The western United States has been an undiscovered wilderness to me, in my mind no different than the frontier of legend from 200 years ago. I have read the tales, absorbed the movies, bought the Edward Curtis coffee table books, and watched all the Deadwood, but I had not really set foot in it, explored it for myself. After spending two years inside and trying to get my son to pay attention to talking heads on a laptop, attempting to maintain sanity in general, we needed a reboot.

In June we set out on a 12 day, 8 state, 4,000 mile roadtrip that would take us from Cincinnati to Yellowstone and back. We camped out of the car, traveled light and stopped at every park, forest, monument, oddity along the way. We had a tub for food, a tub for tools, one filled with straps, axes, bear spray and every other conceivable thing. We had a five gallon can for water and a five gallon bucket for rest stops. We were self-contained and motivated.

As I played car packing Tetris in my driveway, I felt the anxiety creeping in. Dive-bombing me like the clumsy careening of Ohio’s famous Brood X cicadas, a swelling cacophony of chatter and chirping and flapping. What was I forgetting? There are a lot of moving parts to such a journey, was this a good idea? Why wasn’t my wife trying to stop this, is she insane?

It took the next 13 hours of driving through the looping backdrop of Midwest America to settle, the best medicine to dull my fears. I was lulled into serenity by corn fields and truck stops. We cruised through five states, stopping only for cheeseburgers, saving the cups for future urinals. We grabbed a cheap motel in Sioux Falls, resting on the front porch of our first destination.

It was here that Oliver started to fall apart, questioning the aspiration of our outing. He approached, reticent, not wanting to disappoint me. After months of planning and trying to build it up, he didn’t want to let me down. But after being home for so long, and routine becoming so ingrained, the jolt of the unfamiliar and the weariness of the long drive had won over.

There was some sadness in the kiddo. There was a little in me as well. Every trip I’ve ever taken seems to start this way, with a longing, homesick traveler’s remorse.

I was born with a desire to wander. The first time I struck out on my own was rather ambitious. My childhood friend, Katsuhiro, had moved back to Japan after eighth grade. His family invited me to visit the following summer. For a year I washed dishes at a Chinese restaurant, any time I could find after school and on weekends to save up. I cashed the savings in on a plane ticket in the summer of 1991.

It was a four hour flight to L.A., another 13 to Tokyo, from there a bullet train to Nagoya, where, hopefully, I’d find my friend. The journey was 24 hours in total. I was 15 and had never been away for anything more than summer camp. I cannot even imagine how my mother felt, sitting by the phone mounted to the kitchen wall, hoping for any sort of update. In a pre-cell phone/wifi/email/text-filled world, we would just walk off into the ether and disappear for a time.

I can still viscerally remember that feeling of arriving at the Ozawa house. Kat’s mother greeted us at the door, I was so happy to see a familiar face. I remember laying down and wondering why I had spent all my money to do something so risky, so foolish. Why had I put myself through this? I just wanted to be in my own bed.

I woke to the smell of breakfast, his mom had cooked eggs and bacon to make the American feel more at home. A breeze blew through their ninth story apartment stirring up the scent of tatami and breakfast meats. With the high-rise view, I looked out over the densely packed city, so foreign to me with its modern buildings and interspersed tiled, pointed roofs. I was ready to explore, all that anxiety and regret drifted away.

I tried to assure Oliver that this was just part of it. We’ll rest and reassess in the morning.

The next day we woke up to big sunny skies. The visual difference between Iowa and South Dakota is immense, rolling pastures give way to big open vistas. We felt refreshed and soldiered on, following the footprints of Lewis & Clark along the Missouri River. Unwittingly releasing our first chirping stowaway, we played gunslingers in 1880’s Town and rolled into our first planned stop, The Badlands.

We might as well have been on the moon. Such a foreign landscape. We camped at the base of the mountains in Interior, a town made up of a handful of sun bleached buildings at the entrance to the park. Oliver asked if we could spend an additional night here, a good sign that things were catching on. With everyone feeling at ease again, it was time to dig into the exploration.

We woke up and spent the day driving the scenic loop. We stopped for bison, prairie dogs, longhorn sheep and any vista we could find. We felt compelled to check out the obnoxiously advertised Wall Drugs. If you’ve ever driven through South Dakota, you’ve seen the billboards. To be fair, you’ve seen the same if you have driven anywhere near anything of natural beauty in this country.

What is our fascination with cluttering up the landscape to advertise the beauty of the landscape? The grander the attraction, the denser the eyesore. The tourist overrun, never-ending, tchotchke-slinging maze of a building was more than we could handle. Once we had our fill, we headed back to the campground for ice cream and beverages.

In the morning, we pushed west leaving the white hills for the black. Just when we couldn’t take any more billboards, Oliver fell prey to one. We had to visit the Reptile Museum or he was going to lose his mind. It was a pleasant side trip, peering into endless glass boxes filled with a Noah’s Ark magnitude of all things crawling and slithering.

