The Rambling Gene

May 9, 2011
Outside Magazine
Ian Frazier and family

The Summer of '65: Frazier and siblings with Dad at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone    Photo: Courtesy of Ian Frazier

I THINK IT has to do with being from Ohio. My great-grandfather, born in Norwalk in 1866, used to tell a story about his younger brother Wint, a lad so restless and prone to wander that his mother had to tie him to a dog run in the backyard. Despite her efforts, Wint often disappeared, and my great-grandfather would be sent to find him. One morning he discovered Wint at the Norwalk railroad station, perched expectantly on the cowcatcher of a waiting westbound train.

Family contagion, or something, transferred the wandering fever to my father and through him to me. I never thought of my dad as an outdoor kind of guy. Fishing and hunting, which I loved, appalled him; I realized only later that he spent more time outdoors than almost anybody. His particular restlessness sent him sailing out of sight on Lake Erie, walking into the desert beyond Tucson, where my mother's parents lived, and driving all over North America—as far as possible until the road ran out. He often took his wife and kids along on his jaunts, but he went whether accompanied or not. As he got older, his fingers curled permanently from gripping a steering wheel.

In the pre-seatbelt days, my four siblings and I racketed around the back of our station wagon on mattresses laid over the folded-down seats. As my father drove, I leaned over the front seat and helped him observe the highway: Route 66 in New Mexico and Arizona, for example, still my favorite of all roads. Dad would lecture to me quietly on some long, complicated subject—rocketry, the court system—during the dawn hours as the others slept. Jack­rabbits ran from the headlights, mesas and saguaro cactuses lifted their intoxicating silhouettes against a slowly brightening sky. My happiness then was inconceivable, even shaming, compared with my average grown-up frame of mind.

We stayed mostly in campgrounds—dozens and dozens of them, from the Florida Keys to Alaska. Every trip, we rented the same fold-up camper trailer from Buckeye Sports Center near where we lived. During the rest of the year, when we weren't using it, the trailer sat in Buckeye Sports' parking lot. The trailer's top consisted of two doorlike panels on hinges that folded out to provide sleeping platforms, above which a camper tent with aluminum struts could be assembled. A crucial moment in the assembly process required someone to stand inside the tent and clip things together while a partner on the outside held it up. It was my job to be on the outside while Dad did the inside part. Once, I got distracted and let go of the tent, allowing the whole business to fall on him. When he emerged from the wreckage, he told me I didn't have the brains God gave a screwdriver.

He was a chemical engineer, a man of practical wisdom who could take apart and repair anything, and I think he regretted that I wasn't like him. He reproached himself for failing to pass his mechanical aptitude along. But though I couldn't fix things, I could ramble as far as he could, even when I was young; and if his unstoppable momentum—which never let up, even on vacation—drove him up a mountain next to the campground as soon as the tent top was in place, I went with him. He's been dead for many years, but I still have a muscle memory to match the brisk, easy rhythm of his stride.

My son, Thomas, has the same skills my father had. They skipped a generation, as often occurs. But at 18, Thomas is like most kids his age in that he spends most of his time indoors, viewing artificial landscapes on a small screen. Last summer I took him on a road trip from our house in suburban New Jersey to my new favorite destination, Ohio, the state from which I was centrifugally flung long ago. Two old friends, Bill and Don, came along. And I do mean old: cumulatively, the three of us are almost 180. Thomas chilled in the backseat, texting, with his headphones on, and our old-guy awfulness affected him not at all. To get him even to look out the window I had to point and shout. Later, though, he said he'd had a good time. And these days, when we return from doing some local errand, he often asks if we can keep driving for a while. He has inherited the rambling gene, although he doesn't know it now.

Contributing editor Ian Frazier is the author of Travels in Siberia.

Filed To: Road Trips