The summer I was 12, my family and I took a monthlong camping trip from our home in the hot, sticky Midwest to the cooler, big sky of the American West. Although I had been camping since before I could walk, I had never been farther than Iowa, crammed into our aging brown minivan for the 12-hour journey with farting brothers and badly-behaved dogs, to visit our cousins.
I was therefore thrilled at the prospect of seeing mountains for the first time, actually hiking through what I imagined to be fields of blooming wildflowers, and getting knee-deep in the absurd forest games that are the foundation of childhood with siblings. My parents sweetened the deal further by buying me a one-way plane ticket to said Iowa relative’s house (where my favorite cousins lived) a week before they and my brothers would leave. This would be my first time flying, and I was excited and nervous. This excitement quickly turned to frustration, however, when my mother informed me that I would not be able to pack more than a few books in my bag.
“There won’t be room in the van,” she said perfunctorily. I smiled at her grimly. By then, our many camping trips had helped feed my voracious appetite for reading, as I passed the hours in the car reading John Bellairs and The Babysitter’s Club and Sweet Valley High.
“What is the point of being in the car for days on end if you can’t read?” She patted me on the shoulder, and said, “Well, watching the scenery, of course.” I turned from her crossly, already determined in what I knew I had to do.
When I got off the plane in Iowa City, my aunt looked at me queerly. “You’re different,” she said in a small voice. “Have you … grown? Or maybe put on weight?” I smiled triumphantly in my preteen brilliance. “No, I put on clothes. All of them.” I showed her the five layers of T-shirts and shorts I had on, as well as the many socks that made my tennis shoes burst. Her eyes were wide with incredulity. “But why?” she asked. Dramatically, I unzipped my extremely heavy backpack and revealed the 20 books I had shoved inside. “It’s a long ride out West,” I told her, and to her credit, she simply agreed with me and helped me carry the ridiculous load back to her car.
And to my credit, the drive through the Badlands and Wall Drug and Mount Rushmore and on into Montana and Wyoming was very long. I remembered that the plains opened up to me suddenly, and I was not prepared for the sheer expanse of flatness that defined the horizon. And when we finally reached the Grand Tetons, the towering mountains disrupted my Midwestern sense of the reasonable, of proportion, of majesty. All of it outside my window on the highways and roads our intrepid little van traversed was fascinating, even urgent at times, but it was still comforting to know that I had Christopher Pike and his murderous teenage protagonists, Danielle Steele and what I knew even then were her flatly perfect white characters beside me the whole time.
When we pulled into Jackson Hole, Wyoming, my little brother and I dashed out of the car, breathing the crisp mountain air deeply and howling like mountain lions. I left my books on my seat by the window, and did not think of them once as we scaled the tall side of a mountain, intent on whatever freedom we knew was waiting at the top. And when we got there, we found ourselves among a field of the most brightly colored wildflowers I had ever seen in my life: violet and yellow and so many colors even beyond my imagining. We ran through the field until we could run no more, and then we lay down and rolled in it. In that moment, I could not think of another character I would rather be, another story line that could contain me.
Shannon Gibney is a writer, educator, activist and the author of “See No Color,” a 2016 Minnesota Book Award winner. Her new novel, “Dream Country,” is about multiple generations of an African-descended family, crisscrossing the Atlantic both voluntarily and involuntarily.