Vol. 23, No. 8

Dear Family,

I was reminded this week that I don’t have a very good memory.

I had forgotten, for example, how excruciatingly long it takes to drive across Nebraska. Driving across Montana, which we did last week, takes longer (Montana is nearly twice the size of Nebraska — I looked it up) but the trip across Montana doesn’t seem as long because, unlike Nebraska, Montana actually gives you something to look at.

Montana is beautiful by any objective measure. Nebraska is beautiful only in the philosophical sense that all of God’s creations have aesthetic value in some unique, metaphysical way.

[Crystal will doubtless tell me that the preceding sentence misuses the terms philosophical, aesthetic, and metaphysical. I’m going with them anyway because they sound pretty.]

Also, Montana, despite its more twisty and mountainous topography, has 80 MPH speed limits. Nebraska — a 450-mile strip of dead-straight, dead-flat asphalt — the driving equivalent of running on a treadmill — tops out at 75. The scenery only changes when a tractor-trailer going 61 MPH in the left lane takes what seems like 15 minutes to overtake an entire convoy of trucks going 60.999 MPH in the right lane, thus creating an infuriatingly slow-moving blockade across the entire highway. This seemed to happen several times each hour and invariably resulted in my shouting a series of angry and incoherent things at nobody in particular. It probably didn’t improve the situation, but it did break up the monotony for everyone else in the car.

Also, I’m assigning Nebraska a mask rating of 2 (out of 10 — rating scale explained below) based on a single experience in an Arby’s where: 1) the order taker was wearing one of those vented masks, which, according to the internet, are basically useless; 2) a fellow patron, whom the vented-mask-wearing employee was struggling to hear through the patron’s mask and the plastic shield separating them, removed his mask, reached his head around the plastic shield, and shouted his order at the kid; and 3) some maskless punk loudly marched in as we were leaving wearing a black t-shirt with “Social(ism) Distancing” printed in white letters across the chest. If anyone has figured out how to knee someone in the groin from six feet away, I’d like to learn about it.

And if you think it’s odd for me to judge an entire state — one with literally hundreds of inhabitants — based on the behavior of three people at one Arby’s, you obviously don’t know me very well.

I had also forgotten — or perhaps just hadn’t appreciated until now — how beautiful Utah is. The place and its people.

I was given to believe as a BYU freshman that Utah was home to the nation’s worst drivers. This was an assertion that students from other states smugly repeated to each other without supporting evidence. The twin miracles of anecdotal observation and confirmation bias helped me cling to this belief for many years. It was also a convenient way for me — a kid from New Jersey with 18 months of driving experience who had already managed to crash both of his parents’ cars — to feel better about myself.

Arriving in Utah last Sunday after driving through much of the country led me to conclude that Utah may very well have the worst drivers, except for all the other states.

Because of some poor planning on my part after exiting the freeway onto 8th North in Orem last Sunday, I found myself in the left turn lane needing to turn right into the La Quinta parking lot. Many (most?) drivers in my situation would have decided they had to just eat it and, I don’t know, driven around the block or made a U-turn or something. But because I learned to drive in New Jersey, I went ahead and made the right anyway, cutting off at least four cars across three lanes of traffic.

This incident in itself is unremarkable. You could write a book chronicling all the dumb things I’ve done behind the wheel of a car. But here’s the thing: No one honked at me. As far as I could tell, no one even made so much as a frustrated gesture at me. This happened last Sunday — six days ago. If someone had cut me off that way, I’d still be on the horn and shouting at them.

The next day (Monday), I managed to cajole everyone (except JT, whose 24-year-old knees are already paying the price of his soccer-filled youth) into hiking up to the Y with me. The climb was fun, though perhaps more intense than I remember it being last time. (Last time was probably 26 years ago.). We caught up with JT at a pizza place on the north side of 8th North in Provo that he and Hannah like. The place had no parking and so I stashed the car south of 8th North on 6th East (are you following? I love Utah street names). I returned from the car to 8th North but a car was coming, and so I started walking along the gutter of 8th North waiting for the car to pass so I could safely jaywalk from the south side of 8th North back to the pizza place on north side of the street. I kept walking and looking over my shoulder wondering why the car hadn’t gone by yet. It wasn’t until I looked over my shoulder for a third time that I realized the guy had come to a complete stop and was waving me across. The guy was yielding to a jaywalker. I sheepishly jogged across the street, waving back at the guy and thinking about the two times I’ve been struck (and countless other times I’ve been honked at) in crosswalks by Maryland drivers.

