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.
I 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.
* * *
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
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.
* * *
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.
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.
* * *
Mount Rainier, where we discovered that our car’s front brake pads had worn out.
The Oregon coast from north of Cannon Beach.
Crater Lake, where Dad was attacked by a dust devil.
* * *
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.
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
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