The morning came grey and cold, with a heavy mist rising from the Madison River and drifting over the brown meadows and dark Lodgepole pine trees.
The rising sun cast a dull, pinkish light in the eastern sky, and a pack of wolves yipped and howled on a timbered ridge about two miles away.
It was almost time to head for home, which was about 800 miles from this corner of Yellowstone National Park. I had one more day before I headed across the Henrys Lake Mountains and dropped into Idaho, where the highway speed limit is 80 mph.
I had been out on the road for 10 days.
As that rising sun warmed my face, I wondered why I need to get out on the road a few times a year.
A total escape
I started reading about road trips after I started taking them myself, just after I turned 16 and got my driver’s license. Having a car opened the world to me in ways that made my mind explode. In a car, I didn’t need to wait for a plane — or get any kind of official permission to travel. I could just go — and see what I wanted to see, do what I longed to do and go at my own pace.
I still recall the sheer joy of that first solo road trip — from hot, smoggy Los Angeles to the clean waters and rocky trails of Yosemite National Park.
I never realized that road trips were immortalized in books and popular culture until I was at the University of Oregon. I don’t know whether that is a good or bad thing. I often learn a lot about a place after I was there. Being somewhere and seeing it for myself makes learning about it more real, more interesting.
I do know for sure that a road trip is the best way to get from here to there.
I love to travel, and that often means boarding a crowded airliner. People sitting in front of me jam their seat backs against my knees, and watching my fellow travelers jamming carry-on bags into the overhead bins is like watching first graders play baseball.
Flying puts you in a vulnerable state — delays, cancellations, crowds and crummy food. When I travel to Europe, I fly to one city and then take trains for the rest of the trip.
But a real road trip just takes a reliable car or truck, lots of recorded music and a deep need to just get off the grid.
I’m a car guy and a car journalist, and I always end up thinking about cars and how we use them whenever I’m out on the road.
One thing I realized on this trip was that electric cars have assured us of a future with cars, highways, winding two-lane roads and the massive web of small, dirt-and-gravel roads that lead to wonderful places throughout the western United States.
In other words, the road trip is here to stay.
Whether you like or hate electric cars, they continue a tradition that started with walking, progressed to horses, embraced bicycles and trains — and found the ultimate freedom with cars. Electric cars and trucks make road trips almost free of guilt.
I saw lots of electric cars and hybrids on this trip. I see more all the time. Gas and diesel will remain in use for decades, but electricity is getting more practical by the day. I love gas-powered cars and trucks, but going to a gas station often feels like a root canal.
I’m sure that Boe Wilson Hare, my five-month-old grandson, will take a road trip by himself in about 16 years — probably in an electric car. I have big plans to take him on his first road trip, perhaps to Yellowstone, when he is six years old.
I started thinking about little Boe when I was standing by my Tacoma 4X4 in that Yellowstone meadow. I hope his heart will soar at the prospect of seeing big mountains, clear rivers and stunning beauty. I hope he grows to love the moments when he’s off the grid and finding new ways to see and learn about our wonderful world.
Home on the road
I stood in that meadow for a long time — until the sun burned off the river mist and it was too hot for a jacket. I thought about the drive home — and the stops I wanted to make on the way, including a nice trout river, a hamburger stand and a roadside pullout that has close-up views of different layers of rock that date back eons.
I knew I would see new things — and familiar, loved places.
I didn’t want the trip to end, but I wanted to see my family as well. Maybe the real message of a road tip is that it’s good to want to go home, especially if that home is full of love — and in a beautiful place.