A weekly travel column by Anthony Mathenia
Syncopated: Displace the beats or accents in so that strong beats become weak and vice versa
Despite this being an otherwise scorcher of a summer, the weather at night in the national park is positively arctic. The cutting chill is a small price to pay for the nighttime spectacle—the overhead dome of black sky is lit up like the best Christmas ever.
My God, where did all those stars come from? Back home, the air is choked with acrid refinery smoke and the stars are blotted out by the spillage of city glow. When you have a chance to really see the stars in the most pristine air in America, you don’t ask why the ancients were always looking up. You totally get it. I get it, even though by anyone’s measure, I’m not the outdoors type.
South Dakota is our first stop on what will be a two-week long family road trip. Truth be told, I was dreading this trip. Thousands of miles crammed in a car to see trees and grass and endless stretches of nothing, except for the occasional smeared road-kill—I didn’t think it would be my thing.
I’m not into climbing or kayaking or tree-hugging or whatever else draws people out of hard-won modern comfort to fight the so-called great outdoors. I counted it as an achievement that I made it to my mid-thirties without setting foot in a national park.
When my wife and I first got married, our travel coalesced with the touring schedule of our favorite rock band, Throwing Muses, and the solo performances of front woman Kristin Hersh. Our fandom carried us to cities like San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, and New York. I love cities—the culture, the entertainment, and especially the restaurants. Fifteen years after the fact, I’m still waxing poetically about a revelatory meal at Nobu, New York, like it was the birth of my child.
When my daughter came along, we traded big city rock clubs for sunny, saccharine jaunts to Walt Disney World in Florida. This was our travel for ten years, until we blinked to find that our pixie-dusted princess was a withdrawn teenager with a faux-hawk.
I think that is part of what lured me out to the road. Somehow an old-fashioned great American family road trip seemed like a last ditch effort to capture a moment before it slipped away forever. It seemed a reasonable effort to reconnect as a family, forced into a Nissan Altima with no place to retreat.
So in the summer of 2012, we decided to tackle this majestic nation, starting from Alton, Illinois, going west and back, hitting as many scenic must-dos as we possibly could. We considered it a tasting sample of the best America has to offer. We had no planning except for our midpoint of southern California and a list of national parks that were positioned between here and there and back again.
We headed out on a Saturday morning, after a Tetris grand master effort of packing our car for our two-week excursion. My mind was stuck on my day job. Would they be able to get along without me? It was tough to get away from my long-term place of employment, because unlike most first world countries, America has a deep-seated grudge toward vacation time. It made me feel strangely ashamed to opt out of productivity like a shiftless vagabond.
It was only for two weeks, but it felt like a guilty luxury, despite other places in the world where three weeks or more was standard—a fact that I was reminded of by the glut of Europeans at most of our stops. I did my best to push the guilt out of mind as I shifted the car into drive and left home.