Washington, D.C., 1969

My First Trip to Washington

When I was a kid, most of my family’s overnight travels involved visiting relatives or attending my father’s annual army reunion, trips within a day’s drive or so from our Western New York home. But my parents believed that introducing their children to our nation’s capital was important enough to merit a special trip.

When my older sister and brother reached their early teens, my father packed up our car and drove them and a cousin of ours to Washington for a visit of several days. A few years later, when I was in ninth grade, it was my turn.

This time, Dad and I flew, a momentous event in itself. I had never flown before. Dad’s first and only flight had been on a troop transport in the Philippines during World War II. Another first: it would just be the two of us on this trip, the predecessor of my travels with Dad decades later.

So one day in April 1969 during Easter break, we packed our suitcases, donned our suits, and headed for the Greater Buffalo International Airport. After kissing Mom goodbye at the gate, we walked down the jetway and boarded our plane for the hour-long flight to Washington, D.C.

I took pictures with this type of camera. Sadly, I lost mine on a trip a few years later. [Photo: Deviant Art]

I took the photos below with a Kodak Brownie Camera my mother had handed down to me a couple of years earlier. It had only two controls: a shutter release button and a film advance nob. It took 24- or 36-exposure rolls of film I had to thread onto a take-up spool. It had a detachable flash unit that used disposable flashbulbs. Given these limitations, I took relatively few photos, mostly of buildings and monuments. I no longer have prints of some, although I still have all the negatives. The images below I scanned from some of the remaining prints.

We probably flew on a Boeing 727, with its rear-mounted engines. We sat in the last row, so our view was limited by both the wing and an engine.

As we flew down the Potomac River on our approach to Washington National Airport, we passed over what I now recognize as the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge. We were on the wrong side of the plane to see the city. But as our jet turned around on the tarmac after landing, I got my first stirring view: the Jefferson Memorial and Washington Monument lined up in the distance.

We visited several Smithsonian buildings, including the Museum of Natural History. One notable change on the National Mall since then: the streets running down its center are now graveled pedestrian paths. I took the photo on the right 40 years later at the same time of year.

The Smithsonian Castle, across the Mall from the Natural History Museum, was the institution’s original home. The building was completed in 1855. To the right: the Castle 40 years later. It now houses Smithsonian offices and a visitor center.

I took my only interior photo in what is now called the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building. This Apollo capsule was launched into space two years earlier on the first test flight of the giant Saturn V rocket. Four months after my visit to Washington, a similar rocket and spacecraft would carry Apollo 11 astronauts to the Moon.

Our most sweeping views were from the top of the Washington Monument. We took the elevator to the observation level. Later we walked down its 898 stairs, something the National Park Service no longer allows.

The monuments on the National Mall were my favorite photographic subjects.

This is me later in 1969 with my younger sisters at Niagara Falls.

I moved to the Washington area almost 15 years later. Although I never planned to stay, after 34 years I’m still here. Sometimes when I’m looking down the National Mall at the Washington Monument or across the Tidal Basin at the Jefferson Memorial framed in cherry blossoms, some deep memory resurfaces, and for a fleeting moment I can imagine seeing these scenes as I did for the first time. Sometimes I can even recall a scent that I associate with the room at the Hotel Harrington where my father and I stayed.

The prints of the photos I took with my old Brownie Camera have faded, but I still treasure them as my first images of the place I now call home.

David Romanowski, 2017

Travels with Dad – 3

Part 3

In the summer of 2001, Dad sold our family home and moved to Northern California to live with my sister Judy. He had vowed to himself that he would leave Western New York winters behind by the time he turned 80, and, to the surprise of almost everyone but him, he kept that promise.

Dad and I at the opening of the National World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., 2004.

Dad and me at the opening of the National World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., 2004.

Two years later, when he flew to Washington for a visit, I talked him into flying down to South Florida to see the Everglades and the Keys, firsts for us both. Mid-summer was not the best time to visit the subtropics, but we spent most of our time in air-conditioned comfort, and the four-day trip came off without any serious hitches.

