The idea had been rolling around for years. “Let’s drive across the country and see your parents,” my mom said. “Not this year,” said my dad, usually because “I can’t take time off work” or “gas prices are too high.” As I went through the motions of my sophomore year, my parents realized the trip had to happen before I graduated. They began planning.
We decided to drive from Seattle to Rochester, New York, and back via a different route, stopping at points of interest along the way. Choice Hotels had an incredible deal: for every three nights we spent at a Choice Hotel, we got one night free! In total, we must have earned at least seven free nights – a great deal for a family of five.
On June 27, three days after my 16th birthday, we packed up and left, driving ten hours to Yellowstone National Park, where we stayed at the Three Bears Lodge in West Yellowstone. Low spring temperatures left the grass a beautiful shade of peridot green. In South Dakota, we drove through Custer State Park, which may be the best place in the United States to get stuck on a gravel road due to buffalo traffic. In Iowa, we played catch at the Field of Dreams (where the Kevin Costner movie was filmed) on the 4th of July – how American is that?
One of the more surprising stops was Dearborn, Michigan, outside of Detroit. It’s home to the Henry Ford Museum, containing the bus on which Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, and it also has the highest Middle Eastern population of any American city. It would only make sense, then, to eat at a Moroccan restaurant called Al-Ameer. Having never tried Middle Eastern food before, I was amazed at its deliciousness.
On the return journey, our first major stop was Chicago, where we toured the fascinating Field Museum. In Aurora, a suburb of Chicago, we visited Father Mario, a priest/RA from my dad’s Notre Dame days. He took us out to dinner, where he turned out to be one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. In a very un-priestlike manner, he taught my brother to throw projectiles into a coffee cup, and his parrot was an adept wolf-whistler.
Next we turned south to St. Louis, Missouri, where the temperature was an unseasonably pleasant 75°, and I experienced Pappy’s Smokehouse, home to (in my opinion) the best barbecue in the world.
My mom had warned me that Nebraska would be dry and ugly, but the rolling plains I saw seemed fresh off the pages of Little House on the Prairie. Again, temperatures kept the grass sparkling green (the trip was in the 70s throughout; we joked that the Seattle weather was following us).
Another delightful surprise was Pawnee National Grassland in northeastern Colorado, which again strengthened my growing assertion that the Great Plains/ Rocky Mountains region of America is just as beautiful as the Pacific Northwest. In the Grassland, gravel roads intermingle with wide plains covered in a mixture of brush, tall grass, and striking wild sunflowers. We stopped frequently for photo-ops – not of us, but of the spectacular scenery.
Nearly a month after we first left Washington, we pulled into the driveway in a dust- and insect-covered van. Traveling through the heart of America was an incredible experience. Though it will change in the years to come, someday I would like to take my family on a trip across America – be it by car, train, or even airship — to see the vastness and variety of this great country.
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