My brother Charlie and I are carefully parsing through boxes in our parents’ basement, surrounded by towering stacks of books, games, and mismatched boxes. To get ready for our parents’ cross-country move, we’ve begun sorting things into three piles: Keep. Toss. Donate.
After years of collecting dust in dark corners, these stacks of books and photographs—much of what’s left of our childhood—need to go. I hold a box’s lid together as my brother tapes. We’re in the flow. I look around the cluttered room and spot a pile of “keep” photos. I remember that yesterday Charlie mentioned a family photo above my parents’ bed.
It’s an idyllic photo of our first hike to Inspiration Point above Jenny Lake in the Grand Tetons.
I don’t remember much from our summer road trip from Texas to the Grand Tetons in 1999. My father dubbed it “The Great Western Adventure,” printing off itineraries and travel journals for each of us to follow along in the car, packed with games and maps. Trip journals and extra photos are exactly the kind of clutter I’m here to get rid of. But what will I remember without them?
Like any primary source, my trip journal is highly subjective. Perhaps more so when you consider the particular 5-year-old who was dictating the entries: me. But, thanks to them, I am able to piece together memories, or at least something close, of the Great Western Adventure.
On July 22, 1999, I wrote the following about our trip to Grand Teton National Park: “I saw an elk and a pronghorn. I went on a fun, fun, fun raft ride. I cleaned a man’s shoes and I worked so hard that he gave me lots of money and I’m rich now. I saw a baby bald eagle.”
My brother, 4 years older, remembers this trip much more clearly and as the ultimate family road trip. When he describes it, I feel pangs of jealousy. His face lights up and his eyes search for memories that lie in between pictures and souvenirs, sights I’ll never see again.
He remembers the VHS tapes we watched in the car, and the sound of the wolves we heard at night in Wyoming. He remembers playing National Parks Monopoly in the lobby of the Old Faithful Inn, which quickly became one of our family’s favorites.
My memories of the trip, on the other hand, are fractured and scattered; they’re from above and not within. I remember the photos and the journal entries more than the moments they represent. But they’re tactile. I can feel the subtle fuzz of the flannel I got in Yellowstone. I can feel the resistance of my pink and blue lunch box as I attempt to pull off the lid. I can feel the woodsy wind on my pink cheeks, and the prick of a small plastic pin declaring me an official Junior Ranger of the U.S. National Park Service.
Stuffed into the pockets of my trip journal are Junior Ranger handouts. An initiative to get kids outdoors, involved, and passionate about nature? Our family was all in. At every park, until my brother and I aged out of the program, we would get stamps, badges, and patches. These tokens certified that we had completed the quizzes and adventures required to become Junior Rangers.
It was while completing the activity book to become a Junior Ranger at Badlands National Park that I first found Turk: a small stuffed animal who quickly became an obsession. After plenty of pouting and begging, the black-tailed prairie dog was given to me on the way out of the park. He was instantly my comfort stuffed animal. In the years to come, Turk was my confidant, my partner-in-crime, and my ride-along for campouts, sleepovers, and road trips. In short, he was my security prairie dog and he was always at my side.
That is how I remember that summer road trip to the Tetons—through the things I was able to bring back.
A spiritual home
More than a decade later, in 2012, between fawning over all the gadgets that had become available to Junior Rangers and shopping for hiking essentials, Charlie and I were back in Grand Teton National Park, arguing about what had changed in the visitor center. My take: pretty much everything.
Inside the visitor center there were now interactive maps perfect for showing me the route we had hiked to Jenny Lake in 1999. Though I thought it was more important to focus on the route we were going to take today.
My brother and I wanted to go on a hike, just the two of us. And not just any hike—we were dead set on the hardest, longest trail we could complete in a half-day as novice hikers. We were determined and we had the bear spray to prove it.
None of us had acknowledged it, but the fact remained—this was going to be our very last family vacation. Charlie was about to be a junior in college, and internships were taking most of his summers. I was going to be a senior in high school. Already, this family trip was doing the thing most deadly to a busy teenager: taking me away from my friends.
Yet, here we were. Back in the place where we made our cherished memories: the Tetons. Somehow, as we stood 1,345 miles from our childhood home, these mountains felt like a spiritual home for our family.
