We began our journey early in the morning on the 4th of July. A father-daughter road trip, the start of a grand American experience. The cross-over SUV was fully fueled and packed. Riding shotgun is the 52-year-old dad in a Mariner’s baseball cap, cargo shorts, a UPF +50 button-up shirt, and the low-top Converse sneakers he wears when his wife isn’t there to give him that look that says he’s too old for Chuck Taylors. The 16-year-old daughter is behind the wheel, tank top and denim shorts, her own hat slung low over her brow, perhaps to avoid recognition. The possibilities of the open road beckoned.
That’s not exactly right. We live inside the infamous Washington, D.C., Beltway – also known as Interstate 495 – and even at 7 a.m. on a national holiday there is no “open road” to beckon us road trippers. Nonetheless, traffic was relatively light and the 16-year-old needed road time with a licensed adult to become eligible for a driver’s license of her own. This was one of the reasons we were driving the 1,700+ miles to South Dakota, to meet up with my wife and younger daughter, who were flying to Rapid City, the jump-off point for our summer vacation. But first, the teen and I had to cross five lanes of hurtling Beltway traffic to reach the left-lane exit to I-270 West, which would propel us away from D.C. In heavy traffic, this crossing feels like a real-life version of the video game “Frogger.” In light traffic with a rookie driver, it feels like a terrible endless dream where I scream over and over “YOU HAVE TO HEAD-CHECK WHEN YOU SWITCH LANES! YOU NEED TO SLOW DOWN! OH MY GOD WE’RE GOING TO DIE!”
We escaped the Beltway without physical or lasting emotional harm and formerly rookie driver soon was navigating interstate traffic, not exactly with ease, but with competence. She also was a good hand at road-tripping. I’m biased, naturally, but for a kid, she’s pretty cool. And by “cool” I mean “nerdy.” She can be ironic and snarky, so we understand each other’s language. She’s a voracious reader, follows current world affairs, isn’t afraid to voice an opinion, willing to engage in free-wheeling debate. She even – on occasion – will laugh at my dad jokes. Even better, when driving she couldn’t disappear into her smart phone and avoid my attempts to pry into her world. (“Tell me again how Snapchat works.” “You’re saying that it’s acceptable to use ‘they’ as a gender-neutral singular pronoun?” “Am I appropriating culture by cooking ethnic foods in my home?” “Would you rather fight one 100-foot tall Stephen King or 100 one-foot tall Stephen Kings?” “But what if it’s not an allegory and it’s just a story about boys alone on an island getting into a little mischief?” “They made a movie about emojis? You’re fucking with me, right?”). As it turns out, there really is a movie about emojis.
Successful road trips, however, must be more than esoteric discussions and lame dad jokes. Successful road trips require planning with a good mix of random happenings. Here are a few of our highlights:
Day 1 – Bethesda, Maryland, to Ann Arbor, Michigan (500 miles)
America, the Soundtrack: The importance of music to a successful road trip cannot be overstated. We spent Independence Day on the road and the 16-year-old was all over the July 4 Road Trip Playlist. The selection included: American Girl (Tom Petty), American Idiot (Green Day), American Woman (Lenny Kravitz), Angry American (Toby Keith), American Pie (Don McLean), Back in the USA (Berry), Born in the USA (Bruce Springsteen), Party in the USA (Miley Cyrus), Surfin’ USA (Beach Boys), I’ve Been Everywhere (Johnny Cash), The Road Goes on Forever (Robert Earl Keen), Country Roads (John Denver), Copperhead Road (Steve Earle), On the Road Again (Willie Nelson), LA Freeway (Guy Clark). That’s how you do a July 4 Road Trip Playlist.
Milestones: I keep track of things. These things I track may seem trivial, but to me they are threads that help tether me to my version of reality. Like how many miles I ran in 2010 (1,358) or how many states I’ve lived in since birth (10). I mention this because you can drive to South Dakota from Bethesda without going through the state of Michigan. But not if you’ve never 1) spent the night in or 2) logged running miles (not counting Detroit airport) in the state Michigan. A little out of the way, but check (41st state with overnight stay) and check (36th state with running miles logged).