View from the top of the Y.

The next day (Tuesday), I managed to cajole Crystal, Hannah, Sophie, and Grace into hiking up to Stewart Falls with me. The nostalgia almost overwhelmed me as we drove up Provo Canyon and Alpine Loop past Sundance and Aspen Grove. The Stewart Falls trailhead is probably not even 100 meters from a Mount Timpanogos trailhead, but that wasn’t going to happen this time. Maybe next time.

Grace, Sophie, and Hannah on the trail to Stewart Falls

The final thing I’d forgotten is the intense emotion associated with dropping off a daughter at college. I don’t know why I thought it would be easier with Sophie than it was with Hannah. I guess I thought that going through it once would immunize me against it in the future. Life’s not a vaccine, moron. Being sad about something once doesn’t prevent you from being sad about it again. I get that now.

This all happened on Wednesday. After spending the morning doing last-minute shopping at Target, at precisely 1 p.m., the check-in appointments having been spread over several days to maximize distancing, we all helped lug Sophie’s junk to up to her east-facing bedroom on the top floor of Heritage Halls building 11.

Heritage Halls building 11 did not exist 30 Augusts ago when Mom, Dad, Matthew, Grant, Andrew, and Peter left me in my south-facing dorm room on the top floor of Deseret Towers–W Hall. Dad often says he “cried all the way to Evanston” on their drive home across the country after that. I thought about that as we drove past Evanston on Thursday morning. The thing is, Evanston’s not really all that far from Provo — just a mile or two across the Wyoming border — less than two hours away. I wish I’d stopped crying at Evanston. I wonder when I’ll stop.

Deseret Towers and W Hall are long gone — razed years ago to make room for bigger and fancier Heritage Halls apartment buildings. It wasn’t until Sophie checked in that I realized that Heritage Halls building 11 now stands on the precise footprint once occupied by W Hall. I mean, it’s in exactly the same spot. Her freshman experience will differ from mine in many, many ways, but it makes me happy to think that her walks to campus (for her relatively small number of in-person classes) will resemble mine.

The six girls in Sophie’s Heritage unit come from states in five different time zones (Maryland, Tennessee, Utah, Utah, Oregon, and Alaska) and reflect BYU’s remarkable geographic diversity. It’s not especially diverse in many other ways, but the students come from lots of different places. The two girls I met seemed nice and Sophie is comfortable with everyone’s commitment to avoid situations that risk introducing Covid to the apartment.

Only time will tell how well these commitments hold up. As Crystal observed, we are now in the awkward position of hoping that Sophie will encounter lots of really great people and then stay away from all of them.

This letter’s already quite long, but since you’ve made it this far, here, for posterity’s sake is my quick run-down of how we got to Utah — including my scientific rating of each intermediate point’s cultural norms around mask wearing. On my statistically sound and patented ten-point scale, a rating of 0 is the equivalent of a Trump rally (i.e., mask wearing appears to be the exception), while a rating of 10 is the equivalent of Washington, D.C. (i.e., random strangers are liable to swear at you for exposing your bare face anywhere, including while exercising outdoors). Most places fall somewhere between these extremes. For what it’s worth, I generally feel comfortable at a 6 on this scale and the rest of the family is probably more like an 8.

On our first night we camped (in a tent!) at Pokagon State Park in Indiana. (I give Indiana a 6 on the mask scale–would’ve been a 7 if not for a couple of boorish jerks at Wal-Mart.) The state park was nice and the people were friendly but I slept badly. (I never sleep well camping but the yahoos in a neighboring campsite making noise all night didn’t help.) And so we stuffed all the camping gear into the car-top carrier, never to open it again during the remaining 13 days of the trip. Whatever money we saved by camping that one night was undoubtedly dwarfed by the reduced fuel economy associated with driving a Toyota Highlander more than 5,000 miles with a giant box on top of it. (Sorry, planet. I’m a moron.)

Camping Night 1 (and only) — Pokagon State Park, Indiana

After stopping to look at Lake Michigan (Grace had never seen any of the Great Lakes) and to buy cheese curds and ice cream in Wisconsin (mask rating: 7), we spent night two at a Holiday Inn in Fairmont, Minnesota (mask rating: 8)

We spent most of day three in South Dakota (mask rating: 2) where we visited the World’s Only Corn Palace in Michell. There we encountered a large group of indoor bare faces for the first time since March and were later served lunch by a small team of unmasked Subway employees. I was surprised by how jarring this felt.

