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I'm freshly returned from a month off the clock and on the road, and what I can say with certainty is this: It's a big country, and If you want to renew the ties that bind your family together there's no better way than taking them out to see it. Strap them into a car groaning under the weight of gear and guidebooks, hurtle across 8,000 miles of America, and you'll get closer in more ways than one.
This proved to be especially true where our daughter was concerned. At age 12, she still favors the family nest but is rapidly approaching that point where 30 days in a tent with Mom and Dad is a prison sentence. She's growing up fast, and there are things you don't see until you get up close and stay there for awhile. Yes, we traveled with the all-important snuggly and the pink pillow and Bunny, too, but beneath that childhood veneer, I saw something new emerge this summer as we conquered time zones and rode the Continental Divide.
Amidst the majesty of Yellowstone, we stood in the tall grass of a vast wilderness valley and confronted a sudden scene of overwhelming primeval wonder: Hundreds of bison grazing between a sharp sweep of mountains, dense along the river plain and us in the middle of it. The great beasts stretched into the crystalline distance, and we wandered in close, the rolling waters a barrier between us and unpredictability. Where I expected lots of oohs and ahhs over the cute bison babies and their shaggy parents, a silent awe came instead. Understanding swept my daughter's eyes, and in that flicker an embryonic knowledge of the profound materialized. She knew, and was changed by the knowledge. Like minerals slipping into bones to create the fossils that no doubt etched the stones above us, the ephemeral skin-deep joys of childhood seemed right there to begin their slow turning to the deeper and more subtle kinds of magic that fill the grown-up heart. And I saw that though her innocence was ebbing, she was even now finding her way to its necessary replacement.
When an alarming evening sky in the South Dakota Badlands erupted without warning and spit out a tornado just 100 yards from our soon-to-be-former tent, my daughter kept her head and displayed a brand of pluck that had me glad she was in our lifeboat. She moved quickly, rolling up car windows, grabbing belongings whipped away in the roar, and securing as much as she could in the few seconds we had. She was terrified -- who wasn't -- but it didn't cloud her thinking and her fear never turned to panic. Through the ensuing apocalypse, she held her mental ground and displayed a courage that made us smile even as we abandoned our prairie home and made the slow crawl to the nearest vacant hotel room -- a hundred soaking miles to the west.
When the clock finally ran out on adventure in Santa Fe and it was time to head home, my daughter had endured 2,187 miles in three days without complaint. Despite all expectation, there were no meltdowns, no whining. Just fortitude on an epic scale during a long hard slog that pushed even her parents to the limits of motoring possibility. Needless to say, we were pretty impressed and more than proud.
As it turns out, we didn't know our daughter as well as we thought we did. But out on the road, where everything's new and nothing's certain, we finally met the person she's becoming, someone who surprised us at every turn and proved herself worthy of admiration. From extraordinary canyons carved through desert rock by the great slice of time to infinite ripples of grass rising into a surreal blue, we saw a lot of things out there in America. But nothing topped what we saw in a little girl starting to turn into a young woman.