Last Thursday was my birthday. My 40th birthday. I had dutifully requested that no great fuss be made, and Robbi had dutifully acquiesced. The plan for the day included a holiday celebration at the kids’ school and my office holiday party in Baltimore. I was looking forward to the day.
I woke at 5:00 and headed to the bathroom, where I ran into Robbi, who was furiously cleaning. “I have good news and bad news,” she said.
I opted for the good news first.
“You don’t have to work today!” she said, a little too cheerfully for 5:00am.
“And the bad?” I said.
“It’s going to be a really long day,” she said. “Now pack your toothbrush. We’re leaving in 30 minutes.”
I vaguely got dressed and helped Robbi scoop the kids into the car. And we were off, our destination undisclosed.
A few hours later, we were on the tarmac in DC, sitting in a plane bound for Los Angeles. Alden was in on the surprise, but she was being coy.
Suddenly, we were off.
As I was sitting there, tending to the boys and enjoying my complementary orange juice, people kept coming up to me and wishing me a happy birthday. I didn’t quite understand how they knew, but I decided not to question. Perhaps they had heard Alden talking about it as we boarded the plane?
About 90 minutes into the flight, August had to go to the bathroom, and so I took him. And while we were in there, I did a double take. Look what I found on the mirror.
Suddenly, the spontaneous birthday wishes became clear. Everyone who had thus far visited the bathroom (any of the bathrooms, as Robbi had hung the same sign in all three) knew that it was my birthday and that they were in the midst of an airborne birthday scavenger hunt.
I returned to my seat to let Robbi know that I was on to her scheme. She was unrepentant.
The first clue indicated that my next clue was currently in the possession of the gentleman in seat 20F. I attempted to reach him, but was thwarted by the beverage cart.
Eventually it cleared, and eventually I was able to (sheepishly, mind you) approach the gentleman in 20F and ask (again, sheepishly), if he might have something that belonged to me.
He handed me the second clue with no hint of sheepishness.
I learned that the next clue was to be found in the in-flight magazine of the person in seat 31D. Fortunately, said person was kind and well accustomed to getting hassled every three minutes or so.
I fetched my clue and was on my way.
Clue 3 upped the ante.
Gone was the clarity of previous clues. Now I had some serious work to do. There were at least 5 flight attendants. I had zero interest in shaking them all down.
I sat there and pondered my fate, wondering if this is what the next 40 years were going to be like.
I dug deep and started inquiring. And lo! The universe rewarded me. The very first flight attendant I queried was she who held clue 4.
Clue 4 directed me to an overhead bin in the back of the plane where I found…a Duke t-shirt, bundled with an IOU for two tickets to this year’s ACC tournament. (If you are not the college basketball sort, you probably have no idea how exciting this is.) The tickets were a gift from my mother, who shares my enthusiasm for the Duke men’s basketball team.
The kids and I and our mountain of luggage hung out in a parking lot while Robbi secured a rental car.
And we were off, driving west to points unknown, eventually ending up at the home of our dear friend Joshua Wolf Shenk.
We met Josh when he was the director of the literary house at Washington College, but he has since moved on to conquer other worlds. It was our first time visiting Josh in his LA home. To celebrate the occasion, he took us out on his roof.
And invited the kids to swim in his pool.
Josh gave me a present so perfectly in alignment with my tastes and sensibilities that I nearly wept. I had a phone of the exact same design when I was a kid. But that one was tan.
Now that I am 40, I have graduated to orange.
We caught up with Josh for a while. But then (as surprises tend to beget surprises), someone else showed up…
Sensing that I was not quite properly dressed for the occasion, he promptly remedied the situation.
My gift from dad was the product of months of work. He has been systematically going through all the photos and ephemera of my childhood and is putting together the story of my life. Literally. He presented the first page, a riveting account of events from my conception to my birth, with the promise of more to come. He had also prepared a slideshow of several hundred images. We watched it together and reminisced on good times past.
My stepmom Judy made a truly spectacular cake. (If you did not know, and have future occasion to provide me with a cake, carrot is my hands-down favorite.)
Various others showed up to celebrate with us. While we ate guacamole and reminisced on four decades, Josh read the latest Bobbledy title to the various children.
Eventually, the time came to cut the cake. All in all, it was a truly magnificent day, a blend of tremendous love and great surprise. I can say without hesitation that it’s awfully good to be 40.
The next morning, we awoke and were still in California.
Josh lives in a rather hilly neighborhood. We set ourselves the challenge of getting to the top.
Along the way, we paused to marvel at our strange new surroundings.
I wish we had trees like these in Chestertown. But then, I suppose, it wouldn’t be so fun to see them here.
My friend Josh is one of my favorite people in the world. He’s kind, he’s smart, and he’s wickedly funny. Not to mention the owner of the second-sexiest pair of sunglasses known to man.
As all good things must end, we bid Josh farewell and got back into the car. We had places to go. As we drove west out of LA, Kato was already bored.
The landscape continued to be un-Eastern-Shore-of-Maryland-like
We drove and drove. We stopped at Target. We drove. We ate burgers at Sonic.
We stopped to see (and attempt to lift) the second-largest meteorite ever to be found in the United States.
We drove and drove some more.
Eventually, we were smack dab in the middle of the Mojave Desert.
At the Hole-in-the-Wall, to be exact.
The sun was hanging low in the sky as we set out for a hike on the Rings Loop Trail.
But that just made the views all the more beautiful.
Alden was our trailblazer.