World’s Only Corn Palace — Mitchell, South Dakota

We then drove through Badlands National Park, which is breathtaking, and spent night three at an Econo Lodge in the small town of Wall (whose population of 818 is serviced by at least two pop-up Trump shops). We’ve now experienced Wall Drug, which I found slightly more interesting than the Corn Palace and slightly less interesting than a Cracker Barrel Old Country Store.

The following morning we traveled about an hour from Wall to Mount Rushmore, where I’d never been. Sophia Joan Willis, whose initials are also an abbreviation for “social justice warrior,” used this time to explain to the rest of the car why Mount Rushmore, rather than being a tribute to four dead presidents, is in reality a giant symbol of our country’s proud history of displacing indigenous peoples and desecrating lands of spiritual importance to them.

No argument there, but we went anyway and admired what is, in any context, an amazing work of art. Still, if you find yourself in southwestern South Dakota with only time enough to visit one thing, I suggest Badlands.

Mount Rushmore

It’s only a couple of hours from Mount Rushmore to Devils Tower National Monument in northeastern Wyoming (mask rating: 1). Devils Tower is a magnificent, thousand-foot-tall butte of uncertain origin located approximately 500 miles from the nearest gas station. It’s a wonder to behold and we enjoyed walking the mile or so around its base. I suggest arriving there with more than a quarter-tank of gas (unless you enjoy really long walks).

We spent night four at a Days Inn in Sheridan, Wyoming, and the entire next day driving across Montana (mask rating: 4) up to Idaho’s northern panhandle (mask rating: 5) and the lakefront estate that is the primary residence of Dr. and Mrs Roland Kent (Crystal’s little brother).

For the next four nights, Roland and Marci graciously put us up in their guest cottage (thus forgoing a non-trivial amount of peak-season rental income) and guided us through a collection of traditional North Idaho activities. These included biking around the mountainous perimeter of Hayden Lake (with Roland patiently waiting for the rest of us at the top of every climb) and foraging for huckleberries — tiny, non-segmented berries perhaps half the size of blueberries that I would assume were poisonous if I found them growing around here. They’re delicious (when mixed with enough sugar) and figure prominently in the local cuisine.

Huckleberry picking in North Idaho

But we spent most of our Idaho time in and on the lake watching kids wakesurf and listening to Roland passionately articulate why pontoon boaters, tubers, jet skiers, and anyone else with the temerity to gum up the lake with anything other than wakesurfing, wakeboarding, or waterskiing should all drop dead.

No argument here.

We spent day nine driving from North Idaho to Utah Valley, which basically takes all day. You might be surprised (as I was a quarter-century ago) to learn that, even though the two states border each other, the fastest and most direct driving route from North Idaho to anywhere in Utah goes through about 4 hours of Montana.

To drive through North Idaho and western Montana is to view some of the most beautiful landscapes I have ever seen or can even imagine. Something about its confluence of evergreens, mountains, and glacial lakes makes it feel like you’re traveling through some sort of never-ending painting. Every time we drive through it, it crosses my mind that we should just move there. We only see it in August, of course. We should probably visit in March before making any rash decisions.

The glorious vistas were well behind us by the time we crossed over from Montana into southeastern Idaho (mask rating: negative-3 — based entirely on stopping in Idaho Falls for food and gas where every single person we saw — store employees, patrons, every human soul — was maskless). Strong work, Idaho Falls! You show that overhyped little Chinese virus who’s boss!

From there we drove to Utah (mask rating: 7 on campus, 5 elsewhere), and I’ve already written about most of our three days there. We’re grateful to Hannah and JT for taking such good care of us and helping us make good dining choices. I did not mention the lovely time we had Tuesday night in Aunt Florence’s back yard with a group of socially distanced Willis relatives (including Riches, Borens, Farnsworths, and Binghams) who kindly moved their monthly get-together to a night when we could be there. It was great seeing everybody.

Lucy, Sophie, Grace, Hannah and JT outside a really good ice cream place

We left Utah on Thursday morning and arrived home 35 and a half hours later (would have been faster if not for those trucks in Nebraska — and if Crystal hadn’t made us stop at a Comfort Inn in Davenport, Iowa, to sleep for 3 hours).

School starts Monday for Grace, who isn’t excited about remote learning. She describes it as “all the sucky parts of school without any of the good stuff.” She’ll be all right. I’m not all that excited about tackling the mountain of work that’s going to be waiting for me on Monday morning, but I’m thankful to have work to tackle.

I just poked my head into Sophie’s empty bedroom and had a moment. Only 90 days until Thanksgiving. We can make it.

Love, Tim