7. The Great American Road Trip


My job used to take me to Japan regularly. If you’ve ever been there, Mt. Fuji is a dominant feature of the skyline as you travel along the main island. Befitting its position as a patriarch of the country, the Japanese name even translates to “Mister” Fuji instead of Mt. Fuji,. At more than 12,000 feet it towers over the surrounding mountains. During one of my trips I asked if many people climbed it, and was told by the person I asked that is was quite an iconic hike. He was told by his father that every Japanese should climb it at least once in their life.

On my final trip to Japan for my job, I decided that I would try this most Japanese of experiences. As with most things in Japan, it is incredibly well-organized and there is a traditional process that is recommended – which I followed. Ten “stations” line the climb up, each with simple refreshments such as water and hot noodles. I climbed all evening and then slept for a few hours at a high station bunkhouse. In the early hours, I finished with a final pre-dawn climb. Using this timing let me sit on the rim and watch the sun rise. This was with thousands of other people following the same path. Normally, these kind of crowds would destroy the peace I seek on a climb, but looking around I realized that I was one of the few non-Japanese people, even though it was high season. Instead, I was seeing a cultural embodiment of the harmony that pervades Japanese society. Everyone worked on their own personal mission in perfect coordination. This was everything I loved about Japan in a two-day trip.

Typical station stop
Bunk house for a few hours rest
The summit line at 4 AM
Cheering the sunrise in total solitude
Shadow cast by Fuji-san on the mountains below

Cross-Country Road Trip

This made me wonder what is an equivalent for Americans. At first I thought literally about a single event like visiting the National Mall in DC. Then, after more consideration, decided that the most quintessential of American vacations is the Great American Road Trip. At some point in their lives, every American should make the drive cross-country. We even have ten stations waiting for us (Zion, Bryce, Grand Canyon, Rocky Mountain NP, Yellowstone, the Tetons, Yosemite, Olympic, Glacier, and Rushmore). Culturally, it has become a classic way to indicate transformation – from On the Road to Thelma and Louise or even the classic Vacation with Chevy Chase. It’s hot and crowded, but no more perfect way to experience America than with a summer road trip. I never had the chance to do this, but promised myself, if I ever took time away from work, that I would do it with my family.

Next week, I head out with my family on our first GART. We’ll spend the next eight weeks on a 12,000 mile drive to see our country and part of Canada. We’ll concentrate on sights west of the Mississippi since we’re from the east coast. A few of the big sights that are near major cities, we will skip and leave those for our kids later in life. Although we’ll still be revisiting some favorites, Elizabeth and I have many “holes” in our park experience we hope to fill. Along the way we’ll catch up with family and friends that we haven’t seen for some time. Even though eight weeks will be the longest I’ve been away from home, it seems hardly long enough for the itinerary. We have a tentative route chosen with plenty of flexibility to change as we go along.

Tentative GART route


Instead of a classic station wagon, we’ll drive a 12-passenger van that I’ve outfitted with solar panels to power our main camping luxury: a refrigerator. I love my memories of my family’s station wagon, but there is definitely a better way to travel. Roughly half of the nights we’ll camp in tents. Camping connects to you to the outdoors and resets your body to the daily the sunlight cycle as well as simplifying our planning. We had a dry run last year with a couple weeks of camping in Nova Scotia and let us figure out the gear we’ll need for a longer trip instead of our normal weekend outings. I also find that campgrounds, especially those in National Parks, are the true melting pot of tourism. I’ve met a big cross-section of people enjoying the American experience from all over the world and enjoy the kids meeting people from outside the DC, big-city life they live.

Sunset on the Bay of Fundy during last year’s camping trip
Just hours before a night of waterproofing tests
200W of solar power
The Sprinter ready to go

Two months is a lot of family togetherness. Along the way, we’ll need to figure out how to enjoy our time together while also giving the space that a family of introverts needs occasionally to recharge. Our kids just internalized that they’ll miss our normal summer of swim team, Fourth of July in Delaware and summer camps. But I’ve spoken to many people who made the same trip while young and all remember it as one of the best trips of their youth. I can only hope for the same.

P.S. If you want to geek out on how to add solar to a van, here’s a post with the final setup I installed.