24By James G. Robinson
Source: The New York Times
In January, our son died at the age of 5, suddenly but not unexpectedly. He had been born with a complicated heart condition that required multiple surgeries and frequent medical attention. His short life had been filled with miracles, and he had a calm spirit that balanced the normal-kid energy of his two brothers.
The five of us often took road trips together in our aging but usually-reliable ’98 Outback, the boys singing along with the Blues Brothers in the back seat. Down to the beach in blazing sun; out to their grandparents in snow and slush; back home to Brooklyn on the interstate after months at a hospital miles away.
In the aftermath of his death, we felt sad, and proud — and empty.
Therapists we spoke with told us the various ways that people deal with loss. My wife was an “attender,” immersing herself in the reality of our son’s death and confronting her grief head-on.
I was a “distractor,” busying myself with a million little things to avoid sinking into the depths of despair. Work was an obvious outlet, but not enough. I organized our small apartment. I helped our older son build a computer. And I planned a crazy road trip. Because all I really wanted was to get away, preferably at 65 miles an hour.
My wife had mentioned once that she wanted to see Mount Rushmore. That seemed pretty far away, so Mount Rushmore it would be. And then I read that there would be a total solar eclipse in late August, viewable only from a 70-mile wide strip of land far from our home.
So I asked work for a month off in late summer, and they said yes. I asked my wife if she wanted to go, and she didn’t say no. And, being the distractor I was, I started to plan.
My planning started in February — less than two months after our son’s death, and five months before we were due to depart.
The route was shaped by some basic rules. We would drive no more than three or four hours a day, a pace which would get us to Rushmore and back in five weeks while giving us time to experience America along the way. We would try to only visit places we had never been before. And to avoid the frantic rush that comes from feeling a need to “see it all,” we picked out just one thing to do in each place we visited.
Google Maps made it easy to estimate driving times, but I still went to AAA and picked up every free paper map I could find. Whenever I felt pangs of grief, I pulled out a map and immersed myself in the blank canvas of a country I’d never really seen.
The path I traced stretched from our home in Brooklyn across the Midwest through South Dakota, then back through Nebraska and Missouri to the Great Smoky Mountains before heading home through the Carolinas and Virginia. We would be on the road for 37 days.
Every detail was entered into an ever-expanding spreadsheet that I used to record where we would sleep each night, what we could do each day, and how far we’d have to drive in between. I’d open it whenever my emotions got the better of me, add another row or columns, and lose myself in daydreams of the open road.
All told, our route would span 17 states and 6,150 miles. In addition to Rushmore and the eclipse, we experienced:
An ear-shattering Nascar truck race at Pocono Raceway; our first ever glimpse of a “butter cow” at the Ohio State Fair; a bus tour along the length of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway; a visit to Lincoln’s home in Springfield, Ill.; minor-league ballgames in Davenport, Iowa, and Omaha, Neb.; a game of catch at the “Field of Dreams” movie site; a tour of the Winnebago factory; a peek at South Dakota’s famous Corn Palace; five days taking it easy in the Black Hills; a five-hour day trip to Devils Tower, Wyo.; a rafting trip down Nebraska’s Niobrara River; two nights in a vintage Union Pacific caboose outside of Omaha; a tram ride to the top of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis; a birthday celebration for our older son at a Nashville honky-tonk; tenting in the Great Smoky Mountains; and camping three hundred yards from the surf in a state park south of Myrtle Beach, S.C.
The planning paid off. It was an incredible adventure.
We each had our favorite stops. The eclipse, which we saw peeking through thin clouds above Cosmo Park in Columbia, Mo., was stunning. Despite my fear of heights, I was particularly awed by two towering monuments, Devils Tower and the Gateway Arch. My wife especially enjoyed the night we spent in Mason City’s Park Inn, the last remaining hotel designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. And the boys’ unanimous highlight was the Asheville Pinball Museum, where $15 ($12 for kids) bought unlimited plays on a collection of dozens of vintage pinball and arcade games.
Along the way, our sons collected stuff: dirty stuff like bottle caps, and cool stuff, like Junior Ranger badges from national parks, monuments and historical sites. (Our older son had just finished fourth grade, so these visits were free under the “Every Kid in a Park” program.) By filling out a small activity book, they’d earn a small plastic badge after a special swearing in from a park ranger. They each amassed 17 badges along the way, including a special “eclipse explorer” badge that they were especially proud of.
But an excruciatingly long day in Charleston (“we can get three badges here!”) tempered our rush for badges. Fort Sumter was amazing; Fort Moutrie somewhat interesting; but while helping fill out yet another word search on the porch of the historic but relatively unexciting Charles Pinckney National Historic Site, I vowed never again to stop in a national park for a badge alone.
Of course, there were a few stops that the kids didn’t enjoy so much. After an embarrassing tantrum erupted at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Stockman House in Mason City, Iowa, I taught them to just say, “I’m not old enough to appreciate this” whenever they didn’t like something.