IF YOU DO
it right, and even if you do it wrong -- perhaps especially if you do it wrong -- travel has a way of confounding your expectations. As we left our Washington, D.C., home for a family vacation to Montana and Wyoming, I expected I would see the fabled Big Sky: those wide-open spaces, the odd elk, maybe a few cowboys. I did not expect espresso-and-granita drive-through joints everywhere. “Espresso?” I ask from behind the wheel of our rented Impala. We are out in the middle of what someone who doesn’t live here might call nowhere. For some reason, there is an intersection. For some other reason, there is one of these espresso-and-granita drive-throughs. “It’s like Starbucks,” my wife, Jessica, says. “My question is, why espresso?” I say. “Why not just, you know, coffee?” From the backseat, our 18-year-old son, Sam, asks a question. “What’s granita?” I explain that it is a cross between sorbet and Italian ice -- that it involves all this syrup-making, ice-combing hoo-ha but that basically, it is splintered ice with flavoring. Even if they are serving real fork-combed, fruit-pureed ice flakes (which they aren’t), why not just call the stuff what everybody knows it as? “Granita,” I tell Sam, “is a fancy name for a snow cone.” Sam and I concoct a scenario of some cowboy, his chaps flapping in the wind, sidling his horse up to the take-out window. “Howdy, ma’am,” he says. “Reckon I’ll have me a double shot of espresso and a blackberry granita.” “Hey,” Jessica says, interrupting my reverie. “What?” I ask. She’s looking out the window in a way that indicates I am supposed to look out there too. I do. “What?” I ask. Again. “Hay,” she says emphatically. I scrutinize the dirty-brown bales in the fields as if confirming an exotic medical diagnosis. “Ohhh,” I respond. “Hay.” It hadn’t occurred to me to expect hay, but here it was -- beautiful, in its modest way. Still, it’s hard to know exactly what to say. We regard the bales of hay with a kind of reverence, the way first-time visitors react to the Lincoln Memorial: in silence. By silence, I mean not talking. I don’t mean no sound. A hip-hop song blasts through the car. “So,” pipes up Sam, fiddling with the iPod, which is plugged into the car lighter. “What do you guys want to hear next?” WHY WE CHOSE
Montana and Wyoming, I don’t know. We are not what you’d call outdoorsy. We don’t hike or raft or, for that matter, walk. We are, rather, indoorsy. We restaurant and movie and couch. Montana and Wyoming, with their awe-inspiring mountains, clear-running rivers, and endlessly blue skies, are maybe the least likely places for people who squint when just retrieving the morning newspaper to visit. But somebody said something about getting outside our comfort zone, whatever that’s supposed to mean. (I think it was me.) That “reasoning” was good enough for us. Off we went. It was the last big trip we would take as a family before Sam left for halfway across the country to start his freshman year at college. Jessica had been boo-hooing a little. Sam, meanwhile, was living the life of a Kiss song, rock ‘n’ rolling every night and partying every day. Me? I was kvetching about the way Sam spent his time, which Dr. Phil might say was my way of going through the separation process. Though, personally, I don’t think my kvetching was so highfalutin as to have a process. Spending two weeks on the road together struck me as a traveling asylum waiting to happen. WE GO HIKING
one day in the Grand Tetons. The trail slices through a wide-open meadow and, way up ahead, through some woods. The trail is isolated, and we encounter only five others along the way. The thing is, all five are wearing some version of the same thing: a T-shirt, shorts with good pockets, and hiking boots. Three of them are carrying backpacks. One uses a hiking stick. Not knowing the proper hiking-trail etiquette, I nod as we pass each hiker, anticipating that, unlike back home where it is expected to stare straight ahead, a friendly acknowledgement of passing strangers is the custom in the outdoors. Three nod back. Two don’t. Nod or no nod, I feel embarrassed, as I, wearing a button-down shirt, blue jeans, and sneakers, am improperly attired. As we pass each other, I read the bubble-thought above their heads: That guy isn’t dressed in appropriate hiking apparel. What’s he doing out here? The hikers carry canteens or some other liquid-holding device. A water bottle, I think it’s called. I make a note to self: Find out where they sell those things. The hikers also have attached to their shorts little jingly bells. Apparently, noise scares away bears. Who knew? Sam says there was a sign at the entrance that cautioned to be aware of bears. He adds something about having read about making noise. We start singing. And yelling. And talking to the bears in really loud voices. Who woulda thought? We are together, as one, laughing -- not boo-hooing or kvetching -- just enjoying the out-of-our-comfort-zone surroundings together. It’s great, sometimes, when the unexpected happens.
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