitude in the once-mighty Detroit

We drive past your dad’s childhood home, and he points out where different friends grew up, like Kevin, who now heads up a multi-billion dollar corporation that provides in-home colorectal cancer testing, and who has invited us to stay with him this trip and wake board on the lake (but sadly, we cannot.) We are headed toward Ohio, distinguished by its really crappy potholed roads. The road between Toledo and Cleveland is a toll road and your dad gripes at the $13 charge to drive a public road that  is poorly maintained to boot. 

You have become a pro at using your phone to research and find us great campsites, and tonight is no exception – Punterman State Park has a lovely lake that reflects the starless night sky.

We roll in at 10:15p, our trip odometer reading just over 3,000 miles. For dinner, your dad expertly heats up the leftover Chicago deep dish in a cast iron skillet so it tastes good as fresh. 

Day 9

We wake in a morning thunderstorm, remnants of Hurricane Laura, thunder rolling and the rain pouring down. As usual you are bivvied on the nearest picnic table, ensconced in your waterproofed sarcophagus. 

We are cozy in the Bascamp, and confident you are dry in your bivvy set up, and smart enough to stay within and ride out the storm – any effort to unzip and make a break for it will drench you. Our confidence is rewarded – you emerge only when the rain slackens, having had a nice sleep-in til 11:15a. 

“Nice!” you say. And it is nice, the Basecamp is lit up, a candle is burning, the Talking Heads album Stop Making Sense is playing on the CD player, the oatmeal sweetened with huckleberry honey we bought on the trip is ready on the stove. We have breakfast listening to music, dry as toast as the rain pounds noisily on our roof. 

You report that it was fun to feel the rain and leaves falling down on you and I reflect that is a kind of metaphor for death – you couldn’t leave your coffin because of the rain, so experienced what the dead do, who also cannot leave their coffins.

 I am reminded of a poem that shares this reflection, by a Nobel prize winner whose name escapes me but not the words he wrote to his wife upon learning his death was imminent:

My body is not me
your body, weeping, is not you
and there is no time here 
where I am
and you’ll be here in a moment
and we will sleep, holding hands
and listening to the rain, forever

You hilariously tell us that the lightning in the night briefly had you concerned (but I was laying on a rubber yoga mat, you figured, so not too worried), but you reasoned if you *were* to be struck and killed, your body was already bagged up for us, a macabre observation that makes me very proud. You are always so self-contained, even in your speculative accidental death. 

We discuss how manky-headed we are. You recall a middle school trip when you removed your hair tie and your ponytail stayed in place. 


I better wear a hat when I arrive so they don’t think I’m crazy, you say. Your dad appears at the back doors in his customary hooded black jacket, and pants, both waterproof, startling us. He has a way of being unobtrusive; that, combined with his extraordinary skills (he can pick any lock, mountain bike or ski any surface no matter how steep, solve any mechanical problem with his own tools) makes others speculate he is an FBI agent. You look like Slenderman, you tell him and he gives us a big sharky smile. 

We roll out at noon, disgusted to see a neighboring campsite decorated with American and Confederate flags and Trump/Pence signs. The Trump/Pence signs outnumber the Biden/Harris signs 5:1 as we leave this part of Ohio. They are less numerous than they were when we came through this part of the country in 2016, for sure, but it’s still a sobering reminder what a real fight this election will be. 

As we depart we observe the park has a golf course, tennis courts and an archery range and we regret not bringing our bows, but the rain would have made it unlikely that we could use them, plus there really wasn’t room – we’re hauling not just you but all your stuff to school and already packed to the gills. We do have our tennis gear, but in the end there is no extra time, plus the courts are wet. 

It’s been a lucky trip in every way – the problems we’ve encountered have been readily solved, and the weather has been nice if hot and humid. 

We are headed to Niagra Falls, about 4 hours away, just clipping  the northwestern corner of Pennsylvania on the way. Then, we will head to Massachusetts and camp near Williams, where we’ll ready ourselves for tomorrow’s drop off. 

Rolling through upstate New York the sky is overcast. Pretty farms with red-painted barns dot the landscape. We pass the Welcome signs to the states of Pennsylvania and New York in short order. 

We find ourselves in a conundrum as we enter New York in that none of the states surrounding Williams  – New York, Vermont, Massachusetts – will allow a reservation at a campground without a 14 day quarantine or 7 day quarantine with a negative test. In New York this caution is undermined by the toll booth which take no credit cards and are cash only, literally REQUIRING everyone entering the state to pass money back and forth with a booth attendant who wore no gloves and had his mask pulled down below his nose. On the New York State parks site, they are very self-congratulatory about the measures they are taking to successfully contain the virus, yet there are zero controls at the toll booths, where one person is touching everyone entering the state from all parts of the country.  In the highway rest area, masks are required but there are no social distancing guidelines at all, and we’re feeling distinctly nervous as we walk a long narrow hallway that doesn’t allow more than 2 feet from people walking out.  We hold our breath and use the bathroom quickly – it is clean, but so narrow we can’t avoid walking within inches of other patrons.  

most of the tourists at Niagra are maskless

Once at Niagra Falls we are surprised to see how crowded with tourists it is; a good 25% are either totally maskless or wearing their masks under their chins.  Food shops and souvenir stands are open with zero procedures for social distancing. People mill around within inches of each other, seemingly unconcerned. 

You call your step-grandparents in Hamilton and they invite us to stay in their garden, and surprise us with a lovely cold supper of gazpacho, ham and cheese sandwiches, and melon. You sort through your belongings, readying for the drop off tomorrow. I can’t believe it’s our last night, that tomorrow you will be, as you put it, “a free woman!”