Day 2 – Ann Arbor, Michigan, to Chicago, Illinois (290 miles)
Baseball: We left Ann Arbor early because we had tickets for an afternoon game at Wrigley Field (9th ballpark visit) to watch the Chicago Cubs play the Tampa Bay Rays. Dad’s advice to bring a hat and put on sunscreen was ignored with a partially successful outcome. After watching my daughter squint into the sun while we waited for the first pitch, I caved and dropped $30 on a Cubs cap to keep the sun off her face. Nonetheless, there were no Cubs pants for sale to keep the sun off the unprotected tops of her legs and she earned the sunburn to prove it. Oh, and the Cubs came back from a 3-0 deficit in the 6th inning to win 7-3.
Food: Chicago is one of my favorite food towns because Chicago believes in big food. Before the Cubs game we ate lunch at a place near Wrigley named Lucky Sandwich Co., which had been featured on an episode of Man v. Food, a show about a guy (hero?) whose job is to eat a lot of food. By any estimation, the sandwiches at Lucky’s are huge and are served with fries and coleslaw. On the inside. Man v. Food guy ate three. I finished one sandwich plus two beers and then fought the urge to nap through the first three innings of the baseball game. Post-game I made a comeback in time to travel downtown for deep dish pizza at Gino’s East. Obviously we ordered the one named “Meaty Legend.” The cornbread crust was nice too. We ordered a large so we would have leftovers for breakfast. We then went back to the hotel and slumped into Chicago-induced food comas.
Day 3, Chicago, Illinois, to Fairmont, Minnesota (450 miles)
College Daze: My daughter soon starts her junior year in high school so there is plenty of time to start thinking about college later. That’s her attitude. Her parents, meanwhile, are freaking out because she has about a year before making decisions that will in many ways determine the rest of her life and SHE NEEDS TO GET HER SHIT TOGETHER ASAP! For now, though, we are hanging back and allowing her space to operate at her own pace. Kidding! Of course we did not do that! What we did was start arranging college visits to correspond with our summer road trip. The good news is she liked the one college she and I visited on the Bethesda-to-South Dakota leg of the family vacation. Loved it, even. The bad news is that it was Northwestern University, a fine, highly selective, private college on the shores of Lake Michigan with a price tag of about $60,000 per year. To provide some balance, later in the trip she visited the University of Wyoming, a fine, small, public university where she qualifies for a tuition discount since both her parents are alumni. She said it was “nice.” Never test drive the Range Rover of colleges before the dependable and functional Ford F-150 of colleges. Lesson learned.
Big 5-0: We left Range Rover U. in the Chicago suburbs at mid-day and soon crossed into the state of Wisconsin. For reasons explained earlier, this was a major event because I can stop tracking the number of states visited because Wisconsin made 50. Unless I have missed something, that’s all of them. Even if our non-driving Wisconsin time amounted to a quick lunch at a truck stop north of Madison. My life’s purpose can now shift to finding reasons to spend the night in Wisconsin, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Vermont.
Day 4, Fairmont, Minnesota, to Dupree, South Dakota (440 miles)
The Dawes Act of 1887: I saved something special to share with my teenage daughter on the final day of our road trip before reaching Dupree, South Dakota (pop. 527) for a family reunion and its annual Pioneer Days celebration. It was a lecture I had prepared about the Dawes Act of 1887, also known as the Indian Allotment Act, also known as How Our White Ancestors Acquired Ranch and Farm Land on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Legal history, American history, family history all in one package. It was brilliant, to be honest. My daughter was absolutely blown away probably. I still have my lecture notes and would be available for book clubs, bachelorette parties, kids’ birthdays, bar mitzvahs – all kinds of gatherings. Call my agent and we’ll
set it up.
Later that day we arrived in Dupree where we watched a local rodeo, attended a small-town parade that featured a horse-powered wagon train and Native American fancy dancers in town for a powwow, rode ATVs through the streets, and hung out with assorted cousins, aunts, and uncles. We also helped kill a rattle snake.
The best thing about our road trip was the time I could spend with my daughter. Our shared experience created lasting memories. After a few weeks out west, my daughter and wife had their own road trip traveling back to DC while I flew home with my younger daughter. Which meant she and I could pass time on the flight home planning a road trip of our own.