Fear & Bison on the Post-Pandemic Trail, Part 2

More hot air from the author… also, geysers.

[Did you miss Part 1? You can check it out here!]

When Julie and I started planning our post-vaccination road trip, we’d intended to drive from San Francisco to Chicago to celebrate my mother’s [censored] birthday. We’d converge there with our kids, who’d both moved to the East Coast last year and hadn’t been able to visit their grandparents during the pandemic. We used a nifty little app called Roadtrippers, mapping out points of interest along the way. Alas, once we looked beyond the Rockies, the app seemed to shrug, essentially dismissing us with a digital sorry, you’re on your own, not much to work with here. I’m sure a six-hour drive across Kansas would have given us a taste of the Real America Sarah Palin used to talk about, but we opted to cheat, leaving our car at the Colorado Springs Airport long-term lot and grabbing some round-trip tickets to O’Hare.

Visiting home is always an exercise in nostalgia (being Jewish, generally centered around food). We had a lox & bagel brunch with the whole extended family at my parents’ place in the suburbs, and lunch in Lincoln Park with some of my old high school friends. We grabbed the obligatory char dog at the place I used to bike to as a kid because nobody in California seems capable of making a proper hot dog.

We also dropped in on my oldest friend, Jeff, and his wife, Stephanie, who live just a few blocks from the neighborhood where we had grown up. I’d reached out a few days earlier, as we headed into New Mexico to spend a few days in Santa Fe and Taos; Jeff had texted back, “Santa Fe is ok for an hour, and Taos is a dump.”

Jeff’s place was in disarray when we arrived. Earlier that afternoon, he’d tested out his new backyard fire pit, which promptly exploded. Nobody was hurt, but his yard furniture was torched, and the ash-covered, defective propane tank rested on its side a few yards away; only Jeff’s quick response with a fire extinguisher and a hasty call to 911 averted further calamity. So, in other words, do not screw around with the gods of New Mexico.

***

Mountains…rivers…train tracks!

After flying back to Colorado and retrieving our car, we drove west towards Utah, captivated by the sinuous mountain passes as we zig-zagged across the Colorado River and endless threads of railroad tracks, briefly coasting through a miniature blizzard a mere stone’s-throw from where it was 90 degrees and sunny. As a brief aside: I don’t think a man can ever outgrow a boyhood fascination with trains. We’d be circumnavigating these ridiculous landforms, river rapids rushing alongside us carrying run-off from the snow-capped peaks, and I’d start screaming, Honey! Look! Freight train coming out of the tunnel! Freight train coming out of the tunnel! Grab the camera!

That my marriage has endured for 30 years is a testament to Julie’s almost superhuman tolerance.

We stopped for the night in a tiny way-station near the Colorado/Utah border, the hotel overrun with (unmasked) young men in town for a community college baseball tournament; walking the halls with our masks on felt like an act of revolt. I happened to be wearing a t-shirt from my alma mater, and a large, gregarious man lounging in the lobby with some of his players called me over. “Princeton, huh? I used to coach at Alabama, and I took our boys up there years ago for a game.” I told him I imagined that it wasn’t exactly a big challenge for his team. “Well, no, we won 19–1. But your guys seemed awfully smart.”

***

Arches, featuring arches.

When I retired from my legal practice a couple years back, after three decades of pre-dawn commutes, I harbored fantasies of lackadaisical mornings lounging in bed; but a 5:30 a.m. wake-up call is apparently now hard-wired into my body. On the plus side, being physically incapable of sleeping in proved a boon during our trip.

Even getting an early jump on the 90-minute drive to Utah’s Arches National Park didn’t save us entirely from a long back-up at the entry gate. But at least we got in. By the time we rolled back out the gate after a few hours of hikes and snapping photos of, yes, arches, the park had been closed to prevent overcrowding. I can only imagine how upset I would’ve been after spending 90 minutes driving through desert wasteland, only to be turned away.

It felt like we were teetering at a transitional inflection point on the cusp of pandemic recovery. On the one hand, crowds are back, big-time, the national parks and other major attractions overflowing with Americans overjoyed at finally getting out of the house. Indeed, by the second half of our trip, we’d seen hotel vacancies plummet and rates skyrocket. On the other hand, ongoing concerns about Covid still limit capacity, particularly at federally-run sites. Besides the early Arches closure, we’d experienced long waits for park shuttles inside Zion, the buses kept partially empty (with every other seat removed) to allow some distancing. There was definitely a palpable tension between the excitement of America’s return from the brink and the concern that we weren’t quite ready for it.