Places with interesting names:
Tonawandas River VT
Vrooman , OH

Day 10

We are up by 7a and enjoy a wonderful breakfast of fresh peaches, yogurt, toast with homemade blackberry and apple jam, scrambled eggs and coffee.  We have a nice conversation with your grandparents. Your grandpa has the same wistful admiration of the trailer as all of the men of his generation – he is 89 – and he and your dad exchange motorcycle stories.

a station on the Underground Railroad

After a stop for a surprise visit with your 90 yr old grandma in the quaint town of Colgate (she lives in a house that was part of the Underground Railroad, where an authenticated signed photo of Abraham Lincoln was found in a hidden room in the basement where surely, runaway slaves once hid) we are back on the road.  We see a Trump/Pence sign on a farm, along with a White Lives Matter sign – the first I’ve ever seen (and the last, I hope). In the town proper we see only (and many) Biden/Harris and Black Lives Matter signs. We take a quick tour through the grounds of Colgate University, where students – all masked – are walking, running, and lounging in the grass. The countryside as we drive the 3 hours to Williams is bucolic, with farms, cows, horses and even a couple of donkeys. Everywhere the corn is shoulder high. The signs at the side of the road warn of tractor and snowmobile crossings, and even Amish horse and buggies.

You start counting down the miles (at 35 miles out: “now you’re within running distance”, you inform me) and about 15 minutes away we pull over to separate out your belongings that will stay with you into the Bascamp, leaving the truck much lighter. 

We have traveled 4,484 miles and have  arrived on campus 30 minutes before your move-in appointment at 2p sharp. It feels like a small miracle – like drawing a bow and aiming an arrow from California and hitting a target in Massachusetts – though in fact it is the result of careful, assiduous planning and effective problem management. 

You ask us for any last minute advice, which I know your dad appreciates: Don’t limit yourself to a boyfriend, get to know all the professors, say yes to everything, have fun. 

We enter Vermont, the penultimate state on our journey. I am already feeling a little weepy, but in a good way. Soon we’ll be entering the Purple Valley. At 5 miles out the excitement in the car is palpable. We’re bringing you right to the doorstep of the rest of your life.  We pause to take a picture of you and your dad looking like twin knife blades in your identical everyday camping gear.

You’ve seen a lot of the country on this trip, most of the states we’ve crossed through were a first for you. It’s given you a feel for this nation, so wide open, so varied. Going to college is an adventure in and of itself; I’m glad we made it an actual physical one, too, with this journey. To kill the final 5 minutes we tick off the states we passed through: the final tally is 18 states. 

Williams, through the windshield

We drive up at 2p on the nose and they are waiting. The drop off is a quick and organized affair, the brisk “let’s get it done” attitude helping to hide my tears. I take a video of you and dad hugging, looking like twin ninjas in your identical practical technical go-anywhere-ready-for-anything clothing , and then you walk around the corner and you are gone. So starts this new chapter of your life. 

I love you, honey. It’s been the privilege of my life to get to be your extra mom. I couldn’t be more proud of you, and I look forward to watching you grow into the woman you will become.


On day 19 we returned to San Francisco. Our return trip was interesting, but that is another story for another day. Along the way we’ve received news you are COVID-free, and you finish quarantine uneventfully. You are as glad to get out for a socially distanced hike with new friends as we are glad to get off the endless Highway 50, aka “The loneliest highway in America”, a slogan that would be equally accurate replacing the word “loneliest” with the word “creepiest”— it is no wonder Stephen King sets one of his more gnarly horror stories (“Desperation”) in the Nevada desert.

Today I am reminded how brief and fragile life really is. I read a news headline, Girl, 18, Dies in Skydiving Accident — her chute didn’t open, neither did her skydive instructor’s. She was exactly your age. A few hours after reading about her, your dad’s phone rings, and I watch his face change slowly at he takes in the news of a mountain bike buddy, a man who hurtles down mountains at speed with nothing between him and death a thin plastic helmet and his two index fingers on the brakes of his bike and an ear to ear smile, has died from a blood clot in his leg. He was exactly your dad’s age.

Life is short, my love. Live and love accordingly.

About SFine

Mix Edgar Allen Poe and Stephen King with liberal portions of Issac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, John Irving, and Shirley Jackson; gently fold in Louisa May Alcott, the Bronte sisters, Edith Wharton, and Laura Ingalls Wilder. Stir gently. Finish with a sprinkling of William Peter Blatty, Harper Lee, Joyce Carol Oates and Harlan Ellison. Add zest of Truman Capote-scented Josephine Hart. Scrape sides down and mix in Change Rae Lee and Amy Tan. Serve with a reminder of Ursula le Guin. The result is the Reliably Uncomfortable writings of Sandra Stephens in all of her incarnations: woman, writer, wife, runner, lucky stepmom, canulier, democracy warrior and lover of Jake the Dog.

2 responses »

  1. Loved the story, a true Stephen’s road trip. It was good to see everyone.
    Thanks for sharing
    The Lansing Mi stop

  2. What a delight! Takes me back that dozen-plus years when we virtually met you and your new little girl in gone-but-not-forgotten OS world. Of course she’s a grown-up now and going to Williams. California girl meets the Berkshires!
    I didn’t know I’d missed the straightforward grace of your writing ’til some FB algorithm calculated it could get a click from me, in my self-imposed mostly-exile from social media, by sending an email with a link to your post. Serendipity indeed!
    Best to you and Herb, and please pass on to young Sophia the watchwords I offer to that generation — “Take risks, seek bliss”

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