The Power of a Father-Son Road Trip
This article was initially published here on The Good Men Project.
Beneath a crescent moon in western Montana, I park the camper van among thick pines. My dad, who loves to sleep under the stars, lays out his bedroll. Bears (or mice – they sound the same in the dark) tromp through the woods.
“Can I have a metal bowl?” he asks. I hand one over, plus a spoon to bang on it. Bear Repellent Kit, check. Safety first! Our road trip is underway.
Growing up, we spent many holidays finishing home remodeling projects. When I wasn’t wiring our house or digging the foundation, I traveled on weekends for baseball or played video games. I mastered double plays and Warcraft II, but trips with my dad fell by the wayside.
These days, a few testosterone-fueled shouting fights from my teenage years linger as cautionary memories. Leery or not of how the trip will go, my dad and I are making it happen.
We kick things off by cycling the Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park through a silent palace of views. Fading tamarack pines paint the mountains a dusky yellow in the perfect fall weather. The solitary few people in the campgrounds are the ones who love the quiet of shoulder season travel, so we fit right in.
Next is a hike on the park’s east side as clouds squat on the peaks, the only sounds our footsteps and trickling water. My dad’s knee, wrecked years ago thanks to ladder fall and increasingly hampering his movement, limits our distance. How many more times can he walk deep into the woods? Moved by that thought, he gets teary-eyed as we amble along. I do too as I write this.
We hike and I think of how mountain peaks are unreachable when we’re babies. Our parents first help us walk; later, they cheer as we wobble off on a bike down the driveway. Soon we can hike anything, heading off to forge new, independent lives. Then one by one, peaks and trails we scampered up become insurmountable until we lean on a cane or our own child to get up the walkway. These thoughts push me to embrace adventure in my life, something I’ve continually aimed for the last two years.
We stop at a cafe I fondly remember from a bike tour. Cowboy boots stuffed with light bulbs illuminate the interior; worn-out guns are screwed to the walls. Our waitress Jamie is frank and funny, a sparky woman with a tough story of escaping a bad marriage. She candidly shares and we listen. My dad leaves a 50% tip, saying, “I have a soft spot for people like that.” I was planning the same.
We scarf cinnamon graham crackers and talk about art, travel, stories from his past. Miles roll under our tires as tales crack loose from his mind. Forever grammar snobs, we pick apart historical signs and their poor grammar. (It’s lose, not loose, dammit.) We laugh about a “wildlife view” sign juxtaposed with a pumping oil rig.
I steer the van, but he holds the reins for our route and activities. We visit Charley Russell’s museum to see my dad’s favorite western art. At the Archie Bray ceramics foundation, we talk to resident artists. One woman left a successful teaching position to create art for two years. “Academic politics suck,” she says. My dad did the same when he left Chico State in the 80s to raise a family in Idaho and focus on his art.
I handle all the trip logistics, chopping veggies for lunch salads and picking up the tab for dinner, gas and campsites. It feels good to break his routine and spawn an adventure. How many times has he done these things for me? I ponder while making him a sandwich as we park overlooking a river.
Sometimes I fixate on the little things he does that drive me nuts, but now all I feel is a refreshing sense of calm. What matters is the opportunity to be here, spending time together. There’s no clock or itinerary dictating our travels and we are amiable and cheerful as we reconnect.
At the euphemistically-named Wildfowl Management Area, my dad chats with a taciturn old duck hunter limping his way back from the marsh. They talk guns and swap stories, then stand there a second before the hunter drawls “yeaaappp” to wrap up the conversation as only a seasoned outdoorsman can do.
My dad can shoot the breeze with grouchy ranchers, and he is also one of the most creative people I know. Conversations influence his art and he can work with any medium. He’s created ceramic and bronze monsters, a menagerie of ugly poodle tchotchkes, a broken taillight slideshow exhibition, colorful drawings on Sheetrock, and politically satirical face masks. He made Four More Years – a leering, trollish mask – when George W. Bush was re-elected.
He downplays his success as an artist, but when I pry, he recounts teaching positions and a scroll of workshops, fellowships and grants. And that’s in northern Idaho, hardly a bastion of funding for the arts.