Which isn’t to say everyone was feeling that sense of uncertainty. For all the breathtaking natural beauty at Arches, the most unforgettable sight of the day was found at a small roadside diner in southern Utah where we’d stopped for lunch: a self-serve salad bar. Bowls of uncovered food, set out unattended on a long table, just waiting for people from around the globe (or at least around Utah) to touch and breathe on and oh god I can’t even talk about it.

We sat on the other side of the diner and ordered wonderfully greasy omelets and hash browns; reassuringly, I didn’t notice anyone opting for the salad bar.

***

Before heading up to Yellowstone, we stopped over in the beautiful ski-resort town of Park City, where we had dinner with my high school friend Lauren and her husband, Steve. Unlike Julie and me, they’re avid outdoors-people — they actually sleep in tents, which is something I was happy to forgo right around the time of puberty. Lauren had been instrumental in helping identify places we should visit on our journey; I highly recommend, before heading out on a road trip, that you download the Roadtrippers app and call Lauren.

She asked if we were “smelling the barn” yet (a term I checked out on The Google later and apparently she had not made it up); we assured her that we were in it for the long haul and planned to last the full 3 weeks. Of course, that was before we got to Idaho.

***

Reception-free Wyoming

By the time we reached Wyoming, we began to notice the absence of cell reception for miles on end. Which can be downright terrifying if you’re wholly dependent on your phone’s GPS to navigate to your next destination. We had a few moments of panic when we pulled out of the hotel parking lot and received the dreaded “signal not found” upon booting up the Waze app. Julie had wisely prepared for this distinct possibility by loading up on good old-fashioned paper maps before we left, the ones that are impossible to properly re-fold (yes, you can still get them from AAA!) — which would have been immensely helpful had we not left them at home on the kitchen table. So instead we were stuck slowly rolling down the street until we picked up some stray unsecured WiFi leaking out of a nearby motel, just enough signal to quickly pull up some directions.

These swaths of dead zone highlighted just how much vast open space remains throughout the West, illustrating the absurdity of those election maps Republicans like to pull out showing America as a vast sea of red dots based on county-by-county voting patterns — which might be relevant if acreage, rather than people, could vote. And all due respect to the Founding Fathers, but when you’re driving through the sleepy little hamlet of Diamondville, Wyoming, and realize that the 700 people living there have significantly more say in setting national policy than the 30,000 people in our California suburb, well, c’mon.

And while we’re talking politics — I appreciate your indulgence! — I was pleasantly surprised by the almost complete absence of political signage throughout our long road trip. The omnipresent yard signs I’d seen while working as an Arizona election observer in November were largely gone; and fellow vacationers left the campaign gear at home — not a MAGA hat to be seen. Even the cars were surprisingly bereft of bumper stickers. Yes, it’s been more than six months since the election, but it still feels like an open wound; and even though I tried to minimize my news intake while on the road, word of the nonstop efforts to curtail the minority vote in the next election managed to seep through. So I appreciated the brief respite.

The sole exception of note was a kid at a pizza joint in upstate Arizona. We’d stopped earlier in our trip to check out Horseshoe Bend, a circular loop in the Colorado River wrapped around an impressive red rock formation. While there, a furious windstorm whipped up the desert sand and peppered our eyes and skin, so we quickly ducked inside a little dive for dinner. The boy at a neighboring table, maybe nine or ten, was wearing a bold, noisy t-shirt full of eagles and flags and faux patriotic symbols, something I mistook for a souvenir from a heavy metal festival or a monster truck show until I spotted the drawing of the sadly still-familiar orange face with the yellow combover.

That future voter aside, it was pretty quiet. I’d like to think that some sense of a return to normalcy (or at least exhaustion) has set in, that my enjoyment of waking up each morning without feeling the compulsion to log into Facebook wondering good lord, what did he say now? was widely shared. Sadly, I know better than that. And much like fleeing the whipping sand gusts for the confines of a pizza joint, it felt more like we were just briefly in the eye of the storm.

***

Yellowstone’s Grand Prismatic Spring

I’m not much of a photographer. While I had the usual parental obsession with documenting my kids’ every movement when they were growing up, I never really got the point of photographing nature or some tourist attraction when a postcard at the gift shop would do the trick. But Yellowstone (and its neighbor to the south, the Grand Tetons) trigger an almost primal urge to snap countless photos. Ooh, a geyser! Ooh, another one! You look at the Grand Prismatic Spring and think, there’s no way this is real, I’d better get some proof.

