Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Road Trips

I’ve been back in Finland from our holiday in America for well over a month already and am only now getting around to posting anything about it.

At some point on the trip, along Colorado Highway 13, I think, among the empty (and I do mean empty) red-and-green landscape of Rio Blanco County, I had a pang of homesickness for Helsinki.

What I was feeling had more to do with family than any real longing for the cool, leafy corner of the Finnish capital that I call home. My wife, daughter and I were rolling at 65 miles an hour toward a rare family reunion later that day, and the only thing missing were my two sons back in Finland.

Still, we had been away from home for a while. It was Day Nine of our trip to America, and it was starting to feel like a long one. Maybe it’s a sign of aging that my desire for traveling begins to have a shelf life. (Who knew?)

It wasn’t always so. When I was about to set out on my first "buddy" road trip out west back in 1980, I recall my father advising me that I would find out that a week or so of that kind of traveling is more than enough. Beyond that, it’s no fun to be so far from home.

He might have been drawing on his experience from a hunting trip he made in 1963. For my father, this was no ordinary hunting trip. He and a few friends had driven along two-lane highways across the Great Plains to hunt elk in the Rocky Mountains of southern Colorado. I was too young to remember the details, but it feels like he was away a couple of weeks, though it might have been only one.

The most lasting impressions of my father’s trip came from the elk-head trophy that later towered over our living room and the grainy 8-milimeter home-movie footage he brought home from the trip. I even recall the night that the film was shown at the little community center near our home. It felt like a big deal, and for the time, it was.

I’m sure that the trip to Pagosa Springs had been a worthwhile adventure for my father and a great success, though tinged with some sadness (on the trip, a companion was stricken with the first signs of an illness that would come to kill him). With three young children back in Georgia, though, my father probably felt more than enough homesickness to put him off straying so far from home again without us. He didn’t go out West again until the road trip the whole family took to Wyoming thirteen years later.

In 1980, I was 23 and single with really nothing, or nobody, to miss back in Georgia. At least, not for a couple of weeks. So, I didn’t heed my father’s warning about over-extending my first own cross-country road trip, and in fact, homesickness wasn’t a problem.

My friend and I drove some 1600 miles (2500 km) to visit our college roommate in Grants, New Mexico, and then continued on to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon and finally Las Vegas before turning back toward Georgia. I don’t recall feeling homesick even once.

It was the same, two years later, when I made a similar trip, this time for three weeks, though by then there would have been some cause for homesickness, or at least bittersweetness, if I had thought about it.

I called this my “Goodbye America” trip, because I was soon moving to Helsinki and was unsure how long it would be before I returned. I also wanted to show my Finnish girlfriend something of the American West. My battered Toyota station wagon carried us from Georgia across the southern tier of the US to Los Angeles and San Diego (and, for a couple of ill-considered and nerve-racking hours, even Tijuana).

We followed the coast up to San Francisco before hitting a series of national parks (Yosemite, Death Valley, Zion, Grand Canyon) on our way back East. We slept in the car in the hills above LA, took refuge in a Las Vegas casino after crossing Death Valley without air conditioning, and stopped to check out Aspen (where my future wife bought a Moomintroll book for me, as a kind of early introduction to Finnish culture).

In some ways, the trip we made this summer relived some moments from those epic road trips of my youth. We drove to the South Rim for the first time since 1980. On our first visit to LA since the “Goodbye America” trip, we toured some of the most memorable spots from before and tried to recognize others we only half-remember. We stayed at the same ski resort in Utah (and hiked to the same 11,068-foot peak) as we did on another epic road trip we took with the family almost a decade ago. And we met relatives and friends we haven't seen in far too long. There were certainly some nostalgic moments. 

We also broke some new ground and stumbled upon some unexpected finds, like dinosaur bones exposed in a wall of a naked stone, a street-side painting in a Utah ski town left by guerrilla artist Banksy, and an archeological dig, once frequented by the legendary Louis Leakey, now almost forgotten. 

Even the routes and spots we did retrace and revisit all look new again after so many years, so it didn't feel as if we were simply rehashing the past. Not the whole time, anyway.

I hope to eventually post more about parts of the trip. But if my writing output since returning to Helsinki is any indication, it might have to wait until the next big Southwest road trip, hopefully this time in something less than 30 years. 

Photo: Taiga Korpelainen


  1. I know about home-sickness. When my son was very young I went on a three-day backpacking trip into the then-lightly visited Panthertown Valley (now crowded with hikers and backpackers). Then, it was a wilderness that few sought out. Second day into the trip I was pining for my wife and son. I still have the journal I took with me on that trip and it's rather pathetic. I actually wrote: "I miss Carole and Andy!" on the page.

    When morning of the third day hit I was packed up and out of the wilderness as fast as I could hike.

    Similar to my two-week wilderness trip to Colorado last year. I couldn't wait to get back home to my wife.

    But I don't miss the place-home. Just the only two people who really matter to me: my wife and son.

  2. Oh. Forgot to mention:

    I recall that enormous elk head over your mantlepiece!