It seemed to take about five years before I was ready to consider another a major trip with Dad. And so, right on schedule, as the summer of 2005 approached, five years after our dual cross-country trips via the Southwest, I began planning another long-distance drive with my father.

*     *     *

The Great Northwest Trip

I called this our “dams and parks tour,” a nearly 4,000-mile drive around the northwestern quadrant of the country. The route I planned would take us from the San Francisco Bay area north into Oregon and Washington and then east. We would hit many sites Dad and I had missed on our first trip through the Northwest ten years earlier. We would stop at Shasta Dam in California, Bonneville Dam in Oregon, and Grand Coulee Dam in Washington. We planned to visit Mount Lassen, Mount St. Helens, the Columbia River Gorge, and Olympic, North Cascades, Glacier, and Grand Teton national parks. We would also revisit Yellowstone. A few days before the trip, my sister Maryanne once again volunteered to come along. She had never seen most of the places we would visit. This, I thought, could be our best trip ever.

When I arrived in California, some new twists awaited me. My father’s voice was hoarse; he was suffering from persistent laryngitis. He was also having dental trouble. He had put off visiting a dentist, and now a deteriorating tooth was breaking apart. But Dad insisted he was ready to go.

We left on schedule and headed north. Unlike our previous trips, I had made motel reservations so we wouldn’t have to worry about finding lodging during the busy summer travel season. But that also decreased our flexibility and required that we cover a certain distance each day. Perhaps the daily mileages I had planned were too ambitious, or maybe Dad couldn’t tolerate sitting in a car for as long as he used to. He complained about the long drives and lack of enough stops to stretch his legs. He was also greatly preoccupied by his tooth. Within the first couple of days, it seemed clear that he wasn’t having as good a time as he had on previous trips. As a result, I wasn’t having such a great time either.

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The Railroad Park Resort, Dunsmuir, California.

I had chosen for our first night’s lodging a railcar motel near Dunsmuir, California, but the charm of staying in an old caboose seemed lost on Dad. As we drove north, the expanses of clear-cut trees from logging in parts of Washington upset him. As we passed through the magnificent temperate rain forest of Olympic National Park, he seemed disappointed. His tooth continued to bother him. Pieces of brown enamel were cracking off, and he complained about the sharp edges scraping against the inside of his cheek. I began to worry. What if he ended up in severe pain in the middle of nowhere in Idaho or Montana?

*     *     *

Port Townsend, Washington. This morning we are supposed to start heading east, but because of Dad’s dental troubles, I feel we need to reconsider our plan. I lay out all our state maps on the bed to impress upon him how far we still have to go, how remote we will be once we cross the North Cascades and head toward Glacier and Yellowstone. I suggest that, instead of driving more than a thousand miles eastward, we could turn back now and take a shorter route home.

Dad’s tongue moves against his sore inner cheek as he thinks about it. “Maybe that’s the thing to do,” he finally says. I feel a wave of relief wash over me, tinged with disappointment. Then an instant later, he shakes his head. “No!” he declares hoarsely. “Let’s get this over with!” My heart sinks. “I want this to be my decision,” he insists. “And I want to keep going.”

For the rest of the trip, through Washington, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Nevada, and California, Dad does not complain about his tooth. Not once.

*     *     *

The Best Parts

Despite having taken countless hours of home movies and videos over almost six decades, Dad still wasn’t very good at it. When my sisters and I watched his travel videos with him, we had some good laughs at his expense. Fortunately, Dad had a sense of humor about it too. I discovered among my videos from him one titled, “All the Best Parts.” The text at the start of the video states:

“This film I dedicate to David, my son/travel companion”

“And so we are ‘On the Road Again’”

“I would never want you to be disappointed by my videos ever AGAIN”

“So here again THE BEST PARTS”

The video contains about half an hour of footage from our first cross-country trip, mostly stuff he had edited out of the final version. Lots of footage of his shoes and upside-down shots of other people’s legs and feet. Slow pans of the exteriors of a couple of Motel 6’s. Long scenes at the Badlands visitor center and Monterey Bay Aquarium, where he walked around for quite a while with the camera running at his side. A scenic shot from the rim of Crater Lake, interrupted when a large dust devil attacked him. “Jesus, go the other way!” he says, waving his camera around. “Follow David!” There is some typically dull road footage, which I sudden realize he has dubbed with the sound of himself quietly playing his harmonica in the background—Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again.” Funny guy.