I tell him I think artists are too hard on themselves. Amanda Palmer’s quote comes to mind: “You’re an artist when you say you are. And you’re a good artist when you make somebody else experience or feel something deep or unexpected.” He did that with an ice sculpture that was on Good Morning America; the DNA helix in our front yard still turns heads.
His childhood was tough, whereas mine was full of love and present parents. “I’m sorry you grew up poor,” he tells me, and I respond with the truth: It taught me the value of hard work and helps me, a textbook Millennial, appreciate how wonderful my life is. I’m lucky to never had to “eat bitter,” as the Chinese say of experiencing hard times.
We comfortably spend time together in conversation and also in silence, me fiddling with my phone while he scribbles in an ever-present journal. Sitting shoulder-to-shoulder at a picnic table in an old mining town, I ponder how time together can create rifts, but also channel healing powers through its currents. I’m grateful we didn’t put off this trip any longer.
“How would you like to spend your time?” I ask. He thinks a moment. “Reading, writing, making art, spending time in nature, and listening to people’s stories.” The circle is complete. After years of denying myself the joys of creativity, these days I spend my days immersed in those very pursuits. Like father, like son.
Tires spin and stories roll as the van ticks off miles of pines and plains toward the trip’s end. I make dinner as a full moon rises over our sparking fire. My dad finishes a story and pauses, then sums it all up with a long “yeeeeeappppp.”
He grins and I can’t stop laughing. Later, as frost nips the valley and the coyotes shriek at the moon, his earth-cratering snoring stumbles, then creaks to a halt. I know he’s lying there, loving every minute of this. I am too.
Want to see more of this journey? Check out the full video or read about the amazing old mining town of Bannack. More pictures below too.
Spot on Dakota. Very well written and so true.
Glad it spoke to you. I hope it helps people plan a trip (or at least a visit) to avoid regrets later. Time flies; we gotta spend time with people we love NOW.
Wow, Dakota, that’s a great read. It’s my favorite article of yours that I’ve read – very touching! I suggested to my father that he join me on a drive to Alaska back in 2001 and was a little relieved and a little sad when he declined. But I lost my chance now that he’s gone. I’m really happy for you two. I took my mother and her mother (when she was 90) on an Alaskan cruise, part of that same trip, and it was the best money I ever spent.
Maybe my favorite part of your story: “How many more times can he walk deep into the woods? Moved by that thought, he gets teary-eyed as we amble along. I do too as I write this.” It feels more real as I age, but we don’t have to wonder IF this body will age and slow down. It will. Make these precious moments count. Thanks for the reminder, and for the great article.
I really appreciate the feedback, Dave. One of my favorites too, although a hard one to write. Hope to run into you out in the world one of these days! And nice shots from the Dolomites in September, by the way. I can’t wait to get back there.
Oh Dakota, what a beautiful article, definitely one of your best ever! So many wonderful emotions and insights throughout. I’m so happy for you and your father to have made the time to build these precious memories. Many people who read this can certainly relate to what you have said here. Also, your sentences are crafted in such a way that the entire post reads like a stunning poem with gorgeous imagery. Well done, my friend!
Thanks for the nice words, Pam. I worked hard on this one and I’m glad you noticed the “craft,” to steal your word. I feel it’s one of my strongest articles too!
Loved this. You had a wonderful time during the trip and I dare say you have made a memory that will comfort and sustain both you and your dad in the years to come. Hugs to both of you.
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Yes indeed! I saw the pictures of your time with family over the holidays and it made me smile. Cool that your dad is cranking along at 92. Big hug right back to you!
Nice story; thanks! I can relate: “Sometimes I fixate on the little things he does that drive me nuts, but now all I feel is a refreshing sense of calm. What matters is the opportunity to be here, spending time together.” Treasure these days.
Thanks man! I checked out your stories of traveling with your dad. Good for you making it happen. Happy trails, wherever you may roam.
Such a great blog! My dad and I just finished a “Father Son” adventure a few weeks ago in Utah and it was inspired by your adventures. Thanks for sharing!
Amazing shots! What a trip!