In the course of this visual extravaganza, I appreciated one small sign of the easing of the pandemic: I could once again approach random strangers snapping photos of one another and ask if they’d like a group shot. It’s one of the little niceties I’ve always enjoyed, a minor gesture that gives me a warm tingle. For the past year, or course, moving into someone’s personal space, much less asking to put your diseased little fingers on their phone, was verboten. (I’m still haunted by that time last year when I instinctively leaned over to pick up something dropped by an elderly Safeway shopper, and she glared at me as if I’d just propositioned her to engage in an unnatural and profoundly disturbing act.) Right about now, there are countless couples and families looking at their vacation pictures, trying to remember who that bozo was who took those out-of-focus group shots in front of Old Faithful.

More than anything, I needed a picture of every single bison we encountered. We’d been warned that they sometimes venture into the roads of Yellowstone, creating temporary gridlock, but still, having this monstrous creature approach your car with a no fucks left to give side-eye made an enormous impact. Notwithstanding the rangers’ admonitions to keep moving, it was all but impossible not to grab a camera each time we saw one of these wondrous beasts (though we refrained from snapping any photos of the amorous bison couple violently going at it on the side of the road; it seemed disrespectful).

Fun fact: according to quick Wikipedia search while in a rare WiFi zone, the beasts we spotted were indeed bison, not buffalo. Though from the same bovine family, buffalo are found only in Africa and Asia; but I guess “give me a home where the bison roam” lacks a certain flair.

Of course, as a life-long suburbanite, I tend to get excited by any large animals encountered in the countryside. Weeks into the trip, I would still wig out whenever we passed a field full of cows or a stable full of horses. I found myself unable to resist the urge to let out a mooooo or neighhhh every time, a holdover habit from when we had two little kids buckled into the back seat. From California to Colorado and back again, each assembly of cattle warranted a guttural mooooo.

As I said of Julie before — almost superhuman tolerance.

***

After a few days in the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone, the remainder of the trip back to California couldn’t help but seem a little anticlimactic. We’d planned to spread the drive over a few days, with a stopover in some tiny Idaho town which promised a pretty impressive waterfall, but by now we’re like, meh, waterfall. As my friend Lauren had suggested, we were definitely smelling the barn, eager to be home. We ended up plowing through Idaho and much of Nevada, finally stopping in Reno after hurdling forward for about 11 hours, too tired to hang out at the annual biker celebration which had overtaken the Vegas-on-meth gambling mecca but certainly there in spirit.

I can’t say we felt like we were missing much by condensing our last few days. About all I remember seeing along the way were wall-to-wall Jesus billboards. It got me wondering how effective this is as an advertising technique. Being relatively secular, I admit I’m not entirely clear how this is supposed to work, but is the thesis that the roads of Idaho are full of travelers who just happen to be undergoing some sort of spiritual crisis, gazing out their car windows, who will look up at the signs and think, hmm, maybe I ought to give this Jesus fellow a try? Seems like it’d be less effective than, say, billboards for personal injury lawyers (which were almost as prevalent); the way most people were driving, at least those made some logical sense.

***

I mentioned up-front my historical reluctance to take long vacations. But an additional reason for my homebody inclinations is the chronic insomnia that’s plagued me all my life. I’m generally wary of being away for too long, knowing there’s a good chance I’ll spend a chunk of timing staring at the ceiling through the darkness. At least at home I can sneak upstairs to watch infomercials and sip bourbon, which isn’t an option in a cramped hotel room.

Exhausted after a couple sleepless nights at the end of our trip, I had to turn the wheel over to Julie. Up until then, I’d done most of the driving, with Julie navigating. This has been our standard division of labor throughout our three decades of marriage. Julie tends to be a cautious right-lane driver, occasionally passed by elderly grandmothers in Cadillacs. Meanwhile, I have a comically underdeveloped sense of direction, and even with a GPS navigation system I’m likely to end up somewhere in Mexico without someone next to me frantically yelling, exit here, exit here!

Alas, under carefully-negotiated family rules, surrendering the wheel also meant giving up control of the radio. Julie bought herself a few hours of Billy Joel, and now all my Spotify algorithms are totally messed up.

***

As we returned to the barn, I was pleasantly surprised that the three weeks and 4,500 miles we’d spent confined to our little Honda hadn’t triggered an emergency visit to the marriage counselor. Turns out that, as long as you pepper a road trip with enough breathtaking scenery, a few bison, and sufficient stops for greasy eggs at roadside diners, while negotiating some sort of XM Sirius middle-ground detente, it’s not so bad. We’re actually already thinking about the next one. But we’re still not ready for tents.

Marc is a semi-retired securities lawyer and the author of the rock music love letter Jittery White Guy Music. Visit him at http://www.fagel.com.