But for as much as I joke about his videos, I also treasure them. Watching the videotape from that Northwest trip he took with me and Maryanne, I’m grateful to him for preserving those moments, however unskillfully: Winding through Glacier’s ice-carved valleys along Going-to-the-Sun Road. The steaming terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone. Beehive and Old Faithful geysers gushing into the sky. A bison strolling across the road right in front of our car. Even the boring footage feels precious, if only because it preserves the sound of his voice.

*     *     *

Scenes from the Road

*     *     *

Craters of the Moon National Monument, Idaho. This is our last scenic stop before we turn west and head for home. The footage as we drive across Idaho and into the park is familiar by now. Long shots of road rolling toward us. Clips of scenic vistas and desolate terrain. Swooping upside-down shots when Dad forgets to turn the camera off. I listen to his raspy words as he narrates what he is filming. I hear each labored breath as he shoots a final scene of me and Maryanne heading up a trail toward an overlook. I hear him exhale. The screen goes blank.

*     *     *

Journey’s End

When the trip ended, I felt relieved as usual, but grateful that the three of us had shared another epic road trip. I was especially thankful that, when I encouraged Dad to cut the trip short and turn back, he took a stand and decided we would see it through as we had planned. As I sat looking out the window on my flight home from California, I felt content but a little sad. I told myself that this time, for sure, I would never do this again.

This time, I was right.

The crumbling tooth proved to be the least of Dad’s problems. The persistent laryngitis that afflicted him throughout our trip turned out to be a symptom of something much worse. After I returned home, Dad learned he had lung cancer. I flew back to California to spend Thanksgiving with him and the rest our family, as he began radiation treatments and chemotherapy. He spent his final months fighting a losing battle but refusing to concede—my father decisive and determined when the stakes were highest.

Dad and I took our last road trip together in an ambulance, the morning the hospital released him to spend his final days at his and Judy’s home in Half Moon Bay. It was one week after he had suffered a massive heart attack and one week before he passed away at home in his sleep. He was 84.

*     *     *

Dad and David, Glacier NP (Medium)

Dad and me in Glacier National Park, 2005.

In the ten years spanning 1995 through 2005, Dad and I traveled around the country seven times. I wasn’t sure how I’d feel revisiting those memories, replaying all his videos, listening to him talk to me again as though he were still sitting beside me in his little red Chevy. But hearing his voice again turned out to feel rather comforting. I enjoyed listening to him comment again on all those endless fields of “corn, corn, corn,” watching him film his own feet time after time, seeing him trying to capture the welcome sign along the roadside as we entered another state.

David: “Okay, you can’t miss it now.”

Dad: “Where the hell . . . ? Okay, there it is . . . Okay, I got it.”

David: “State number fifty. ‘Welcome to Westerly, Rhode Island.’”

Dad: “Number fifty is right! Halleluiah!”

*     *     *

When I recall Dad saying to me, “Whatever you want,” I now think of the trust and confidence he must have had in me to let me make all those plans and decisions and drive him all over the country. When travel anxiety overcomes me, I try to think about all the memories we would have missed out on by not going or turning back. When I remember Dad now, I realize how alike we were—our passion for seeing America by road, even our indecisiveness—and how we took these trips for each other, out of deep and abiding love.

David Romanowski, 2016

Travels with Dad – 2

Part 2

Instead of looking forward to this next cross-country trip, by the time I arrived at my father’s home in Blasdell, New York, just south of Buffalo, I was feeling anxious. It was mid-February, 16 degrees and overcast outside, and there was a snowstorm headed our way. Farther south, in the direction we would soon be heading, another nasty weather front was approaching and spinning off tornados along the way. We had a narrow window of time and weather to get out of town.

