National Parks Trip: Returning Home

There’s a feeling that comes at the end of every trip that’s pretty much indescribable. Humans are hardwired to feel a sense of loss when something comes to an end, even if it’s a job they didn’t like, or someone they weren’t close with moving away. From a young age I felt that sense of loss more acutely than most. My favorite day of Spring Break was the first, when we were driving down to the location and the end was still as far away as possible. I cried when the last snow melted at the end of winter (I hate winter). I kept my blankie until I was like 12 because I couldn’t bear the thought that any night with it might be the last.

I thought that maybe I’d learned to corral that sense by the summer of 2021. At 23 years old, I’d gained some perspective in life. In fact, I’d felt comfortable bouncing from the end of one trip right back to the beginning of another – St. Louis, 4th of July, San Diego, Beach Week, and then Grand Teton/Yellowstone. And fortunately for me, I didn’t even have to dwell on this as the end of the summer. Sure, my last ever first day of school was only 2 days away. But we were also 6 days away from flying to Michigan for my cousin’s wedding, and college football season was coming. If I could just do enough to ignore the fact that this was *the* trip of a lifetime, and that I’d been looking forward to it daily for months, maybe I could avoid a lot of that sense of loss.

It was going to be a bit weird saying good-bye to Pam today, though. She’d basically been with us every second of every day for the last week since we picked her up in Laramie. Fortunately, the great tower of camping supplies had never quite managed to crush her full, but we needed to squeeze her in one last time for the short ride over to the airport. Spoiler alert: Elizabeth and I made it easier on ourselves by accidentally leaving one of our favorite tote bags (full of camping supplies!) in the Hampton Inn parking lot after breakfast when we loaded the car. I’ll never see that tote bag again. RIP tote bag.

We took the long drive through the palatial Denver Airport complex to the terminal where Pam would be taking off from. It took her a while to struggle to corral her massive suitcase, but eventually it teetered upright. We both gave her a hug, knowing I wouldn’t be seeing her again until Christmastime. She gave us the last engagement congratulation of the trip, and wished us safe travels. Finally, after a drawn-out good-bye Pam headed into the airport. It was just Elizabeth and me.

Even the Great Plains, which aren’t exciting on the best of days, seemed less exciting than the week before. The prairie sunflowers looked a little more limp. The air around the Oasis in Colby, where the two of us shared a grumpy Qdoba meal for lunch, seemed a little dustier. The construction along I-70 seemed a little thicker and more annoying. More than anything, I was counting down the hours until the two of us could be home, in our own bed, with the chance to pick up the old Skip in the morning. Denver isn’t too bad a drive, but anything was more than I wanted to do today. At least the remaining time kept dropping as we passed familiar Kansas towns – Hays, Salina, Wichita. Our last official meal of the trip was a Very Sad McDonald’s stop at the Kansas Turnpike island in Belle Plaines, just short of the Oklahoma border.

The final stretch consisted of us reflecting on our trip in front of my camera so that I could include it in the vacation videos that I would weave together in the coming weeks and months, as well as me trolling people with my national park rankings on social media, as well as the two of us watching storms grow in front of us in good old Oklahoma.

And then came that weird moment when you get off of I-35, and back on to your home road, and you realize that this is it – vacation is over. We parked the car at The Links and looked at our familiar apartment for the first time in the week. There was a car full of stuff that needed to be unloaded, Elizabeth was due on shift at 7:00 a.m. the next day, and I was two days away from starting a semester with essentially no clue what my classes were all about. All of that could wait. The two of us dragged our weary asses upstairs and went to bed.

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