Back on the road, we found ourselves in the enormous Custer State Park, equal to any National Park I’ve visited. The 14 mile scenic loop is an excellent introduction. We had read all about the park’s endless seas of traffic-obstructing bison but after an hour or so crawl had yet to come across it. Then, there it was, right at the end, saving the best for last. These animals are impressive, serene giants oblivious to much more than grazing. Oliver tried to talk me into taking one of the calves home with us, certain it wouldn’t outgrow the backseat before we made it back.

We followed a winding road outside of Custer, SD and explored eight or so miles back a Forest Service road to find a place to camp. This far deep, there were already a few RV’s that had set up for the night. As much as the complete isolation appeals to me, a neighbor or two did go a long way in calming the nerves. Sleeping in an air mattress lined Honda Element, we woke up at 3am cradled by a half-empty plastic taco of a bed, unable to further ignore the chirping and drumming of cicada wings. Oliver stepped out of the car to use the bathroom, a bucket lined with a garbage bag held in place with a snap on seat. “Epic toilet, dad!” I jumped out to take in the view of the Black Hills, blanketed in the Milky Way. Epic indeed.

The next morning we hit the must-see South Dakota sites. The line of cars leading to the Crazy Horse Memorial was a mile long. I had read about the swelling pandemic crowds but this was crazy. We were routed miles past the entrance and buses were running loops to take visitors to the base of the mountain. People on board were amped, cheering and chanting. It was infectious, South Dakota must really love its public sculpture.

People were dressed for it too, spandex sleeves covering random limbs, camel packs, it’s starting to creep in now this isn’t normal. We left the bus and funneled into lines leading to folding tables. There’s a check-in? Once to the front, I was handed my form and a numbered bib. Completely confused, not even sure how to ask…”where are we now?” “Volksmarch!” she blurted out. I was lost, I’m sure my face said as much.

It just so happens that we showed up on the one day of the year when they hold a 10k run, the halfway point being a scramble up the 750 step wooden staircase to the top of Crazy Horse’s unfinished arm. Handing the forms back I asked for directions to the observation deck from the now equally befuddled organizer, her radio squawking in the background. The disembodied voice was requesting medical assistance for a downed runner at the first checkpoint, only proving we made the right decision to abandon before starting.

Moving on, we found South Dakota might be the leader in driving tourism. Not only is the scenery hard to improve on, the pathway to see them was intentional and well thought out. The 14 mile route known as Needles Highway winds through the Black Hills, dominated by Ponderosa Pines with stone spires jetting up through the canopy. Narrow passages and pullover overlooks wait at every turn.

We turned north now onto the imposing sounding Iron Mountain Road. Under the direct supervision of Senator Peter Norbeck, the 1933 constructed road was tediously walked, surveyed, routed and rerouted to create an 18 mile long tourist destination that would ensnare a country obsessed with the now every-man obtainable automobile. Meant to be taken slowly, it will immerse you in everything South Dakota has to offer and throw in some ingenious wooden pigtail bridges and single lane tunnels, one of which will frame your final destination, Mt. Rushmore.

Though neither of us felt any real calling to, it would be strange to drive by the ultimate American tourist destination without going in for the photo. So we did, and as we stood there staring at the monument we’ve seen on everything our whole lives, it felt somehow smaller than expected and still huge. Listening to the history of the mountain, before the faces were blasted into the surface, left us conflicted. The racist views of the artist and his ties to sheet-wearing organizations didn’t help that feeling.

The heavy-handed patriotic concourse of flags and pumped-in Star Spangled Banner were almost too much. While posing for a photo among a crowd of onlookers posing for the same photo, Oliver blasted out a “Look at all these slave masters posing on your dollar!” Cue our exit, though I’m sure Killer Mike would be proud.

On our way out of South Dakota we passed through Deadwood. I was warned to not get my hopes up, but after watching that show for the 50th time, I couldn’t just pass by. What appears to be left is an Old West themed Gatlinburg, casinos in every storefront and drunken wedding parties staggering into traffic. We scurried up the hill to Mt Moriah Cemetery to pay our respects to Wild Bill and Jane then left muttering a Shakespearean tirade of cursing that would make David Milch blush.

The next morning we woke in Montana and explored Devils Tower. The 1.3 mile trail around the perimeter was absolutely beautiful, and somehow the tower was even more picturesque with every step. We learned of the significance of the formation to the Native Americans, a spiritual connection to those that have passed on and the prayer cloths they still tie to the surrounding trees to deliver messages to them. The origin stories all vary a little but our favorite was from the Kiowa, about a bear chasing seven little girls from the village. They climbed a rock and prayed for safety, the rock raised them out of reach, ever higher, as the bear clawed at the forming tower. The girls now make up the Pleiades constellation that shines over the tower in winter.

This was a real high point in the trip. I didn’t even seem to mind the small loan needed for two hot dogs and a scoop of ice from the snack shack. But how this place does not serve mashed potatoes dropped from a mold of the tower is beyond me. Where are you Spielberg? Seriously overlooked branding opportunity.

