I think I was about seven years old the summer we took our first trip Out West. We stopped at many of the major National Parks and camped there, too. Hooked to our Ford Country Squire station wagon we had a tent trailer that slept four, and had room to eat inside, but that was it. Most of the time we were outside or under the tarp that doubled as the camper cover. I kept a diary that really makes me laugh now, to see what my little girl mind made of the experience (lots of exclamation points). Like most children, I took my emotional cues from my parents. Worrying about my loved ones’ states of mind ran through my psyche like a taut rubber band. But this was just a part of me, that vibrated with other traits like my impulsiveness, my daring, and my natural curiosity. Tennyson would have called me red in tooth and claw — but my parents called me The Red-Faced Child — someone who tumbled headfirst and breathlessly into action and trouble. I loved turmoil and drama. One of the first entries is about how my sister Laura forgot her “ditty bag” (the one that held personal items like toothbrushes). This set the tone that afternoon, even though we were driving to some remarkable new place. I was a child in tune with every nuance of mood, every shift in the family landscape, this made me all the more vigilant over my things. It also made my experiences all the more intense, brighter, or darker. And so the journeys out to gigantic, wild California, Washington, and Oregon were a perfect match for my little dramatic heart.
The trip was boring at first, according to my memory and diary. Not a whole lot of difference between our home state of Connecticut and Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Ohio. But when we hit Indiana, I had my first inklings of adventure — from the sickly metallic taste of the water, the judgemental glare of the sun, that bent the pale grasses with shame. There was a smell — pink-brown and hot like the soil in the fields that were everywhere. Everywhere. It was like one infinite piece of paper.
But I was not bored. Just impatient to move through it, feel it, onto the next thing, which Mom and Dad said were the mountains. I had seen mountains, in Vermont, that surrounded us like a pretty, curving fence. This is what I expected of the mountains of Colorado. But as our car bumped along through Illinois, I saw nothing. Nothing but the same flatness and the same white clouds.
Then I realized the clouds were not moving. They lay ahead on the horizon in the same white angles and shapes no matter how much closer we came. Suddenly I saw gray shadows showing through them. These shadows sharpened into darker lines, sketching ghostlike shapes underneath. And then I knew: these were the mountains. And the white clouds were not clouds at all: they were snow caps. My parents laughed softly at my big eyes and from then on referred to this view as “the sketches.”
You didn’t enter the mountains the way you enter the ocean; my familiar Cape Cod offered large waves that you had to give yourself up to, with a cold that bit your skin. But the mountains, though magnificent from the distance of the prairie, once we were at their feet started off low green, and folded like a fan. My excitement plummeted. Where were those stark, scary giants? But we went further up and in, the green of the trees darkened and then fell away, until you were above them and all around you was — at last — an ocean of rock.
We got used to the mountains, except for my sister, who had terrible headaches and nearly fainted from the altitude, the “thin” air. I loved the concept of thin air. Was it less nourishing, somehow, bare like bones? Is that what they meant. All I knew was it made me more tired, out of breath. We set up camp in first National Park I remember, Rocky Mountains. Our campsite backed up to a large meadow, bordered in the back by purplish-brown foothills. I remember the adorable chipmunks there, and Mom warned me they carried Bubonic Plague, but that made them even more tantalizing to my sister and me.
Cleanliness and order were the keystones of my childhood. Mom and Dad took parenting very seriously. They strove for Right, Reason, and Responsibility in everything. Mom scrubbed, vanquished bugs and checked dates on things. Dad built intricate structures of rules and expectations. He mapped out our Out West trips scrupulously, with atlases, pencil compasses, and diaries filled with car mileage and expenses. They were teachers, and so money was to be watched carefully. Setting up camp was no different than keeping our home together. It meant taking all the tasks seriously, doing your chores, and playing after. First we assembled our camper – metal rods slid into place as bed supports, rocks stabilized the tires. Mom and Dad set up the camper stove, wiped down and swept up. And Laura and I were sent with the red jerry can to get our water. This was such a difficult task – that thing was heavy when full – that we learned not to waste a drop. We took this lesson with us into the campsite showers, where sometimes we had to pay for the water with quarters.
At night we would gather firewood – I learned the difference between tinder and kindling – and we had campfires. Dad and Mom told scary stories. Dad’s were scary in a rated G way, but Mom’s were Psycho scary. Sometimes I would play my guitar. Laura and I would fight over everything – jealousy and pettiness are always the dirty underside of close siblings. But there were moments when I knew deep inside that this was good. There was a moment when Dad said, “Let’s vow to come back here with our families when you guys are grown up.”
We loved our Rocky Mountain campsite, and parks that followed. The frozen nights and cold water only bathrooms in Glacier National Park. The fun of Old Faithful – it really did come up every 90 minutes! The Bermudan colored hot water pools in Yellowstone, where I learned that you had to stay away from because a boy had fallen in and quickly his body had melted to a skeleton! Mount Rushmore, there it was, the big president heads! The Grand Tetons, which mean – Oh My God! The buffalo that appeared yards from our car in the sunset of Teddy Roosevelt Park – Dad got out of the car to take a picture, even though the rangers had told us that they could turn on a dime and run as fast as a car. The Grand Canyon, red and orange as Hell, and so vast that its edges were mere shadows.
We took this trip three more times, so enchanted we were with those places. Now familiar with what we would see, I could look forward to the sketches and the chipmunks with the excitement of a reunion. Especially our campsite in Rocky Mountain; Dad had taken note of the precise location and we came back to the exact space again and again.
But Laura and I became teenagers and found we wanted to be on the beach where the boys were, and not in a camper with our parents. It was decades before I thought of seeing The West again. But when Mom turned 75, she announced that she wanted to take a trip, all of us, someplace special. And it was obvious where that would be: Rocky Mountain National Park.
This time we all stayed in hotels. The first day there, we got in our cars and wound our way up the switchbacks, to Rocky Mountain campground. We were looking for our campsite, but what were the odds that 46 years later it would be there? Still, we were happy just to have returned.
But Dad – of course Dad had consulted his old notebooks and he knew exactly where to look. We drove through the park and the hair on the back of my neck started to tingle. There was the bathroom. The water pump, the rocks we’d carried the water over. And there, off to the left, the meadow. It was our site. It had to be. We got out of our cars. Somehow, though, our kids and husbands knew to hang back. Mom, Dad, Laura and I stood there looking around, remembering, tears streaming down our faces. Mom and Dad older more delicate. Laura and I deep into middle age, gray wisps in my hair. But the mountains leaned in like they were part of us, and we felt like we could live forever.