On Great Adventures and Making Meaning in America

Maybe it was Kerouac. It’s hard to say who started the many young men of this country fantasizing about crossing it by car, but by the time my friend Paul and I reached the age of majority in the mid oughts, the myth of the Great American Road Trip was already firmly entrenched in our psyches. Somewhere between On the Road‘s publication in 1957, and that fateful summer after our third year of college in 2006, the romance of traversing this nation by car was an accepted fact for young men like Paul and myself. Standing on the precipice of adulthood, our lives stalled by the inability to make a plan or choose a direction for the future, we decided that adding a few thousand miles to the odometer of Paul’s grandparents Sebring was the only appropriate way to find some direction in this country we felt so hopelessly lost in.

Around the fire camping our first night in Indiana, I studied our map and declared, “I want to see Yellowstone.” And so it was. We scrapped I-80 for I-90 and arrived at the eastern gates of the park thirty six sleepless hours later, a scant few minutes before the gate was scheduled to close. We did make it though, and that night Paul charred round hunks of ground buffalo meat over an open flame, and we drank a beer called Moose Drool, and we hoped it wouldn’t rain. They say everything is bigger out west, and this may be true, but the other side of that axiom is that everything is also further apart. It was the negative space between all those sweeping geographic features that stood out to me. I felt, inevitably I suppose, small, but also, to use a word whose original meaning has now become nearly defunct, awesome. Yellowstone is awesome, in the truest sense of the word.

The National Park System was created by America and emulated all over the world and places like Yellowstone are finally our only answer to the great cathedrals of Europe. During my time in Yellowstone, I was reminded of Nick Carroway’s observation near the end of The Great Gatsby: “Man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, viewing for the last time something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.” I felt full. Full of this country. Full of Bison meat. Full of meaning, for the first time in a long time. I said to my friend, “We should bring our kids here. If we have them.” I hope we do.

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