Thoughts at four a.m.

It’s four a.m.

My room is dark. A night light glows, pretending to fight away the night and failing. The door is cracked open slightly, framed with light, leading to the suddenly illuminated dining room. There’s the recognizable bustle of moving people out there, of people on a mission. A cat squeezes through the door and jumps onto my bed.

It’s four a.m., and we’re about to embark.

A mix of apprehension and excitement causes me to swallow hard. I’m groggy, but anticipating something great – a day of constantly changing landscape, of fast food and hotel beds and rest stops and maps and windshield washing. My bags have been packed since last night, so there’s no need to get up. In fact, in a rare moment of mercy, my mother doesn’t rush in to wake me up as she does on a school day.

Why we get up this early is puzzling. We’re strapped to our ETA, preferring to end up as far west as we can before dinner. My parents probably know better, understanding the attention span of a grade school boy who wants nothing more than to see his grandparents and his aunt and explore the rapidly growing town that his family sprung forth from.

I can hear the front screen door open and slam, a gust of fresh air sneaking into the house as my father hauls another set of bags out to our maroon Buick. Down the steps, into the trunk, back up and into the house. Two bags for my parents, a smaller bag and a backpack for me. Snuggled together like stowaway rats on a ship to America, ready to spring open, to reveal our everyday items in a different light. In a vacation light.

Last night, I couldn’t sleep. I was excited to get on the road. I fought the urge to page through my magazines – the ones purchased especially for the trip and hidden, though not hidden very well, by my mother – and I wondered where we would stop. It’s always the same trip. It’s always I-90 to Buffalo. Wyoming Highway 16 through Worland and Thermopolis to Riverton. Northwest over the Togwotee Pass to Jackson.

At Murdo I can change my watch back an hour. At Wall Drug I can get out and see the dinosaur. At Buffalo we’ll stop at the same motel we’ve stopped at for the past several years. The sky is darker, even during the day. The Yellowstone fires still burn, blotting out the sun, turning it into a golden disk, a yolk against a graying, aging pool of egg whites.

In Dubois we’ll gas up one more time before the mountain pass. In Jackson, I’ll jump on the couch, watch Atlanta Braves baseball with my grandparents, eat noodles and iceberg lettuce and on Sunday we’ll drive out to Aspen, Wyoming and eat at the Cajun restaurant.

Eventually, we’ll pile back in the car, my mother with a tear in her eye and me with some extra cash in my pocket. We’ll drive back the way we came, through Riverton and Gillette and Rapid City and Chamberlain, around I-229 and down Minnesota Avenue, turning left onto 31st Street, right onto Summit Avenue, thinking everything has changed in just a week, everything looking so different, and then right again into the house. I’ll unload my bags, return to my room and marvel at how clean I’d left it. I’ll think about how far away I am from Jackson, how it took just two days to get an immeasurable distance away.

But for now, it’s still four a.m. And I’m still lying in bed, wondering when these butterflies are ever going to go away.

This was lovingly handwritten on April 15th, 2008