My daughter and I were crossing a four lane highway in Couer D’Alene, Idaho, after dinner on Day 1 of our father-daughter road trip, when I did my good deed for the day. A young man was also crossing the road, but he was taking a more circuitous route. Obviously inebriated, he had broken into a sort of run to get across the road more quickly, pitching and yawing inelegantly with every step. His staggering stride was made worse by the small back pack he carried that refused to stay slung over his right shoulder and the grocery bag he carried in his left hand. The bags served to throw off his already impaired equilibrium, and he was so busy trying to course correct and remain upright, he didn’t notice something fly out of his pocket. We were walking more slowly, giving him plenty of room, and I picked up the red plastic wallet that he had dropped. It was like something you’d keep a fishing license or car insurance in: a freebie plastic document holder. In it, I saw several crumpled dollar bills and some other paperwork. I looked at my daughter, rolled my eyes, and went running after him. To get his attention, I called out, “Dude!”, assuming that was an honorific with which he would be familiar. We had all made it across the highway now, and he was preparing cross the adjacent street. I said, “Dude” again, and he turned to face me, looking confused. I decided to skip the explanation and just return his property. His glassy eyes slowly focused on the wallet, and a look of shock and relief formed on his face as he realized what had happened.
“Dude! That has all my money and ID in it,” he said. I paused for a moment, thinking he had another sentence in mind. He clearly wanted to express his gratitude, but he couldn’t find the words. It was getting awkward, so I simply said, “No problem. Have a good night,” and my daughter and I resumed our walk towards the hotel. I was happy that I was able to help him avoid a very bad day when he woke up with no money or ID. As we walked away, he shouted “Thanks,” and turned to the right to cross the street. We watched as he galloped across the road, arms flailing with all his possessions in hand. Just as he reached the sidewalk, he tumbled forward, throwing his backpack and bag to the ground and flopping clumsily to the ground. We had been watching the Olympics at dinner, so it crossed my mind that he would have scored low for this tumbling run. We stopped to see if he was moving or if, in fact, our evening was about to get more complicated than we had planned, giving statements to the police, for example. Thankfully, his head rose up from the concrete, and he saw us across the road. He raised his hand and waved, indicating he was o.k. My daughter, who will turn 21 next year, asked if it was true that drunk people don’t get hurt when they fall because their bodies are so relaxed. I smiled as we watched him quickly hop to his feet, gather his belongings and stumble on into the night. Yes, kiddo, there is some truth to that falling-while-drunk thing. I like it when I can impart, or at least confirm, such fatherly wisdom.
While we arranged to visit with family in Montana, the real purpose of the trip was for me to take a break from work before I started weeping openly in meetings with colleagues. Yes, the stress has been getting to me, and it was time to get outta Dodge and into a Honda Accord to leave my troubles behind for a few days. I asked my daughter to tag along, but not because I wanted to impart the aforementioned fatherly wisdom or to heal the emotional rift between us, a la On Golden Pond. I’m not sure if Henry and Jane Fonda worked things out, but my daughter and I are good friends, and I figured she would be a good traveling companion. My wife and son had other obligations, so it was just the two of us. And Jim Gaffigan, Brian Regan, Kristin Key, Mike Birbiglia, and Bob Newhart. Stand up comedy CDs were the soundtrack to the first several hours of our drive, and we laughed ardently. After the giggling and snorting subsided, we had to find other ways to occupy our minds on the journey. Here are some of my reflections from the trip.
1. Earbuds can keep a relationship healthy. Once we ran out of comedy CDs, my daughter retreated to the backseat to listen to country music and show tunes on her phone while I listened to extreme metal on my iPod. On the Venn diagram of musical preferences, our circles do not overlap much, so it helped that we could each dial up our favorite records without fear of offending the other. I briefly considered engaging her in a rousing rendition of “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall,” but I did the math in my head and realized that, at approximately seven seconds per chorus, the complete song would only kill twelve minutes. Since out shortest haul was four hours, it wouldn’t be a helpful distraction. Instead, I dialed up the collected works of Slayer.
2. Slim Jims do not age well. We made several stops for fuel along the way, and I was tempted by a display of Slim Jim pepperonis at a gas station in Missoula, Montana. Back on the highway, I bit into the sausage and knew something was wrong. It was as if I had inadvertently picked up a stick of Slim Twine. Not appetizing. I scanned the fine print on the plastic wrapper and found this particular Slender James was three months past it’s prime. You might expect a gas station sausage to be timeless, but you would be wrong.
3. Spam musubi is good road food. While I am now forever leery of Slim Jims, the Spam musubi my wife made for us was great. If you haven’t had the pleasure, Spam musubi is a 1/4 inch slab of fried spam topped with seasoned white rice and wrapped in nori (you know, the dark green seaweed sushi wrapper stuff). No refrigeration required. I know what you’re thinking, but don’t knock it ’til you try it. Ono grinds*, as the Hawaiians say.
4. Going to a brothel with your daughter can be awkward. We made a stop in Wallace, Idaho, to visit the historic Oasis Bordello. I’ve never been to a brothel before, so I was intrigued. Of course, they’re no longer in the prostitution business. It’s all t-shirts and tours these days, but it didn’t occur to me until we walked in that I was entering a former house of ill repute with my young daughter, someone who might have qualified for employment there in years past. All the jokes that I had been contemplating didn’t seem quite so funny. She had no interest in taking the full tour, so we quickly retreated. Sorry about that, kiddo.
5. Montana really does have a bigger sky. I was fully prepared to debunk the cliche, but I was impressed with the Montana skyline, framed by enormous mountains cascading like waves into the horizon. The panorama makes the place you’re standing, or driving, seem tiny. Being reminded how small you are in the universe can be oddly comforting. My troubles don’t seem quite so troubling under that big sky.
6. Environmental catastrophes can be lovely. In Butte, we visited the Berkeley Pit, a former open pit copper mine that is slowly filling with toxic water (see the photo above). By description, the pit is a sad example of the triumphs of capitalism over ecology. But, standing there, I was impressed with the scope and scale of the operation that created the pit, not to mention the serenity of looking down at the glass-like surface of the poisoned lake. Capitalism is complicated. As a regulator by trade, looking down into that pit was a good reminder of the challenges of protecting the people while not stifling progress. No easy answers.
I’m not sure if those reflections are particularly profound, but it’s all I could come up with from the last five days on the road. In terms of spending time with my daughter, it was a great trip, something for which I will always be grateful. And many thanks to my sister- and brother-in-law for giving us rations and quarters for a couple nights. You are gracious and accommodating hosts.
Despite spending some time in some beautiful places with people I love, I confess the driving itself was my favorite part of the trip. Aside from the final ten miles, I was behind the wheel for all 1,640 miles of our odyssey. When I am driving, I am neither where I was or where I’m going; I am simply here and now. That’s easy to lose sight of when I’m worrying about what just happened and what will happen next back at the office. A little here and now on an interstate highway is good for clearing the head. May the road rise with you. It certainly did for me.
* “Delicious food,” in pidgin english.