I have to hand it to my parents. They knew what they were doing. It didnâ€™t seem like it at the time, but in hindsight, they did. In an effort to show us the diversity and sheer mammoth size of this great country of ours, we did a circuit tour of the interior states. Bidding farewell to our family dog, we headed out on the open road to sights unseen and people unmet. If Iâ€™m honest, I preferred the sights.
In June of 1984, they packed all 4 of us children into the medium-blue Chevrolet Caprice wagon, and we headed west. For the next 3-Â½ weeks we would be elbow-to-elbow in family love. Or something. The trip was a wonderful mixture of normal everyday life of the locals and visits to â€œclassicâ€ National Parks: Yellowstone, Mount Rushmore, and Rocky Mountain, and a few more obscure ones as well: Mesa Verde, Grand Teton, and the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. It should also be noted that many state parks in The West are far better than what you would expect. (Yet another reason to be embarrassed about being from Back East.) This mixed bag of sights and locales always kept us guessing what to expect next. Most times we were clueless. (Nevermind, the fact that I still am.) Sometimes the most anticipated stops would leave us a bit let-down, while the unheard-of detour would lead us on an adventure that we didnâ€™t want to end.
The trouble with traveling is that you tend to meet people. As Iâ€™m sure youâ€™ve noticed by now, people are strange–and not only when youâ€™re a stranger. This country has more than its share of eccentric folk, many of whom you donâ€™t care to meet again. (The gentleman at Lower Yellowstone Falls comes to mind,; he insisted on passing gas to the rhythm of his footsteps.) Donâ€™t get me wrongâ€”there were some absolutely wonderful people that we met. I recall the days spent on the ranch of Harry Kuntz, with miles of prairie grass waving in the constant Kansas wind, broken only by with the vast stretches of the asphalt and dirt road grid work: limitless freedom and constant order. Harry and his wife Laura were elderly friends of the family who opened their home to this carload of weary travelers. Harry had a way about him that left a deep impression on me, like when he took me out to check the herd in a distant pasture (distant enough that we had to drive there). He told me to be aware for â€œrattlers.â€ (Ever fearful of snakes, he had my attention.) If I were to hear one, stop and look down. â€œIf heâ€™s within a couple feet, step up right next to him. They canâ€™t get their fangs out to put the venom in ya if youâ€™re close to â€˜em.â€ All instincts told me to run, but I trusted Harryâ€™s words. I sensed that they were spoken of experience. And besides, where would I run to? I was surrounded by miles of snake-infested grassland.
Harry also managed to cram all 6 of us (plus himself and Laura) into their GM sedan to show us around the nearest town. He drove slowly, leaning far forward with his arms folded over the top of the wheel. He seemed to steer with his elbows, using small gestures of his hands to point out the landmarks, never actually taking his arms off the wheel except whenever he made a sharp right-hand turn. This particular car waited until Harry was in mid-sentence before the right-hand turn made the horn button contacts touch. This launched the quiet scene into a melee of a constant horn-blast interspersed with not unsubtle commands from Laura in the back seat (â€œHarry!! The horn!!) and Harry defending himself from the front (â€œI can hear it, too!!â€) while pounding furiously on the center of the steering wheel, hoping to jostle the contacts back into place. The scene only lasted for a highly entertaining 10 seconds or so but repeated itself every 4 minutes. Even as a sheltered 9 year-old, I recognized good comedy when I saw it.
We traveled from the vast plains to the jagged peaks of the Rockies, with my sister giving us an encore showing of Lauraâ€™s green beans just outside Colorado Springs. (My brotherâ€™s eyes were wide with anticipation as he waited seemingly forever for the window to lower in time–barely.) It was here in Colorado that I got my first real taste of mountains (and not bile, thankfully), mountains that were actually intimidating to look at. We stayed with our cousin in Denver, and he took us to Casa Bonita, a strange mix of restaurant, arcade, and cliff diving Wild West Show. The energy in the air of that place was intoxicating. My family was out of our element, and we knew it. More importantly, we loved it. Servers buzzed about with the efficiency of honeybees to ensure our basket ofâ€¦..â€What are these things? Tor-TEE-uhs?!?â€â€¦.never ran out. (You ran a little flag up a tabletop flagpole to signal your need.) Musicians strolled the tables to give us something loud to try to talk over. Then there was the â€œThe Show,â€ which ended in a mock gunfight and someone falling off a cliff a few stories into a pool of water below. It was a wild night. We were drunk with excitement and sugary lemonade–but mainly excitement. It was our parentsâ€™ faults.
Further north we traveled, through numerous snowy passes where the Caprice struggled to crest each hill. It is still unbelievable to me how something as simple (and evil) as a catalytic converter could choke all the life and soul out of the venerable small-block Chevy. We eventually made it to Estes Park and from there into Rocky Mountain National Park. It was here on July 4th we pulled off the side of the road to have a picnic on a snow bank. This waist-high wall of snow served as our table and our entertainment. (Garbage bags are excellent make-shift sleds.) Turning South from there, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison made us appreciate Godâ€™s creation in a new and exciting way. (Just how far will a chipmunk leap to get a peanut on the cusp of the canyon lip? Closerâ€¦.closerâ€¦) It also provided the stage for a bluff suicide threat from a disgruntled 9 year-old confined to the middle of the back seat. (He saw no reason to go on, but shall remain nameless.)
The road from Silverton to Durango, CO gave us a taste of just how high and rocky those mountains can be. We followed the steam train line that runs between the two towns, only high above the valley floor on the mountain pass. The road was tight, jagged and breathtakingly beautiful. It also tested my brotherâ€™s faith in my fatherâ€™s driving. As he leaned out the window to take a picture my brother noticed the car drifting over double-yellow lines, then quickly followed by the far white lane marker. (â€œGuuuuuhhhhhh!!!â€) It turns out that my father was pulling off into a pull-off to allow my brother a better photo opportunity. We all had a good laugh over this. (Well, five of us did.)
In Mesa Verde National Park, we spent many hours poking through the rooms and cellars of the ancient ruins. It was the ultimate playground for well-behaved youths, such as ourselves. After we exhausted our energies in the Long House and Cliff Palace, we went on the ranger-guided Balcony House Tour. Several small climbs, dangerous drops, and long tunnels whet our appetite for the biggest challenge: a perilous climb up an enormous ladder (30+â€™, as I recall) to a lookout. You have two choices when on the ladder: look up and climb to your destination, or look down and risk falling to your death. I cunningly chose a mix of the two, but eventually made it to the top to look down upon the small village dangling over the canyon floor. From this vantage point you can appreciate the works that primitive man can do, if he sets his mind to it. (Just why you would colonize the side of cliffs was not explained to my satisfaction.) However, the works of those men seemed trivial compared to the fact that the women then had to climb these ladders with pots of water on their heads. (At least thatâ€™s what the little clay dioramas in the Visitors Center would have you believe. But who can trust them?)
Be sure to come back next Friday when Jansen’s family vacation continues in the wilds of Yellowstone.
Catch Up on Jansen’s Previous Guest Posts
“A Call to Harms”