‘My legs aren’t tired’
When Charlie and I set off on the hike, our expectations were oppositional. I expected a badass, solitary bonding adventure. But my brother remembered 1999’s Jenny Lake hike as an amusement park-like walk, essentially a straight line to the top of a mountain for a photo op.
Our climb landed somewhere in between. I got my adventure, filling up water from a stream in the mountains, laughing about how our parents would guffaw at the very idea. But we were young and sturdy and certain that nothing could take us down.
Only an hour in, I was struggling. I had been prescribed an inhaler a few years before. Asthma was always with me, and my stubbornness stopped me from taking a pause before starting the tough climb. There was no question that this hike was too difficult for me.
Each raggedy breath taunted me, reminding me how far we’d come from 1999—and from home. Charlie’s concern was heartfelt and probably necessary, but each time he turned back to check in, it hurt my fragile teen ego. When did my adventurous spirit get trapped inside this body, guarded by asthmatic lungs?
“My legs aren’t tired, just my lungs are,” I told Charlie, as if my legs alone could carry my breathless body the rest of the way.
When I think of this vacation, unlike the 1999 road trip, I can remember between the photos. The panting and the stream. The rodeo in Jackson Hole. The books I read on the porch of our cabin.
But, I also remember the triumph of getting to the top, of seeing Jenny Lake and smiling with Charlie in a photo just like the one we took in 1999. I remember taking selfies in my new Patagonia jacket, which hugged my curves without being too girly. I remember the bear spray we hastily bought at the visitor center before the hike, thinking we were powerful, unstoppable, no matter what nature could throw at us.
I also remember knowing there would be no going back. The four of us—me, Charlie, mom, and dad—would never again embark on another quintessential family road trip to the Tetons. Those moments had passed, been packed in a box and stored in the basement, collecting dust.
Back in 2021, in our parents’ house in Bloomington, Indiana, Charlie and I finished packing up our rooms, the basement closets, the garage, the china cabinets, the antique beer steins, and the dozens of nutcrackers my parents had collected over the years. I said goodbye, and thank you, to my house, and we all traveled to southern Indiana for an extended family reunion.
Charlie’s wife and my fiance joined us for this leg of the trip. Hanna and Megan are irreplaceable members of the family. They’re a wonderful part of the reason why the 2012 vacation was a “last.” We are a party of six, now. With separate budgets and hotel rooms and lives.
But now, all six of us were at a local brewery. As I sipped on Big Woods Brewery’s Six Foot Strawberry Blonde Ale, I thought of the Grand Teton Brewing Company growler I found at the house earlier in the week. It ended up in the “donate” pile. This little memory of the Tetons reminded me of why I called Charlie and Hanna, here, tonight: a hike.
In the years since the 2012 hike, my fiance and I have become connoisseurs in the world of tabletop games. We have nearly 150 games and we play one nearly every night. It’s a way in which we can adventure from home—undaunted by my asthma and, more recently, the back injury that has left me struggling to walk with a cane.
So, after the parents headed out for the night, out came Trails, a new board game by Keymaster Games in cooperation with the National Park Service. It’s no National Parks Monopoly, but in this game, players go on the toughest, hardest hike across the board and earn points before sunset. And I was ready to smoke everyone on this hike. (I did.)
The hike included the women we love, and plenty of sweat and struggle. It was not like 1999 or 2012—or any real hike for that matter. But it still allowed us to go into the woods together; our first little hike as siblings-in-law.
When the checks came and we chugged the last of our beers, I looked through my phone pictures of trip journals that we found just days before: The trip journals in the backpack, covered in my Junior Ranger patches and pins. The photo of our family at Jenny Lake remains above my parents’ bed. Megan now wears the shirt I wore on our 2012 hike. And I’m in the process of returning my then-new Patagonia jacket for consignment.
Choosing what to keep turned out to be easier than we expected. My brother and I hadn’t spent so much one-on-one time together since he went to college, well over a decade ago. What’s left is what was always there, between the trinkets and the photos: our lives. The scribbled budgets in the back of my dad’s Great Western Adventure binder, the tears in my boot laces from briars, the game cards that have been weakened by our cold beers at the brewery; all tangible reminders of the impact these road trips made on us.