Into the Wild

Almost two years ago to the day, my mom, sister, and I visited Yosemite and San Francisco. I’d just finished my program at UMass and was slated to move to Wisconsin — a move that, as you know, never went through. The three of us thought that this might be our last family trip; now, I’m not sure why we thought that, but the undercurrent of finality affected the trip’s tone, tinting every excursion, every fast-food meal and day hike, with a subtle, unmistakable wistfulness.

Last weekend, my mom, sis, and I replicated that trip with comical precision, with fierce loyalty to the original experience. We followed the same route that we used two years prior, stopping at the same convenience stores for the same snacks (coconut popsicles and lime chips, both of which are difficult to find in Minnesota). Indeed, this particular type of coconut popsicle has become a smirking symbol of our California road trips; my mom and sis, smitten with the soft flavor and the smoothness that only cream can produce, approach every gas station freezer case with anticipation, hoping to find the winning treat.

Lime chips, too, have forever aligned themselves with the dusty drive through farm country. Not the benign green swells of Iowa fields — the farmland of my youth. This land is harsher, sun-bitten. Even the roads, snaking through the hills, seem to shrug off human presence. Rising in elevation, sprouting goosebumps in the chill of air-conditioned air, the three of us shared a bag of Lays Limon, straining to make meaning of the hiss and spit of failing AM radio. We fought carsickness, dehydration. When we arrived, finally, at our condo, we nearly kissed the solid ground.

Our meals this week weren’t extraordinary in terms of innovation. Mostly, we ate picnic fare: thick sandwiches spread with yellow mustard and plain old mayo; local nectarines, purchased from a roadside stand in Oakdale; chips: Limon, salt and vinegar, sweet onion; and strawberry-rhubarb pie. Rather, the meals were extraordinary in their simplicity, their ability to produce a vacation vibe.

Our condo had a propane grill on the balcony, and I appointed myself Trip Grillmaster. (I say appointed, but neither mom nor sis vied for the role — maybe “appoint” is too strong a verb?) Our first evening, we had brats and crudites and fresh sweet corn, sprayed with oil, wrapped in foil, and grilled til the kernels browned. Seasoned with butter and salt, the corn stole the show. So much so that the following day, we made a special trip to the grocery store to get three additional ears (which were three times as costly as those we’d bought in the city). Such are the inconveniences we endured to sate our mad corn craving.

If we’d had a fire pit, I’d have made s’mores like nobody’s business. As it was, I made s’mores — wimpy impostors of the genuine article. How did I make these s’mores? IN THE MICROWAVE. That’s right: microwave s’mores, a trend begun in Massachusetts, when I was craving campfire food but didn’t have the time to drive to Mt. Tom. Disappointingly inauthentic. I didn’t take pictures.

On our last day in the park, we returned to the condo early, wearied by a full day of sightseeing and jockeying for pit toilets. I fired up the grill for barbecue chicken with a side of nectarines, sliced, pitted, and placed face-down to the flames. Mom made a quick salad, and Ali cracked open our watermelon beers. We sat on the couch, eating from ancient Corelle plates. When our beers were gone, we opened new beers. Our last meal truly felt like the end of something — of family vacations? Journeys to Yosemite?

Or maybe I’m muddling things: this might have been a beginning. Where I previously felt adrift, faceless in the throngs of Western European tourists, I now felt solid. In half a day’s time, I’d return to my city, my apartment, my job and friends. If asked, I could recite the bus lines running to each part of the city. I felt no need to cover these visible tattoos. I was on to something.

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