"You drove here?" our hostess asked me, a pomegranate martini delicately pinched between two manicured fingers. She was draped in a shiny gold dress straight out of the party scene in The Great Gatsby. "In a car?"
I had piloted my wife Lala and two kids, Poppy and London, in our egg-shaped Mazda MPV from Santa Fe to where I was now, either Greenbrae or Kentfield, depending on whom you spoke to. Either way, the fleet of caterers in their starched whites flooding the open kitchen like Klan members shouted Northern California to me.
"How long did it take?"
"Two full days of driving. Sixteen hours, more or less."
"I've never been in a car longer than two," her son said. "Maybe three."
I couldn't tell if the look he was throwing me under his cap was one of mad respect or odd fascination, as if I had traveled to his home in a horse and buggy wearing nothing but a bowler hat.
It seemed as if none of the people I mingled with that night over smoked salmon and baron of beef had taken The Great American Adventure in decades. When I told the partygoers that we had planned on staying two nights in the Grand Canyon on our return trip, they all said the same thing: "Oh, we really should do that." The parents said it in a nostalgic tone, the way some people sigh when they recall cruising in their granddad's '55 Chevy Nomad or laughing at Billie Hayes as Witchiepoo on the kids' show HR Pufnstuf.
I hadn't viewed our road trip as exotic when my wife Lala and I hovered over our dining room table, the dog-eared Rand McNally splayed before us. It seemed strange that these fancy Dans were remotely interested in eating at the Wagon Wheel in Needles when they were jetting off to Sun Valley or Turks and Caicos, a name that sounds more like a complicated dessert than an island in the Caribbean. Even my nephew, Kipling, a boy who has done more in 12 years than I have in 40, often remarked that we have the only New Mexico license plate on the roads we traversed. I didn't add we were also the only family he knows that drives a minivan.
The Great American Adventure allowed us to travel together as a family without the usual interruptions of phone calls from clients (Lala), e-mails a-flickering (me), or just reminders of laundry to be washed, dishes to be cleaned, home repairs to be, um, repaired or homework to be completed.
Even great mistakes on The Great American Adventure turned out to be meaningful memories. Before we left New Mexico, I used an online mapping Web site to chart our course. Instead of taking us to our hotel on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, it steered us to the North Rim. For those of you who, like our online map, aren't familiar with these necks of the woods, that would be like telling you to go from New York to New Jersey via Boston. Once Lala and I realized that, in terms of time, we'd just added the life span of a very healthy mayfly to our trip, we didn't freak out or panic like our last name was Donner and we were approaching a treacherous pass. We had a full tank of gas, snacks in the back and a clear, sunny day. Neither child was throwing up as far as we could smell. Lala saw that we could stop at Zion on the way and so we took the kids to see Utah's first national park, with 2,000- and 3,000-foot cliffs ranging in color from scarlet and burnt orange to shades of brown and cream: pillars, buttes, crevices and some of the most majestic monoliths in the West. Even the drive through the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel (once the longest in the US) proved exciting for London as he peered around, looking for ways that a superhero might escape if cornered by some nasty rock monster.
Our lucky accident of a drive led us through the small town of Jacob Lake and then through the Kaibab Forest and past one of the most beautiful sights I had ever seen: the Vermilion Cliffs at sunset. Lala and I marveled at the cascade of colors of the rock faces as the light changed constantly. "Look over there!" Lala would say and I'd crane my neck to see deep purple shrouds moving across a portion of sunlit sheets of rock. We were the only vehicle on a 100-mile stretch of some of the flattest road we'd seen all day. There was something quite epic about driving on a road flanked by cliffs changing colors minute by minute. I don't care what the technophiles say: A 100-inch flat panel cannot deliver what my father would call "the real deal."
Our time at the Grand Canyon was equally breathtaking. There are few things in life that actually exceed your expectations. Since we had driven into the park under the cover of night (and an outpouring of stars), none of us had any idea what we'd wake up to. I hadn't been to the canyon since I was Poppy's age and this historic place was one of the major broken parental promises Lala had suffered as a child. We quickly checked into our room at the Yavapai Lodge and made our way over to the Bright Angel Restaurant to have our New Year's Eve dinner. We were handed shiny plastic hats and noisemakers, which Poppy and London happily over-utilized. The dining room was full of cheery people from exotic locales all over the world: Germany, Japan, Poland, Ohio—and we had even seen a few other New Mexico license plates in the parking lot.
After speaking to some other visitors, I realized they too were touring the Great American West. Lala turned to me and said, "There's something very cool about being in the Grand Canyon on New Year's Eve." I nodded, and thought that my times in New York's Times Square paled in comparison and there was far less vomit; being in such an amazing natural wonder could be a positive portent for the year to come. Then London blew his noisemaker right into my ear canal and Poppy's hair stood up like a fright wig from her hat's static electricity. Maybe '08 would only be slightly different.
When you stand on the edge of the South Rim of the Grand Canyon for the first time or the first time since the Apple computer's inception, there is nothing to do but gape. Before we arrived, I wondered how my children of the MiPod generation would react to such breathtaking natural beauty.
With the myriad fast-paced television shows and interactive Web sites where pets can buy furniture; the dizzying special effects of Transformers or Spider-Man; the inane junior high talent show humor on YouTube, would they feel something standing before one of the greatest places on earth? Was our trip of more than 3,000 miles (and my sore back from driving) worth it? Most parents desire silence from their children in reaction to noise or bickering or loud pop music, but when the four of us stood together peering across to the North Rim, from where we had come the day before, the silence was like a symphony with 1,000 instruments, full and meaningful and most melodic.