Gerald Winegrad: Kenny and Mike’s great cross-country adventure

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In previous columns, I have urged folks to get outdoors — whether it’s a walk in a nearby neighborhood park, forest or beach, or a trip to explore our remaining wild places. Science has made clear the essential benefits for our physical and mental well-being.

A comprehensive 2018 report found that outdoor activities and exposure to natural settings reduces the risk of Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, premature death, preterm birth, stress and high blood pressure. Researchers examined 140 studies covering 290 million people in 20 countries. They concluded that people with higher levels of green space exposure are more likely to have good overall health.

Astronaut Scott Kelly noted: “When I lived on the International Space Station for nearly a year, it wasn’t easy.” He yearned for natural settings. One of his tips from his confinement: “Go outside and experience nature. Research has shown that spending time in nature is beneficial for our mental and physical health.”

I was impressed that my brother, Kenny, and his wife, Michaellen, (known as Mike), embarked on a cross-country road trip to experience the natural wonders of the American West. To celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary, they set off to explore and visit many of our national parks.

Being native Maryland flatlanders, they wanted to experience the great vistas and huge open spaces west of the Mississippi. Kenny is 71 and Mike turned 71 on the road.

Nothing in their previous travels, including to Alaska and Ireland, compared to this month-long trip. Over several years, an itinerary was mapped out, bookings were made in Airbnbs and hotels, and visits scheduled with relatives.

On Sept. 5, they took off from their Severna Park home in their hybrid vehicle making their first stop in South Bend, Indiana, to visit a niece after 620 miles and nine hours of driving. The next day, the couple crossed the Mississippi River, driving from Illinois into Iowa.

After crossing the Missouri River, their first national park visited was Badlands National Park in South Dakota. They were joined by Mike’s brother, Chris, and his wife, Becca, who would travel with them for the next six days celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary.

The four explorers were impressed by the wildness and rugged beauty of the Badlands with striking geologic features and 244,000 acres of mixed-grass prairie. Less than 4% of the original prairie is left, replaced mostly with agriculture.

Next, they were impressed with Mount Rushmore National Memorial (South Dakota) and its enormous size — 60 feet high by 185 feet wide. The busts of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt were carved into granite from 1927 until 1941.

Nestled in the enormous Black Hills National Forest, they were regaled by Mount Rushmore’s breathtaking nightly lighting ceremony where the four presidents are illuminated. The event they witnessed featured a park ranger presentation honoring veterans.

The wildness, vast open spaces and wildlife of South Dakota left indelible memories with the voyagers. Then, on to Wyoming, Idaho and Montana for visits to Yellowstone, Grand Teton and Glacier national parks.

They regretted they had not planned to spend more time in these special places, especially Yellowstone, where a longer stay is warranted as it has 2,221,766 acres — larger than Rhode Island and Delaware combined.

Kenny and Mike found a short trail to the Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River flowing into the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and were blown away with the vista. This canyon exposes the park’s complex geologic history in dramatic colors and shapes. Seeing Yellowstone’s many geysers, hot springs, mudpots and fumaroles was as if they were visiting another planet. The bison and elk added to their delight and awe.

Grand Teton (Wyoming) and Glacier national parks (northern Montana) were next with their Rocky Mountain peaks, lakes and valleys providing exciting eye candy. The four travelers did not attempt to drive Glacier’s notorious zig-zagging narrow Going-to-the-Sun Road.

This two-hour, 50-mile drive peaking at Logan Pass at 6,646 feet has sheer deep vertical drops off the side of the road. They chose to take an interpretive tour over the 50-mile road on one of Glacier’s famous 1930s Red Buses.

Kenny at Muir Woods National Monument (CA) among 1,200-year-old redwoods.
Kenny at Muir Woods National Monument (CA) among 1,200-year-old redwoods.

In 2009, I drove the road twice with my wife, once in a fog. I was reminded of the hairy drive when I learned that on Aug. 3, two people from Texas survived when their Jeep Cherokee plunged 200 feet down an embankment.

Kenny and Mike then were off to Washington state, driving down its coastline into Oregon and Crater Lake National Park, where forest fire smoke obscured the vista. The lake is in the crater of a volcano that violently erupted 7,700 years ago.

They were then onto Redwood National Park in California, where they were in awe of 3,000-year-old redwoods reaching to the sky, much older than Muir Woods redwoods they saw near San Franciso.

Yosemite was next and enthralled with its beauty. Then a visit to brother Lawrence and his wife in San Diego and a visit to Cabrillo National Monument on the Pacific.

Arizona and a tour of the massive Hoover Dam, an engineering marvel, followed. Then, beautiful Sedona. The next day, they saw what Kenny and Mike described as the rapturous Grand Canyon, the most impressive site they had ever seen, augmented by their flight seeing flyover.

At Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks in Utah they saw hoodoos — weirdly shaped rock spires carved by nature resembling totem poles. Their plans to visit Arches National Park in Utah were thwarted as the park’s timed entry policy, initiated because of crowds, prevented their visit.

They were surprised at how crowded the parks were despite summer ending and school starting. Visitors were everywhere and from all over the world. RVs, many rentals, were ubiquitous, frequently slowing traffic. Kenny and Mike had considered but ruled out renting an RV.

Kenny exploring our country's natural wonders at Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah.
Kenny exploring our country’s natural wonders at Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah.

The happy couple ended their western part of the trip on the Mississippi in St. Louis, staying for two days visiting their son, his wife and two grandkids. They arrived home on Oct. 5.

They drove 9,000 miles covering 21 states and visited 11 national parks and five national monuments. Kenny did 90% of the driving and Mike navigated. Their most impressive wildlife sightings were closeup, free-ranging bison. They also saw elk, mule deer, black bear, prairie dogs and moose.

Their remarkable romance began at St. Mary’s High School where, after graduating from college, they both taught. Kenny coached lacrosse, having played at John Hopkins. They later received master’s degrees.

Mike taught high school math for 32 years. At St. Mary’s College, Kenny was director of residence life and coached lacrosse. They raised three children and have seven grandchildren.

Remarkably, my brother has survived neuroendocrine cancer, first diagnosed in 2008. He has had three surgeries and multiple treatments for recurrences. Like a strong warrior, he lives cancer free thanks to the excellent medical care in this area.

During and after their trip, Kenny and Mike repeatedly remarked that “Photos just do not do the views we witnessed justice. How could a photo capture the incredible beauty?”

Their road trip exploration was perfect natural therapy.

Gerald Winegrad represented the greater Annapolis area as a Democrat in the Maryland House of Delegates and Senate for 16 years. Contact him at [email protected].

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