Note: For varying reasons, my husband, grandson, and I took a cross-country road trip June 25 to June 29, 2020. I’m belatedly publishing my journal entries.
June 27: My grandson, Shine, turned 9 shortly before he joined us for the summer. Born and bred in Miami, he has been exposed to a lot: art, Caribbean and Latin culture, hip-hop, cutting-edge cuisine, the beach. But our five-day, 2400-mile journey is opening his eyes to things he had previously not even imagined — when he can tear his eyes from his smart phone, that is. Kids these days can’t see the forest for the screens.
I’m guessing that if Shine has one single takeaway memory from this unanticipated summer, it’s his introduction to snow.
We prefer the northeast gate in and out of Yellowstone. The stretch of flat plain ringed by mountains provides some of the most dramatic animal spottings — we’ve seen wolves, grizzlies, mountain goats, and a honey badger here. On the other side of the gate, the Beartooth Scenic Highway takes you on a zigzagging course back and forth through Wyoming and Montana up to almost 11,000 foot high: above the treeline, among the clouds, to where in the middle of summer, you can still find snow.
Forewarned, Shine had been anticipating winter in June for days. “Pull over, pull over!” he kept asking as we glimpsed more and more white patches. but we knew vaster stretches of snow lay ahead. Finally, at the top of the world, we came to a valley where the frozen water nestled the blacktop. Beyond excited, my grandson put on his sneakers for the first time in weeks, and stepped into his first snow.
During the next half-hour, he went through most of the arsenal of snow activities: snowball fight, snow angel, an aborted attempt at a snow man. We drove a little further to a hill and got the boogie board, on its journey from the Pacific Ocean to Lake Superior, out of the truck. One push and he went unexpectedly far down the mountain slope: a champion first sled ride. But two speedy descents were enough: as any veteran sleigh rider knows, going down is easy, but trudging back up will take the wind out of you, especially in the high altitude.
Snow isn’t the only first of this trip for Shine. He has never been on a multi-state, multi-day road trip before. Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan: these are all new states for our grandson. Deserts, mountains, plains, forests: These are far from his Florida landscapes. Ideally, we would stop and savor these special firsts, go for a hike, swim in a lake. But this is scarcely an ideal year. We are trying to make tracks, to limit our possible coronavirus exposure as much as possible. So this aseasonal romp — one kid alone in a melting tundra — is our voyage highlight.
There’s one other thing we can usually count on from Beartooth: mountain goats. We saw them for the first time in our lives on our first trip through here about 10 years ago, and now we see the herd almost every summer. They didn’t disappoint us this year: A couple dozen white animals grazing several hundred feet away, kids and all.
On the other side of Beartooth, at the bottom of these august mountains, is one of our favorite stops: Red Lodge. It’s a small ski town that’s almost a tourist trap but decades away from Jackson Hell. Downtown Red Lodge is just a few blocks long, the whole town a similar width. In front of almost every business is a wooden bench encouraging travelers to sit, relax, socialize, people watch. This evening, while people were out, many of the benches sat empty.
In Red Lodge, we did something we used to do on a weekly basis, but hadn’t done since early March: We ate at a restaurant.
The Carbon County Steakhouse is probably the main reason we visit Red Lodge every year, especially since the bookstore closed. (According to Neil Gaiman, this means Red Lodge isn’t truly a town.) Specifically, the cowboy coffee sauce makes it our foodie destination. The syrupy glaze sweetly complements a Montana ribeye, and despite my love of animals, I love a good steak. We knew we were at least going to order takeout from the steakhouse. But we also love the atmosphere there, particularly in the courtyard out front. So when we saw that they had only a few tables set up outside, spaced at least six feet apart, we decided our dreary motel room was no setting for a fine meal — even if we had given it a thorough wipedown upon our arrival.
The steak was of course superb, as was my honey sage bourbon cocktail. But I was shocked when I realized the staff was not all wearing masks. We had the same waitress as last year, and she was concerned too. She told us that though the state had not mandated it, the restaurant had decided that everyone would start wearing masks next week, as the Fourth of July weekend marked the start of the real summer season. As she said, the workers are the ones being exposed to travelers from all over America, many of them seemingly unconcerned about the diseases their unmasked faces could spread. So the proletarian are asserting their safety themselves — beginning next week.
This is my main concern as we make this pandemic road trip: It is one thing for voyagers like us to take our lives into our own hands, whether it’s to sightsee or to bring family together or to take care of a loved one or to go somewhere where social distancing is a given or to do something besides sit in the house with your bored kids for yet another day. We should do all we can to not expose the workers who make our journeys possible along the way, and that means wearing masks and even gloves, keeping six feet away, using credit cards not cash, and washing, washing, washing. Many businesses are happy for our patronage. As he walked around the lobby wiping doorknobs and surfaces, the
desk clerk at a our Red Lodge motel told me he was glad they had reopened because two months of being cooped up with his teenage kids was not bringing the family closer together. But businesses do not want our germs.
Besides, what looks more Western than walking down the main street of a mountain town than a family of three with their faces half-covered by bandanas.