Sometime during the summer of 1970, Dad and Mom loaded sister and I up in our old car, drove to Fargo, traded for a brand new Ford LTD station wagon and without even going home to show off the new car, headed for the West Coast.
That started a summer family tradition. For the next ten years, every summer of my childhood, an epic trip was an expected ritual.
Each trip took a different twist. Sometimes we stopped to see relatives and friends, other times we avoided them like the plague. Sometimes we planned ahead, sometimes we flew by the seat of our pants. Sometimes we got along, sometimes we fought like cats and dogs.
Back then, there were few chain hotels. Ramada was too ritzy, Motel 6 too risky. Ma and Pa motels varied in quality so drastically that Mom and Dad, much to my embarrassment, insisted upon checking out the rooms before checking in.
There were no non-smoking rooms. You knew the room was going to smell. The question was how much and what was an acceptable stink level.
Every few nights, we'd splurge and get a place with a heated pool. I didn't swim. In fact, I hated the water. But a heated pool was a luxury, and I enjoyed the feeling of wealth.
The quality of restaurants on the road was spotty, too. Again, Mom and Dad would walk in and check out the food on the tables and the level of stench and if the joint wasn't up to snuff, we drove on.
I was so embarrassed by my parents' fussy behavior that I would hide below the seat level on the LTD and wait for them to come out and tell me that we found a good place before showing my face.
My little sister, meanwhile, embarrassed me daily by asking the waitresses at every breakfast joint to list all of the cold cereals before she announced that she wanted oatmeal. She knew from the start she was going to order oatmeal! Why did she have to hear the whole list of cold cereals?
Yes, I suffered through a childhood filled with trauma.
Dad loved to take back roads, which got us into trouble when we ended up on the side of a mountain on a one-lane logging road. Beautiful scenery, but we started to meet logging trucks. And they didn't like stopping to back up for us!
As the family's Voice of Caution, I had told Dad we weren't supposed to be on this road. Soon, we were stopped and told as much. As usual, I was right.
But what were they going to do, take a Midwestern family in a station wagon into custody?
So, the foreman radioed that all the trucks should wait at the bottom until we were escorted out. It took me until school started to get over the sheer embarrassment of having our family single-handedly disrupt the logging industry.
Now that I think back, Dad used his wife and small children as cover to get us out of many predicaments which might have otherwise led to his incarceration. They couldn't very well arrest a man for trespassing who had such a nice young family in tow!
Along with the adventures in heated pools and the misadventures on narrow logging roads, the endless summer vacations filled my little head with vivid memories and made my world a bigger place.
I still long to return to Bryce Canyon. The last time I was there, I had just lost my two front baby teeth. Yet, my memory of the beautiful scenery there is as fresh as if I had been there yesterday.
I finally made it back to Yellowstone a couple of years ago. Having been there in second grade added a nostalgic touch to the already beautiful scenery.
Glacier Park. The Grand Canyon. Mount Rainier. Mount Hood. The Snake River Canyon. Mt. Rushmore. Old Faithful. Bear Tooth Pass. Death Valley.
When you etch the grand vistas of the American West in the mind of a child, you pretty much guarantee that he's going to have wanderlust for the rest of his days.