A Not-so-Lonesome Dove

Watching the sun rise over Pinedale, Wyoming, with Larry McMurtry

When the going gets tough, I mostly want to get out of town. It’s the ultimate way to change the subject: Change your location.

My dad taught me how to do it, as the travel maestro in my family. He had a fairly big-deal job as an accountant at General Electric, but every summer he escaped the number crunching for a two-week family vacation.

When I was six years old, that meant riding from Connecticut to Wyoming in a Chevy station wagon that was later discovered to vent exhaust into the rear-facing back seat. Guess where I sat, as the youngest. I vomited all the way west, and then all the way back home again. It’s a wonder there was anything left of me when we crossed the Connecticut state line on the return trip.

But Yellowstone was worth that ride in the Vomit Comet. That national park’s paint pots, hot pools, and geysers make it The Disneyland of Discharge, where the bilious earth upchucks gallons of hot chunder to shake off igneous indigestion.

She’s gonna blow!

So am I!

When I became a dad, I too had a seriously stressful job, and insisted on a two-weeks (at least!) vacation, so I wouldn’t entirely miss out my sons’ lives, or my wife’s affections. Air transport was cheaper, then, so we flew off on many vacations — less vomit, more time to see the sights. It makes me sad, in covid times, that the airport is now a gateway to contagion rather than adventure.

But that’s all the more reason to tap my travel memories, which are the ultimate staycation. I don’t even leave my own skull!

At the dawn of this millennium, we four flew into Denver, and continued on to Yellowstone, Grand Teton, and Rocky Mountain national parks. I rented a latter-day Conestoga (Dodge Grand Caravan) to pilot us out under the Land of the Big Sky.

In addition to my wife and two young sons, I was happy to have Larry McMurtry along. Our epic family drive matched Augustus McCrae’s and Woodrow F. Call’s epic cattle drive, in Lonesome Dove.

An appropriate literary companion has always been a notch above clean underwear on my packing list. My younger son and I were both reading The Dubliners in that city. We were still reading it aboard a ferry crossing Loch Horne, in Scotland, when we were approached by a James Joyce professor at a university in Glasgow. “How are ye liking it?” she asked my son. “Just fine,” he told her, and went back to Araby.

I wish he had said “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake,” but that was from Ulysses, so he probably wouldn’t have thought of it.

I was usually the first to wake up on our western adventure, so I Larry, Gus, Call and I shared coffee many mornings. I remember sitting on the bumper of the Grand Caravan at dawn, in Pinedale, Wyoming, completely entranced by passages like this one, from Lonesome Dove: “The eastern sky was red as coals in a forge, lighting up the flats along the river. Dew had wet the million needles of the chaparral, and when the rim of the sun edged over the horizon the chaparral seemed to be spotted with diamonds. A bush in the backyard was filled with little rainbows as the sun touched the dew. It was tribute enough to sunup that it could make even chaparral bushes look beautiful, Augustus thought, and he watched the process happily, knowing it would only last a few minutes. The sun spread reddish-gold light through the shining bushes, among which a few goats wandered, bleating. Even when the sun rose above the low bluffs to the south, a layer of light lingered for a bit at the level of the chaparral, as if independent of its source. Then the sun lifted clear, like an immense coin. The dew quickly died, and the light that filled the bushes like red dirt dispersed, leaving clear, slightly bluish air.”

Soon, that western trip was over.

Soon, our boys grew up and dispersed, like that dew on the chaparral.

I watched the process of happily, just like Gus, knowing it would last only a few minutes. But I can still see that great coin rising over the low bluffs.

Larry McMurtry didn’t invent the sun, but he saw it for what it was: a precious metal, shining on the only thing of worth we have. Another day.

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