Read Part 2 here.
After you had children, you stopped picking up hitchhikers. I remember you bemoaning your full car once when we passed a father and his two kids sitting with all their ski equipment at the bottom of Berthoud Pass near Winter Park, Colorado. There wasn’t room for them anymore, so you shared the journey with your kids, instead.
We have to remember things collectively or else we forget them. We remember serene things, like the sunflowers that pursued the sun as we drove west through Nebraska, their yellow faces turning to watch us go. We remember funny things, like the time when Taj was a puppy, and we were driving through Idaho when he climbed up onto my shoulder only to pee on me and my pillow. We remember scary things, like the time we got a flat in Great Falls, Montana, and we had to change the tire while daylight edged away.
But neither one of us can remember why we were in Seattle that October. We used to visit Washington every summer but the trip to the Northwest in the fall was unusual. We know it was October because I was ten years-old, and in a month, I would turn eleven, and three days after that we would move from Denver to Kansas City. Emma and Dad had to fly home early leaving me, you, and Kiefer, who must have been only two years-old, to drive back.
We knew this drive two ways: We usually took the northern route through Eastern Washington and the neck of Idaho, in and out of a number of identical valleys in Montana, until we had to drop south through Wyoming. The southern route was the one you took with your hitchhiker through Oregon and Southern Idaho and that swung south and then east through Utah. This time, we decided to take the northern route but we would drive most of the way the first day so we could take an extra day to see Yellowstone National Park.
We did the things you do when you go to our Nation’s first National Park. We waited and watched Old Faithful erupt, saw the 30 minute documentary in the visitor’s center, and bought a Wyoming state pin to add to my collection. I remember the geyser being smaller than I thought it would be. We had to stand 100 feet away behind a low wooden fence. A park ranger told the crowd that it was a cone geyser that shoots 240 degree water 180 feet into the air every 90 minutes. I thought about how hot that water was and tried to imagine what the pain would feel like if I touched it.
We piled back into the car and drove into the heart of the park to Mammoth Hot Springs. The hotel there was built early in the century a short walk from the hot springs which got their name from a mountain that looked more like a sleeping bear than an ancient elephant. A heard of elk grazed in front of the hotel while you checked us in.
A bull elk’s bugle resonates like a scream of terror and carries on the wind like a sound effect from a bad horror movie. While you were inside at the front desk, Kiefer and I walked hand in hand across the dead grass towards the elk. We stopped thirty feet away from the herd and the harem ignored us, but the bull raised his head periodically to issue a bleat which rent the otherwise silent scene. We turned back to the car and saw you standing on the veranda of the hotel watching us. Later you would tell me that if the bull elk were to charge, you knew I would have thrown myself in the way to protect my brother. The thought hadn’t occurred to me and made me uneasy.
You didn’t sleep well that night. You never seemed to get much sleep when we were on the road and we regularly piled into the car at daybreak in an attempt to satisfy your itch to get moving. You put us into the car early the next morning, before the Park could emerge from the fog that had settled during the night. The road was narrow and winding, but you are an excellent driver. Your sense of direction is uncanny, and you are at ease behind the wheel in almost all conditions. We cut through the mist and you showed me why it is dangerous to drive in fog with the brights on. You briefly switched on the high beams and a wall of white collided with the car. You flicked them off, and ghostly aspens emerged through the fog and we could see more of the road in front of us. As the road gently curved, you showed me the effect again and the trees disappeared once more.
By the time the sun had burned away most of the moisture, fatigue had caught up with you and we stopped in the parking lot of one of the geothermal points of interest. You told me to go ahead on my own along the path to see the boiling, dove grey mud pots and cobalt basins, while you stayed in the car with my sleeping brother. I wasn’t gone long. I practically skipped along the boardwalk that traversed the cracked and buckled earth. The colors there spanned the whole spectrum, and yellow sulfur bubbled and fizzed around the pillars of the boardwalk, supplying the air with the stench of rotten eggs. I walked the entire loop in fewer than ten minutes, bypassing elderly couples and bus loads of tourists. I didn’t want to be alone for long.