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Why Am I Doing This? Good Question.

July 8, 2011

My son, Sam, has never been an easy kid. Genetics gave him a large helping of his father’s stubbornness, and we butt heads often. He refuses to do what he’s told. I get too bent out of shape when he refuses to do what he’s told. He doesn’t take my advice. I don’t let him make enough of his own mistakes. We have a lot of stupid fights. And I often feel guilty for not doing a better job as his dad.

When we’re not fighting, though, we’re inserparable. We share hobbies. We watch ballgames together. We read together. We play, we wrestle, we joke around, we dance, and we speak in silly accents. We make up games and ridiculous songs together. Having fun with Sam makes the battles melt away as if they never happened. It makes me think that maybe I’m not doing such a terrible job after all.

Sam also shares my sense of curiosity. Like me, he loves understanding how things work, and building things, and exploring. My wife and daughter prefer relaxing, island vacations. Not us boys. Sam and I, we like to do stuff. We like to go to new places and see new things.

Two summers ago we had a unique opportunity to do just that. I got laid off from my job as a dotcom news editor, and he had two weeks at the beginning of the summer during which his big sister was at sleepaway camp and he hadn’t started day camp yet. So I convened what we called “Camp Sam”: two weeks of father-son bonding, with plenty of adventure mixed in. We spent lots of time at the beach, the public pool, the park next to our house, and the nearest children’s museum. And we took a few trips, too. The first was a two-day road trip to Baltimore. We saw sharks at the National Aquarium, toured Fort McHenry (where Francis Scott Key wrote the Star Spangled Banner), had a cookout, swam in the hotel pool, wandered around the waterfront, checked out the house where Babe Ruth was born (The House that Built Ruth?), and took in an Orioles game. It was two of the best days of both of our lives.

That trip and the two weeks surrounding it were like a miracle elixir for our relationship. We each gained a greater appreciation for the other. We understood each other better. We both wished it could have lasted longer. In a big way, the cross-country trip we’re about to embark on is our attempt to recapture that magic, and to make it last longer.

Still, a five-week road trip is ambitious, even for us. It’s difficult to explain the motivation to spend five weeks in a car exploring America with a not-quite-10-year-old, so I’ll start with Ernest Hemingway. He died 50 years ago last week, and on the anniversary of his death someone sent me an interesting article about Hemingway’s dark final years. Oddly, the one thing that jumped out at me from that article was the fact that, for the last several years of his life, Hemingway lived in Ketchum, Idaho.

Why Ketchum? Despite being a high school English teacher, I’m no expert on Hemingway. But I do know that it’s a gross understatement to say that the man loved an adventure. He had been all over the world. He lived in Castro’s Cuba. He ran with the bulls in Pomplona. He hunted big game in … well, I told you I’m not a Hemingway expert. So what is it about Ketchum, Idaho that made Hemingway say to himself, “This is where I will spend the rest of my life”?

I’ve never been to Idaho, and until last week I had never even heard of Ketchum. So I did some quick research on the InterWebs and found out that Ketchum used to be a mining town. But what really amazed me was the image for Ketchum, Idaho on Google Maps.

Go ahead, look at it: there’s nothing there. Now click to zoom out. Still nothing. Zoom out again.  Still nothing. One more time. Aha! The town is hidden in a geographical nook, almost completely surrounded by Sawtooth National Forest. Now I get it: Hemingway lived in the middle of a giant forest! His final adventure.

Me and The Hamster? We live in an air-conditioned house in a quiet suburb. We don’t mow our own grass, let alone chop our own firewood or kill our own dinner. We don’t have adventure surrounding us every day. So we invented one. This one.

To clarify, Hemingway and Ketchum are my way of explaining this trip but they’re not the inspiration for the trip–I’ve been planning it for months and toying with the idea for a year or so, and it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what the inspiration might have been or when and why I first hubristically thought this would be a good idea. We’re not even going to Ketchum on this trip. You’re disappointed. Me too, a little. But Ketchum itself isn’t really the point. We live in a country full of adventure. There are tiny, adorably named towns tucked in the nook of a massive forest, and there are huge, teeming cities with skyscrapers and complex underground train systems. Places that stay over 100 degrees Fahrenheit all summer, and places that still have snow on the ground in July. Dirt roads and six-lane highways. Mountains, oceans, forests, farms, caves, rivers, and volcanos. Earthquakes, tornados, wildfires, floods, and stock market crashes. Regional accents and dialects as varied as the regional cuisine. I’ve seen some of it. I’ve been to most of the big cities and I’ve driven past a fair amount of the farms. But there’s so much I haven’t seen.

I’ve actually wanted to take a trip like this for years. But I never had the opportunity and I’ve never had a buddy who was available and willing to go with me. This summer I’ve got both. The Hamster’s finally at an age when he can really appreciate and remember a trip like this. Next year he might want to go to sleepaway camp for the whole summer, or I might be teaching summer school, or gas might cost $7 a gallon, or any of a hundred other things can happen that would make this sort of adventure impossible. So we’re seizing the opportunity while it’s here. I think Hemingway would be proud. Then again, he might be pissed off that we’re not visiting his old house in Ketchum.


One Comment leave one →
  1. Yehuda and Esther permalink
    July 10, 2011 7:54 am

    Very poetic. But since your not going to Ketchum, your going to at least have to hunt for your own meal. All in honor and memory of Hemingway of course.

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