USA ROAD TRIP
We were somewhere in South Dakota, heading west on the I-90, when I finally settled in. I leaned back into the passenger’s seat of Vaughan’s parents’ minivan, looking up and out the windshield at the enormous blue sky unfolding in front of us. Iowa’s corn fields had given way to the iconic grasslands of the west, shimmering every shade of green. In the rearview mirror, there lingered some ominous storm clouds that never seemed to get further away.
You see, the moment I chose to settle in to the trip, my mind caught up with my physical body and my position in the world. I felt so away, so far away. I was in uncharted territory, having never previously been further west in the United States than Nashville, but everything was familiar and right to me. I felt whole, child-like. That afternoon in Wall, South Dakota, we went through the motions of setting up our camp with ease, both of us reverting back to a time that was separate from the other, but so similar in value. Our retro vacation sort of brought us back to our own childhoods, when we often went on outdoor trips with our respective families. I could feel my dad’s presence as I went through the motions of putting up our tent and preparing meals. I remember smirking a little when Vaughan was surprised at my adeptness. My dad’s smirk.
As soon as we finished up for the night and got inside our tent, the clouds finally caught up, delivering high winds and hail. Once it passed, I had one of the soundest, warmest sleeps in recent memory. Sen was curled up between us, at once realising what it meant to be cold and the value of stealing your human’s body heat.
It was also at this point that a shift in purpose occurred. Arriving in Wall was a checkpoint. Ahead of us lied natural wonder. We left behind the initial joys of our trip - kitsch, Americana, the purity of driving for driving’s sake. To start, we revelled in the Americanness of the corn palace, Wall Drug, hand painted billboards, corn fields, and the tallest diner signs. All of this is an essential part of the enjoyment of any Great American Road Trip, for sure. But it wasn’t all we were after. We wanted nature, the rugged landscapes.
The next morning, when we pulled the van to the side of the road that traverses Badlands National Park, we knew that a new part of the trip had started. On one side of us was a sea of grass, and on the other, the geological wonders of the Badlands, catching the sunlight and trapping the shadows in all of the right places. Coyotes yipped in the distance and Sen’s ears pricked at their calls. We were out there.
From then on, we didn’t have to work to find beauty. We had entered into this incredible Western realm of vastness, truly Big Sky Country. Every state and national park we entered, I felt as if we were being swallowed up. My mind often moved outward from our location, imagining the many kilometres of trees, hills, and remoteness that we were surrounded by. It was both exhilarating and sometimes, unsettling. I have never been so aware of space.
The trip had its challenges. Though I love the outdoors, I became aware of my personal limits and got seriously spooked by an encounter with a large grizzly bear who crossed our path just outside of Yellowstone. The bear looked at us through the trees, its distinct grizzled hump glinting in the sun. The image is seared into my mind, as is common when one experiences deep fear. I realised that going forward, it will be difficult for me to hike on quiet trails, and I’d rather be comforted by the footsteps and voices of other parties when out in the wilderness.
Being out there shifted our priorities. It was toward the end of our time out west, sitting in a craft brewery in Whitefish, Montana, that I felt for the first time in five years a resistance to the idea of returning back to Saigon. Vaughan and I agreed that our life here in Vietnam, with the exception of a beautiful, supportive group of friends, and a wonderful school community, simply did not suit our need to be in nature. It was from there that we started thinking of our next spot.
For me, when I think of that next place, I think of cool, rushing water. My most memorable night of the trip was somewhere in Idaho. We finished setting up our campground and brought out chairs down to the edge of a rushing river. Sen chased shadows in the water and we sipped a beer. The sound of the rushing river isolated us from everything else in the world. I saw myself, as I often do these days, as my dad would. If he had been standing on the river bank, fishing or idly watching the forest, what would he think of us right there and then?
When I imagine it, I see his gentle smile widen across his broad face. A knowing smile which says, this is where you’re supposed to be.