My sisters told me Dad was really excited about this trip, that it was all he’d been talking about. But I couldn’t tell that from looking at him. He looked as anxious as I felt. He told me the day before our departure, “This isn’t such a great time of the year for this trip.” Frustrated and demoralized, I told him we could still cancel the trip if he’d changed his mind. He never really gave me a decisive answer.

*     *     *

West by Southwest

This time I planned not only to drive him to California again, via a southern route to avoid the worst of the winter weather, but also to fly back to California a month later in March and drive him home. As we packed his car for the trip, I wondered what I’d gotten myself into. I began to worry that maybe what I really enjoy is planning and dreaming about trips, not actually taking them. Increasingly, as a trip approached, I’d be overcome with anxiety, sometimes even panic. Whatever happened to my adventurous spirit, I wondered. Was I losing my love of travel?

Dad's house, the morning of our departure.

Dad’s house, the morning of our departure.

We left Blasdell in the morning on schedule under foreboding skies and managed to reach southwestern Ohio before hitting heavy rain. By the time we stopped in Kentucky for the night, the worst weather has passed. Despite rain at some point on three of the first four days of the trip, we eventually settled into our usual travel mode—long but comfortable days driving and sightseeing; silent dinners at restaurants, where we seemed to have nothing to say to each other; and boring, restless evenings sitting around in motel rooms, where he’d doze off, remote control in hand, the TV tuned to wrestling or a dog show.

*     *     *

Crowley, Louisiana. I’m having a harder time than usual trying to find a motel. In Lafayette, where I planned to stay, I keep taking wrong turns and getting stuck in traffic. I give up and get back on the interstate. We finally find a motel in Crowley, west of Lafayette. It’s getting dark and I’m exhausted and a bit on edge.

The motel clerk recommends the restaurant next door, a place called the Rice Palace, so we walk over there. The dining room reeks of cigarette smoke. Dad orders chicken fried steak and complains about the generous portions. I take a chance and order a Cajun dish I’ve never tried, crawfish etouffee. It is delicious! It is the best meal I will eat on this trip. It lifts me out of my sullen mood. As we leave the restaurant, Dad spots something down the road and points. “Look, a Waffle House,” he says. “We could have eaten at Waffle House!”

*     *     *

Rereading the journal notes I wrote on that trip, I’m struck by the negative tone of many of the entries. Judging from all the venting that fills those pages, it would seem I had an almost unrelentingly miserable time. That wasn’t the case at all, but the trip did feel different from our first cross-country drive five years earlier.

Relaxing by the river in San Antonio.

This time there were longer stretches of driving between sightseeing stops, as we drove southwest down the Natchez Trace Parkway and then west across Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona to my brother’s home in Las Vegas. We did share some enjoyable moments. We walked around the Alamo, relaxed over beers beside the river in San Antonio, visited White Sands National Monument, Saguaro National Park, and Death Valley, all places neither of us had ever seen. But for much of the way, I felt eager to get the trip over with. Even the two-day break in Las Vegas proved frustrating. The weather was rainy and raw, and I felt trapped in my brother’s house, when all I wanted was to be alone and relax.

By the time we reached my sister’s house in California, my feelings had mellowed somewhat, and I felt glad once more that I’d taken the trip. I flew home to Washington, D.C.; I had four weeks to catch my second wind before I would return to California to drive Dad back East.

*     *     *

Scenes from the Road

*     *     *

The Return Trip

I returned to Northern California in March to drive Dad back across the country. But even after a break of almost a month, I was dreading the trip. I wished I could just put him on a plane and fly him home. But my cloudy mood lifted instantly when my sister Maryanne offered to tag along.

2000b-13 (3)2000b-12 (2)That changed everything. It meant I would have help navigating and planning where to go and stay. Maryanne showed me a book on weird roadside attractions she had bought, and she was excited about hunting down some of them. She also showed me something else she planned to bring: a small vintage suitcase adorned with travel stickers. She had lined the inside with thick yellow foam, into which she had cut spaces to hold three wine glasses and two bottles of liqueur. I knew I will really like traveling with Maryanne!

