Road Trip

O ye familiar scenes,--ye groves of pine,

That once were mine and are no longer mine,--

Thou river, widening through the meadows green

To the vast sea, so near and yet unseen

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

“You don’t leave for a week,” my father said. “We’ve got time for a road trip.”

“I signed up for that three-day seminar on basic civil engineering.”

My father shook his head. “John, this will be our last chance. You’ll have plenty of time to study civil engineering or anything else on Seeker. In fact, you won’t have much else to do for sixteen years.”

I grinned. He had a point, and I owed him one last road trip before I left for Tau Ceti. “Sounds like a good idea. Where do you want to go?”

Road trips had become a staple of our relationship since my mother died. My father’s post in the Department of State office in Sao Paulo was a demanding one, but somehow he always found a way to take time off when I had a break from my studies. Or, more accurately, when I could be talked into taking a break from my studies. I found everything interesting and tried to learn everything. That didn’t help in getting a career; I knew a lot about many different things, but was expert in none of them. I had never been able to find one thing to focus on, and much of the attraction of shipping out on Seeker was the fact that Tau Ceti was one place that could use a generalist like me.

Usually, we stayed in South America for our father-son excursions, although a trip three years before to Australia was an especially memorable one. This time, though, he had something different in mind.

“I haven’t visited North America in years,” he continued. “And I’ve never seen the Black Plains.”

I looked at him curiously, and I could feel my eyebrows go up. The Black Plains were the northern half of what had once been called the Great Plains. Seventy years before, a supervolcano in the state of Wyoming erupted, laying waste to much of what was the United States. The Great Plains were buried in volcanic ash, literally turning from green to black. My father liked beautiful landscapes, and I expected him to want to go someplace extraordinary, one last attempt to change my mind about leaving Earth. The Black Plains did not fit that description.

I shrugged. “Sure, Dad. Fine with me.”

The next day, we took a suborbital from Sao Paulo to Detroit. Detroit was a dirty broken-down city, having barely survived the Yellowstone Event that destroyed Chicago and the other large cities in the path of the volcanic debris. From there, maglev trains took the curious through the Black Plains to Denver, a city sufficiently south of Yellowstone to escape most of the devastation. We spent the night in an acceptable hotel and boarded the train the next morning.

The first stop was just southwest of what was once the city of Sioux Falls. There was a hotel there, built since the eruption to service tourists such as ourselves. It was dark when we arrived, but we could see what was left of the city by moonlight, gray lumps scattered across the horizon, with occasional skeletal forms of dead trees. I found it depressing and wondered what the attraction was for my father.

We had a surprisingly-good meal at the hotel restaurant, taking our time to enjoy one other’s company. Afterwards, Dad wanted to get to bed early so that he could be up to see the sun rise, so we retired.

Dad woke me early the next morning, even before the scheduled breakfast. “There’s a view to the west from the hotel roof,” he explained. “Let’s check it out.”

I followed him up to the roof, still wondering about what had gotten into him. The hotel was three stories high, dominating an otherwise flat landscape, but what could there be to see here in the middle of the Black Plains? No one else was on the roof at that hour, and we stared out on the bleak landscape as the sun rose behind us.

Once, I knew, wheat fields had stretched to the horizon, subdivided by dusty, rarely-traveled country roads and witnessed mostly by high-flying birds soaring through a pure blue sky and watching for the occasional careless rodent. Few birds flew in the gray sky now, the roads were buried under ash, and the wheat fields (and probably the rodents) were gone. Someday, perhaps, the land would recover, but I wouldn’t be there to see it. There would be new landscapes for me, stranger and probably more beautiful than the one before me. I nodded to myself and looked at the man standing next to me. I thought he was lost in his own thoughts, but he turned toward me.

“If we hadn’t pulled back just in time, we could have turned the entire planet into something like this,” Dad said quietly.

Nature had created this devastation, but I knew what he meant. Mankind was still cleaning up the mess created by the foolishness and short-sightedness of the twentieth century. Dad looked up into the sky.

“Seeker is up there now, waiting for you,” he said.

I smiled and put my arm around my father, who never wanted me to leave but was supportive to the last. I now understood why we were there. Seeker, and perhaps a purpose to my life, was waiting for me.