Things just creep up on you sometimes. Like when you try on that old pair of jeans in your closet and realize that you’ve had a few too many Frappuccinos. Or when you try to fit yourself and your two kids in a two-person tent and you realize they aren’t 30 pounds anymore. It happens so gradually that you don’t notice until it’s too late. That’s what happened when I rolled our sleeping bags into our dusty LL Bean 2 person tent that the three of us have used on every Man vs. Machine so far. As I looked at the kids and looked at the tent, it suddenly came home to me that these kids are growing up really fast.
After I poured the last of my scotch and a gallon of water on our campfire, I unzipped the tent in the dark and felt for some empty space in which to slide into the double-wide sleeping bag (the aptly named “Big Agnes”). Our tent was pitched on a slight grade, so Parker had worked his way down the hill and I nearly sat on his head as I tried to wrestle my pants off while balancing precariously on my backside. I managed it, then hung my glasses from the loop at the top of the tent. I grabbed Parker with one hand and Big Agnes with the other and pulled them both back up to the top of the tent where they started. Then I wriggled myself into the narrow gap between the two kids and closed my eyes. It was going to be uncomfortable, but on the positive side, I was way too close to Parker for him to execute his patented 3am crotch kick.
We spent Wednesday exploring the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and having a picnic lunch. Hayes Valley was full of bison, so we got some excellent close up views. On Thursday we went west to Old Faithful, arriving just minutes before the geyser blew. We had lunch at the Old Faithful Inn and then caught the geyser for a second time before heading up to Firehole Lake Drive, one of the hidden gems in Yellowstone. On Friday we explored the Madison to Norris paint pots and cut across the park for a second drive through Hayes Valley, where we spent a considerable amount of time watching a bald eagle pick apart a carcass. The bison had moved to the southern end of the valley this time, snarling traffic, but providing some exceptionally close up views of the animals.
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My iPhone alarm rang at 6:40 on Saturday morning, just after the sun lit up the top of our tent. It was about 40 degrees, but the wind carried the smell of dry pine through the dappled sunlight. It was the kind of late summer day that would warm up quickly once the sun climbed. We broke the tent down, said goodbye to the Oehmkes and were underway by 7:15. The plan had been to stop somewhere in Utah on Saturday night and then complete the drive on Sunday. Unfortunately for us, the desert was in the midst of a tremendous heat wave, and the forecast called for Las Vegas to reach 110 degrees. Finishing the drive on Sunday morning and risking getting bogged down in the Vegas-to-LA Sunday traffic would surely spell trouble. Once again, the “getting in and out” of LA was shaping up to be the biggest challenge.
After breakfast in Jackson, we settled into the grind, skipping lunch but stopping for dinner at R&R, our favorite Salt Lake BBQ joint. Refueled, we soldiered on as the sun set. The wheel bearing I tightened earlier in the week held its own, and by 10pm we were descending into the Virgin River Gorge, the heat wrapping itself around the car like a python. We’d been on the road almost 12 hours, but as the mercury climbed in the dark, I decided sleep was only a siren call. The better bargain, despite my exhaustion, was to make the final run for home before the brutal sun could magnify the pain. To be honest, I just wanted to get it over with. I wanted to get the old Pontiac back in the garage. Following the war of attrition that defined our trip last summer, and then the mechanical issues on the first half of this one (major ones before we even left LA), I was tired. Man vs. Machine is overdue for a reboot, a reimagining. I decided I’d get the car home, enjoy some downtime, and then see where inspiration leads me.
The kids turned off their iPads before we hit Las Vegas, and I toughed it out the rest of the way in solitary, jacked up on Coca-Cola and the smell of gasoline. Somehow after midnight the miles always have a way of stretching out like some kind of Twilight Zone time warp. No matter how fast you go, it seems you don’t get any closer. The road becomes a watched pot. I was 14 hours and 800 miles in, with another 5 hours and 300 miles to go, which meant I wasn’t going to make it home until almost sunrise. I switched the music to Johnny Cash and hit play. Moments later the Man in Black was crooning:
Now I’ve been out in the desert
Just doing my time
Searching through the dust
Looking for a sign
If there’s a light up ahead
Well brother I don’t know
But I’ll meet you further on
Up the road…