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Chevy plus three, ready to roll.

The trip east did turn out to be easier and more enjoyable than the trip west had been. Maryanne and I shared the driving while Dad relaxed, watched the southwestern states roll by, and put up with visiting wherever Maryanne and I dragged him. We stopped to visit giant roadside dinosaurs and a strange religious statuary park in Southern California; some friends of Dad’s in Phoenix; Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona; the UFO Museum in Roswell, New Mexico; Cadillac Ranch in Texas; the Route 66 Museum in Oklahoma. In the evening we shared a suite or adjacent rooms, and Maryanne and I pored over books and maps and planned the next day’s drive.

*     *     *

Scenes from the Road

*     *     *

But by the time we reached Branson, Missouri, after a long day’s drive on some crummy roads and under an increasingly cloudy sky, we all felt tired and subdued. No one talked at dinner. Even normally cheerful Maryanne went for a walk by herself afterward to be alone. It seemed we all suddenly felt like we just wanted to get the trip over with.

But the next day turned sunny again, and everyone’s mood improved. We saw the St. Louis Arch and took a beautiful backroads route through Indiana that Maryanne had found. We stopped for the night near Louisville, Kentucky, and chatted and laughed through dinner, yesterday’s depressing evening forgotten. Afterward, Maryanne showed me another scenic route she wanted to take through the rest of Kentucky and Ohio. We were back on track.

*     *     *

Louisville, Kentucky. At about 3:40 a.m., I am awakened from a deep sleep by a loud crash. Dad’s bed is empty. I call out and ask if he’s okay. The bathroom light comes on, and Dad steps out, holding his hand to his head. I hear Maryanne say, “Uh-oh, he’s bleeding.” While Dad was opening the bathroom door in the dark, he backed into the tub, fell, and banged his head. He doesn’t seem dazed or dizzy, and his head doesn’t hurt. But the bleeding won’t stop, and we eventually convince him to let us take him to an emergency room. He feels stressed by this, and by the time we reach the hospital, he’s having chest pains.

The doctor gives him nitroglycerin, runs an EKG and other tests, and stitches him up. “This is the pits,” Dad grumbles, as we rest in the ER. He’s convinced he has ruined the trip. Maryanne and I try to reassure him that he hasn’t. The doctor wants to keep him another day for observation, but my father refuses. We leave, have breakfast, and set out again. We are a day-and-half drive from Blasdell via the slower, scenic route Maryanne has mapped out, and Dad insists we not change our plans because of his injury. But Maryanne and I conspire to take a faster route and finish the trip that day. In the end, Dad doesn’t protest and seems relieved to get home.

Part 3: The Great Northwest Trip, and some new surprises.

David Romanowski, 2016

Travels with Dad – 1

Part 1

If Dad answers one more time, “Whatever you want,” I swear I’ll scream. He once made life or death decisions under fire; now he can’t choose Wendy’s or McDonald’s. So I pick the motels and restaurants, plan tomorrow’s itinerary, and vow I’ll never do this again—again. Later, we’ll laugh: about the car overheating in the Badlands, its brakes wearing out on Mount Rainier, getting buzzed in the Mojave by Navy jets. Then one night I’ll trace my finger across a map once more, pondering the countless routes to redemption and the distances one will go for a father’s love.

*     *     *

About 15 years ago, the Washington Post introduced a weekly feature called “Life Is Short,” in which it invited readers to submit stories of about 100 words that gave insight into their lives. I submitted the entry above about trips my father and I took. Although it was never published, I always liked the story and felt it captured well my travels with Dad.

My father died ten years ago this February. Among the things of his I kept was a large map of the United States I had given him a few months earlier. On it I had traced with a yellow highlighter the routes we had traveled together around the country over a decade.

IMG_0325cI had stuck little labels all over the map here and there to mark some of our memorable moments or stops. Fogbound Acadia National Park in Maine. The Blonde Giraffe café in Key West, Florida, where we stopped for key lime pie. The Route 66 Museum in Clinton, Oklahoma. Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park, Montana. The Steinbeck Center in Salinas, California, where I showed him the camper truck John Steinbeck drove around the country on the trip he wrote about in Travels with Charley.