And ad hoc botanist.
And occasional rock model.
The Rings Loop Trail first skirts the periphery of a massive, gorgeous rock formation, carved by years of wind whistling through canyons.
It is the kind of place that makes your soul expand.
Eventually, the trail plunges directly into a narrow canyon.
Eventually, the canyon ends, requiring steep and daring ascent.
The ascent is made possible by the aforementioned rings.
The hike was such a fun challenge for the kids. Should you ever find yourself in the middle of the Mojave with some time to kill, I cannot recommend it more highly.
Dark fell as we got back to our car. We drove through the desert until we reached the town of Nipton, which basically consists of this building.
And a little restaurant next door that presented me with the challenge of deciding among various versions of paradise.
While we waited for our food, Kato continued his campaign of birthday cheer.
After dinner, we drove around the building to find our room for the night. Robbi had been hinting at untraditional accommodations.
Billed as an eco-lodge, our room was a wooden cabin with a canvas roof.
The temperature outside had dropped into the mid-40s, but fortunately, we had a little woodstove inside.
Inside, we were warm and filled with hilarity.
Until, suddenly, our asada-fueled energy ran out, and we fell fast asleep.
Almost all of us, that is.
Still on East Coast time, I headed out at dawn feeling rested and ready for anything.
And I headed out to see what Nipton looked like in the light of day.
The boys and I explored a bit.
The Trading Post is at the intersection of the highway and the railroad. We’d heard the trains rumbling by throughout the night.
Eventually, Robbi and Alden joined us. The kids briefly considered taking to the rails as boxcar vagabonds.
But, instead, we decided to keep moving. We crossed into Nevada.
And into hilly forests of Joshua trees.
We stopped in Boulder City for the kind of thoroughly healthy breakfast one deserves when one has just turned 40.
Should you be interested in getting one of your own, look for this sign.
Or this cheerful snowman in a vintage pickup truck.
Keep in mind that throughout this endless birthday adventure, our destination has been revealed to me on a need-t0-know basis. Which means that it was a complete surprise when we pulled up at the shores of Lake Mead.
And then on down the hill to the Hoover Dam.
Here is the view from the dam, looking down at the river at rest after churning through the turbines deep below. Across the way is the footbridge constructed for viewing the magnificent structure.
And here is the view upriver. California is in the midst of drought, so water level was extremely low.
Near the dam are two gorgeous art deco sculptures. Of course, I wanted to jump over them.
But my best efforts were in vain.
Perhaps this is the dark side of 40?
We kept driving. And driving. We felt grateful not to be on bicycles.
Because we had no schedule, we stopped when we felt like it, whenever we saw something too gorgeous to drive by without proper acknowledgment. Which was pretty much constantly.
Eventually, the rock turned red.
Intrigued, we stopped for a hike.
Apparently, these twisted red formations were sand dunes 200 million years ago.
Alden and Kato have discovered the joy of climbing. And jubilant celebration thereof.
The day’s destination was Valley of Fire State Park, which Robbi’s research revealed as one of the west’s best kept secrets.
We chose a hike and set out. Again, we were on the brink of sunset, and were thus treated to the gorgeous combination of low-light redstone and virulent aquamarine bushes. The rock and vegetation seemed designed to complement one another.
Again, Alden was our guide.
Again, we stopped to smell the cacti.
We walked through an ancient canyon, our necks craning as we tried in vain to take it all in.
For the most part, the kids kept themselves preoccupied with things happening at ground level.
Like testing the limits of narrow spaces.
Eventually, we reached the end of the trail, a sitting place that offered a view of the red rock at sunset.
And when we had taken in as much beauty as we could stand, we headed back to the trailhead.
But not without pausing for still greater sips of it all.
And not without pausing to remind ourselves how grateful we felt to be there together.
If you do not know this part of the world, come and spend a few days. It will make you feel very small and extremely large all at the same time.
We drove through the Valley of Fire until the road ended.
And when it did, we got out of our car and went a bit further.
We saw bighorn sheep scampering on the rocks. We saw millions of years of geologic history unfolding below us. We saw the sun call an end to another remarkable day.
Well, not quite the end. There was the matter of dinner to consider.
That night we spent in an actual motel with an actual roof. And an actual continental breakfast.
Somewhat weary from the constant travel, we spent an hour or so reengaging with our digital obligations.
But then we were off again, passing briefly through Arizona and then into Utah.
When traffic got sluggish, we pulled over and had a picnic by the side of the highway.
The landscape continued its endless offerings.
Eventually, we arrived at the day’s primary destination—Zion National Park, a place I’ve often heard spoken about with reverence but have never had the chance to visit.
We dropped our bags in our motel and immediately headed out, first stopping at Weeping Rock to see water drip through sandstone (a 1,000-year journey, apparently).
Standing there beneath the natural overhang, we enjoyed the sounds of gentle constant rainfall.
With all of Zion’s majesty spread out before us.
This trip is about beauty and the replenishment offered by the strange and monumental. I can feel my batteries recharging by the minute.
As the sun dropped, we climbed on logs.
And then hiked through the Narrows beyond the drivable part of the main canyon of Zion.
On our way back to our motel, we spent some time stopping for deer, which here are as accustomed to people as are housecats.
As I write this, another day is about to begin. I’ve officially been 40 for four days now, but Robbi assures me it’s still my birthday. For three more days, at least. I’m trying to capture every minute, so that I can take all this with me back to that other life, that other place, that right now seems so distant and removed as to be a daydream.