Sometimes all it takes to reconnect is a little bit of travel and time in nature.
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 a 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 percent 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.
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Picture: Author’s own