Our routes passed through 36 states. Three routes extended all the way from his home south of Buffalo, New York, to California, where my sisters live. One makes a 4,000-mile loop from California through the northwestern states. We only nicked the corners of Alabama and Delaware, but we spent two full days driving across Texas. We flew to South Florida to visit the Keys and Everglades. We missed patches of states in the Southeast, Midwest, and Central Rockies. But hitting every state was never the goal.

The goal, at least for me, was to give my father something to look forward to after the death of my mother, his wife of 47 years. I also wanted to make up for times past when things hadn’t been so good between us. Dad loved to travel and had always dreamed of driving around the country to see the sights. I loved to travel and take long drives too. Thus the idea of a big road trip with my father was born.

*     *     *

Travels Past

Dad and I— just the two of us—hadn’t taken a trip together in decades. When I was in ninth grade, he flew with me at Easter time to Washington, D.C., to introduce me to our nation’s capital, a civic rite of passage on which he had taken my older sister and brother before me. I had never flown on an airplane, and his only flight had been a brief trip on a transport plane during World War II, so it was an adventure for us both. I still have fond memories from that trip. Sometimes as I walk around Washington now, I have little flashbacks of how it felt to see these monuments and memorials for the first time with him. I also recall him getting a little frustrated with me once when I couldn’t decide what I wanted to do. “This trip is for your benefit, you know,” I remember him saying, a moment I now find richly ironic.

About two years later, we drove to Scranton, Pennsylvania. I was a big auto racing fan, so my father had bought us tickets to the inaugural running of the 500-mile Indy car race at the new Pocono Raceway. I’d never attended anything bigger than a sprint car race at the county fair, so I was thrilled. However, the race was postponed the day we arrived, due to the effects of a major storm, and we never got to see it. Instead, I spent a couple of boring days visiting with our Scranton relatives, and a couple of miserable nights unable to sleep because of his snoring.

By then our relationship was already deteriorating, mainly for reasons relating to “growing pains” that never really made much sense in retrospect. It would take several years, and me moving away from home, before I began feeling warmly toward him again. Aside from him helping me move from place to place after college, more than 20 years would pass before I would entertain the idea of taking another trip with Dad.

*     *     *

West by Northwest

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Dad at Devil’s Tower, Wyoming.

On a sunny mid-August morning in 1995, we backed my father’s little red Chevy Nova down his driveway—his video camera rolling, the brassy notes of a polka spilling exuberantly from the stereo speakers—and headed west, bound for my sister Judy’s home in Northern California. I would do most of the driving, so Dad could more fully enjoy and record the passing countryside. Between us on the dashboard, he had rigged up a mount for the video camera, which he aimed dead ahead to better capture the endless ribbon of interstate asphalt unspooling ahead of us.

My sister-in-law, observing that my father and I were not the chattiest of people, had predicted ours could turn out to be the quietest cross-country trip in history. Nonetheless, we enjoyed each other’s company on the road and had some nice conversations. I learned more about our family history and his time in the Army during the war. Most often we simply commented on things we saw along the way.

Dad: “We are now entering Indiana!”

Me: “Looks a lot like Ohio.”

Dad: “Miles and miles and miles of cornfields on both sides of the road.”

Dad, a few miles later: “More corn, corn, and corn. And whatever that green stuff is.”

Me: “The welcome sign is coming up just ahead.”

Dad: “We are now in the state of Montana!”

Me: “Looks a lot like Wyoming.”

When we weren’t reminiscing or making perceptive observations about the world rolling by, we sat in “companionable silence,” as someone once described that level of wordless comfort and contentment that two people can reach. Sometimes it turned out he had nodded off.

*     *     *

1995-05 (2)

A tide pool in Oregon.

