“Sir, hand back the baby, and step out of the vehicle.”
The Colorado State Patrol trooper was as grim as only a cop with a fresh crew cut and starched polyester uniform can be. I started to hand Charlotte to Emily, but couldn’t resist a wistful look at the little family who might next see me behind bars.
I knew the moment Emily cut across the grass median separating Interstate 25 and the Frontage Road near Loveland, Colo., that it was a bad idea. We were north of Denver on a Friday evening and traffic was backed up for miles. Getting out of it was the kind of semi-reckless move I’d made in a hundred road trips across the country.
Obviously, I was flashing back to my decades-long bachelorhood. It was a period where I turned a penchant for travel into a profession and pushed the limits of what might be considered prudent. But late in life, I met Emily and fell in love. Last March came Charlotte. And now prudence was almost inundating my life from all directions, from calling my lawyer and making out my first ever will to installing railings on the open stairs in our house.
As I said, prudence had almost taken over my life. We were heading for Cheyenne, Wyo., for Charlotte’s christening, but the little animal was hungry and her screeching cat cry left no doubt that googoo talk from her parents wasn’t going to silence it. That’s when I spotted the truck tracks across the median and instructed Emily to follow them. We bounced safely across the median, came up on the Frontage Road and found ourselves headlight to headlight with the trooper.
It started out well. Trooper Burke was polite and understood why we would break the law to feed the baby and allowed Emily to do so while she checked my registration.
But that’s when she found that my VIN, license, registration, and insurance didn’t match. My heart sank. A couple of months before when I’d leased a new truck, the salesman had tried a bait-and-switch on me by delivering a lesser vehicle. It took a week of wrangling and threatened lawsuits, but we finally exchanged trucks for the one I’d ordered. The license and registration came in the mail. Then another license and registration arrived. I meant to straighten it out, but then Charlotte arrived a week early and I forgot. Now, three state patrol cars had pulled into a half-circle around us. Stink eye was rampant.
Emily warned me that . . . [the usual 8½-hour trip] would be more like 12 to 16. Spotting the Starbucks symbol on the Interstate suddenly attained the significance of seeing a palm tree in the Sahara.
Sorry, Charlotte. Sorry, Emily. Daddy’s going to jail now.
That’s when the officer again rapped on the window. “Please, sir. Hand the baby back to your wife, and exit the vehicle.”
The family’s first road trip was not turning out quite as I imagined.
Just about the time the last of my high school and college friends settled down and started families is about the time my wanderlust began in earnest. By that time, I’d already had a half dozen or more years traveling for work to Europe and Africa. But my passion was Latin America and some years I locked the door of my place outside Santa Fe and just headed south for a half year, writing stories as I went. I’d made some questionable decisions, such as the time I rafted the Tuichi River in the Bolivian Amazon or the time I learned to paraglide in Venezuela or skied down an active volcano in Nicaragua or the fishing trip to a Maoist guerrilla stronghold in the Peruvian Andes or . . . jeez, the list is long.
Needless to say, risky trips are over. But Emily and I still love to travel. Just before Charlotte was born, we went on a babymoon and spent time with friends in Mexico. We’ve got big plans for France, Morocco, and Turkey next year. We have open invitations to visit friends in New Zealand, Nova Scotia, Dublin, Copenhagen and the United Arab Emirates. I hope to introduce Emily and Charlotte to the places in Hawaii where my great-great-grandfather worked as a missionary in the 1820s. There’s also the road trip around the Black Sea, but that’s on hold until Charlotte learns Russian. For now, I wanted to introduce my daughter to my favorite kind of travel, the kind my father introduced me to years ago: The American Road Trip.
My earliest memory is standing up in the back seat of my dad’s ’63 blue-and-white Ford Galaxie as we traveled from California to Yellowstone National Park. There weren’t car seats then. You threw the kid in the back with his blanket and a few toy soldiers and anticipated the next question with “No, we’re not there yet.”
These days, we’re a little concerned about the psycho-emotional scarring the car seat might leave. Per the law these days, poor Charlie has to be trussed up in her car seat like a Mercury mission chimp. Normally, it’s about 8½ hours from Santa Fe to Cheyenne, but Emily warned me that with frequent feeding and diaper-changing stops, it would be more like 12 to 16. Spotting the Starbucks symbol on the Interstate suddenly attained the significance of seeing a palm tree in the Sahara.
Eventually, the Colorado authorities decided I was more idiot than criminal and politely told me to get out of their state. We were anxious to get to Cheyenne, too, not so much so that Emily’s father, Roger, the interim pastor at St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church, could anoint our little heathen, but to meet up with the friends who took the time to celebrate the event. My oldest friend, Charlie, came from Portland, Ore. His son, Kent, is my godson and namesake, just as Charlotte is now Charlie’s goddaughter and namesake. Ted, a photographer, drove up from Boulder with his son, Conor, 10. Upon meeting Charlotte that evening, Ted clapped me on the back. “When we had Conor, I thought I’d just got under the wire, but you, man, you barely got under the wire.”
It was meaningful these old friends were meeting Charlotte on her first road trip. In the course of our friendships, we’d made memorable trips, from the ski trip Charlie and I made 40 years ago in my convertible Karmann Ghia in a snowstorm to the five-month work trip Ted and I took from Mexico to Chile where we shot and wrote about subjects ranging from gold prospecting in the Sierra Madre to an ethno-botanist in the Ecuadoran Amazon. Now, they were about to see me off on the most exciting, nail-biting adventure of all: fatherhood.
We all met up the night before at the Plains Hotel in downtown Cheyenne for steaks and Manhattans. On the ride up to Wyoming, I recall expressing a little trepidation to Emily that I was going to be roasted by my friends about my late entry into fatherhood. Nothing like it. At one point, Charlie threw an arm around my shoulders and said, “Buddy, I am proud of you.” Of course, they didn’t completely disappoint. Several times, they asked Emily how a beautiful, fun, intelligent woman like her could end up with a foul-tempered badger like me. (I ask her the same question all the time.)
After five days on the road, though, we were happy to pull back into the gravel drive, and Charlotte was thrilled to be released from the space capsule. I was exhausted. Not from the drive, and not from the baptism nor the mimosa-sodden party afterwards. No one warned me about the avalanche of gear I was going to have to haul. Emily and I travel light. Charlotte doesn’t. We stopped at Raton, N.M., on the drive back and I counted six full loads that I lugged to our second-floor hotel room. Emily’s new name for me is Gunga Dad.
Still, it couldn’t have been a more successful first road trip. The best part was Emily and me ticking off the miles by talking about all the places we’d go someday. It struck me that as an older dad, my experiences on the road will be a gift to my daughter. I have a whole world to share with Charlotte.