Driving through Montana, the seventh state we’d cross through, we listened to a podcast on the western expansion and the concept of Manifest Destiny. Another reminder for Oliver that our country’s history was not always pleasant or a source of pride. “Go West, young man, go West and grow up with the country,” often attributed to New-York Daily Tribune editor Horace Greeley makes western expansion sound so romantic. Just another quote to bolster the belief of the time that the distinctly virtuous and noble ideals of the newly formed Americans were to be spread and a new land created on these beliefs was right. Sprinkle in a little divinity to your team’s side and righteousness abounds.

The idea that you can’t necessarily judge the past through our modern views and filters will be a thread running through this trip. People can do some really shitty things to each other and justify it in any number of ways. This seems to be a constant, not constrained to a time or location.

How can we atone for the atrocities of those that came before us? And why do some get so defensive, associating personal guilt from actions levied by generations previous? Ultimately, it’s something we all carry with us, the sins of our fathers. We have opportunities to learn from those still affected if only we resist burying the knowledge out of a desire to avoid uncomfortable conversations. Oliver said, “I wish I was there, I think I could have gotten everyone to get along.”

After floating through most of Montana with my gas light on, stopping at several shuttered gas stations along I-90, I did my best to play off the panicked flop sweating to keep Oliver calm. Finally filling up at an oasis outside Little Bighorn National Monument, I entered the park with visions of headstones and monuments poking through waves of prairie grass bathed in golden hour light. What we found was a locked gate. The park ranger explained there were abbreviated hours due to staffing shortages and pandemic-related guidelines. “I thought this was mostly a field,” I quipped, confused. I was then promptly reminded the field was federal land and a national historic site, trespassing laws would be fully pursued. On to Yellowstone we went.

I knew we were close when the spectacular mountain panoramas were now mostly covered by billboards hawking outfitters, guides, watering holes and environmental causes. We entered the park through the North Entrance, in Gardiner, Montana. I’ve wanted to see the Roosevelt Arch since reading about it as a kid. So large and imposing, yet dwarfed by the landscape it was constructed to delimit. It sits absurdly on the precipice of pure wilderness, a ceremonial entry to an unfortifiable country.

Forming a figure eight, there are only two looping, paved roads for navigating Yellowstone’s 2.2 million acres. You’re taken past the top level attractions of Mammoth Springs, the Grand Prismatic Spring, Old Faithful, and Canyon Village. Even in early June, before the bulk of the crowds arrive, we were neck deep in slow moving tourists. Every pull off was high-stakes jockeying for parking space. Every trail an opportunity to remind oncoming traffic that three abreast self-unawareness would be met with a stiff shoulder check. Believing the crowds would thin in relation to the distance from the parking lot, I found we still had to wait in line to get an unobstructed photo of Fairy Falls.

The buildup of articles during the shutdown about the dramatic increase in park use was a constant theme in my news feed. People were pent up and needed a release. As a lifelong lover of nature and the outdoors as recreation, I can’t deny someone else access to that which I love so much. I wish the Leave No Trace ethos was as obvious to the newly baptized. It benefits us all.

Until then, we picked up the crumpled water bottles we found miles from the garbage can and lashed out with my dad voice at the unattended kids tossing gravel into the centuries old pearlescent hot pool that adorned the roadside pullout. We spent most our time in the park standing in line, waiting for someone to move, sitting in traffic caused by people with no sense, stopping in the middle of the road to point their phones at whatever caught their eye. 3,472 square miles never felt more suffocating.

We made camp 12 miles outside of the park’s West Entrance, a small solitary campsite next to a mountain lake, a most welcome respite. The next morning we would point our bug encrusted headlights back towards the East. Getting home would be an act of contrition. After 13 straight hours of Wyoming road, half of which spent trying to dodge bison and the dumb dumbs trying their best to get run over by one, we made it to Laramie for some rest.

This leg of the journey felt like The West I thought I’d encounter. Driving for 100 miles without seeing a soul, being hypnotized by waves of painted desert trying to keep an eye out for the occasional crossing heard of bighorn sheep. After nearly two weeks of nonstop visual overload, we eventually made it home smelly, dirty, and exhausted. Thankful and fulfilled. We left behind only a small trail of cicadas, which may return well after the statute of limitations expires.

Back home, I so quickly get into my routine and the minutiae fades, the little memories and thankfully most of the unpleasant ones are gone. The shine wears and I wonder if it was all a dream. I thought back to the last night outside of Yellowstone. We woke up with the shadows of dandelions dancing on the wall of our steaming blue tent, flopping like uncomfortable fishes trying to not launch the other off the half-inflated mattress. Oliver looked over and hit me with the best observation, knowledge it took me a lot more life to learn. “Dad, I’m sad because I want to go home to see mom and Pixel, but I’m also sad that I have to leave here.”

At 12 he’d already figure out the reason why we find it so important to wander. He’d felt the bittersweet awareness, the dichotomy of wanderlust and homesick that is travel. For me, now for us, it’s a measure taken to preserve mental health. Have a pin in the calendar to look forward to, and be content when it’s time to head back home. If either of those are missing, you have some matters to figure out.