I’ve spent a lot of time lately poring over maps from our trips, rewatching the hours of videos he took, and rereading journal notes I wrote. This reimmersion in our travel history largely validates my basic impressions of those times. I recall that I usually felt pretty content during the long days on the road. But it was a different matter after we stopped in late afternoon. Our quiet dinners in restaurants, when we struggled to find anything to say, and the long evenings stuck in motels with little to do but watch TV became hard to take.

I frequently suffered from persistent headaches, whether from stress or not enough coffee or both I can’t say. Constant exposure to my father’s quirks, his lack of help navigating, and his leaving every decision up to me exasperated and exhausted me. I tried not to reveal how cranky I felt at times. I don’t know how well I succeeded, as I often couldn’t really tell how he was feeling.

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Among the redwoods.

We drove across the northern part of the country to Washington and then south to the San Francisco area, stopping at many national parks and other scenic sights along the way. The weather was nearly perfect every day. We visited places neither of us had ever seen, and I got to show him some places I had been to and was eager to share with him. We survived a few minor mishaps, the kinds of things that make for good stories and that you laugh about afterward. Although I was glad when it was finally over, that first trip felt like a grand adventure—but one I wasn’t eager to repeat.

*     *     *

Scenes from the Road

Badlands National Park, South Dakota. Neither of us has ever been to South Dakota or eastern Wyoming. I’ve planned our route to take us past several national parks along I-90 in this region. We stop at the Badlands visitor center and head inside. Later, we will discover he had forgotten to turn his video camera off. Playing it back, we watch as the camera, in his hand by his side, captures several minutes of swinging, upside-down footage of floors and feet as Dad shuffles around in the visitor center and then heads toward the men’s room.

*     *     *

*     *     *

Anywhere, USA. “I eat to live, I don’t live to eat,” my father proclaims, a little proudly. For breakfast we usually grab whatever is available at the motel, which is okay by me. For lunch we stop for something light at a fast-food restaurant, as much for the break in driving as anything else. I become a fan of Wendy’s pocket-bread salads. For dinner I look for a place like Denny’s, Perkins, or Appleby’s, which offer basic choices that satisfy both him and me.

A child of the Depression, my father hates to see food go to waste. When a meal arrives, inevitably a heap of food he cannot possibly finish, he grimaces or tosses up his hands in disgust. “Look at all that!” he complains. I commiserate with him, hoping to get past this once and for all. But he says the same thing day after day.

*     *     *

Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. Although I’ve been eager to show Dad Yellowstone, I’m worried about the effect the high altitude might have on his frail heart. As the road starts to climb, I keep an eye on him, hoping his angina won’t flare up. He tells me he feels okay. But while stuck in traffic approaching Old Faithful Inn, I see him slip a small nitroglycerin tablet under his tongue.

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The 308-foot Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River

But Dad hangs in there. I take him on a quick grand tour of Mammoth Hot Springs, Old Faithful, and the Upper Geyser Basin, while trying to keep our walks short. Our last stop is the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River. We stop at several overlooks, one of which involves a long flight of stairs. I tell Dad we’ll find another spot, but he forges ahead and climbs all the way down and all the way back up without complaint. As we stand at a railing, taking in the cascading waters and garishly colored canyon walls, he says quietly, “This is really something.” And for the first time on this trip, I feel it has all been worth it.

*     *     *

The End of the Beginning

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Dad looking for his parents’ names on the American Immigrant Wall of Honor on Ellis Island.

Once we reached Judy’s place in Northern California, I had a few days to relax before I flew home. We visited with Judy and with my sister Maryanne and her husband Jake, who lived nearby. Jake would drive my father back East.

During the next few years I took some shorter trips with Dad. We drove to Connecticut and Rhode Island, the last two states he had never visited. (An hour into the trip, we had to backtrack 50 miles, when he discovered he had left both of his thick, overstuffed wallets at home.) We traveled north from my home near Washington, D.C., to visit Ellis Island, where his parents had arrived in America, and then drove on to Acadia National Park in Maine, which he’d always wanted to see. As the five-year anniversary of our first cross-country trip approached, I began feeling ready for another, even more ambitious, driving adventure with Dad.

Part 2: Two cross-country trips, back to back. What was I thinking?

David Romanowski, 2016