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It wasn't as bad as it sounds. Four kids. And me. In a minivan. For one month. On a trip across the country. 7,657 miles. Not bad. Really. I'm not kidding.

It seemed like a real good idea at the time. Bonding with the kids, and all. Show them the country. Give 'em a taste of the real world. Let 'em see the Indians out West, the fruited Plains, the golden waves of grain.

When am I ever going to learn?

The van became a mobile toxic dump before we hit the end of the driveway. Candy wrappers, greasy potato-chip bags, rolled-up napkins and half-chewed gummie bears were at knee-level before we hit the outskirts of East Aurora.

Oh, we had some great adventures, the kids and I. Events I'm sure they'll remember forever. Little vignettes that, if they grow up at all sadistic, they'll remind me of 20 or so years from now.

Like the time somebody packed the travelers' checks in the dirty laundry bag. What a kick that was. Took us two hours in an Oklahoma parking lot to find them.

Or the time we lost the van keys at the Grand Canyon. Thought we'd locked them in the car, we did. Had to call a locksmith on a Sunday afternoon to come 60 miles in from the nearest town to pry open the van. Boyohboy, what a rip.

Or that laugh-filled moment in Los Angeles when we realized we'd left the return-flight, non-refundable airline ticket back in the motel . . . in Colorado. What joy that memory brings to my little pitter-patter heart.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let me start at the beginning and provide a . . . uh . . . blow-by-blow description of our life on the road, just in case the reader might be foolish enough to consider a similar excursion. This is not a Charles Kuralt essay.

I had been across country three times before. Once, when I was 7 or 8, my parents bundled my sister and brother and me into our 1949 Packard and drove out West, mostly on Route 66, I believe, all the way to Yellowstone. Around 1960, we followed the same route and made it to Disneyland. Then in '71, I was discharged from the Army from White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, and I drove out to the West Coast, up to Vancouver, and across the top of the States on my way back to Buffalo.

So, I wanted to retrace my steps and give my children the same sense of country that my previous trips had given to me. And, after my divorce, I wanted to bond.

What am I, crazy?

We bonded, all right. Crazy-glued might be more appropriate.

Hitting the road

I picked up the kids at their mother's house early the morning of Aug. 2, 1993, and after the obligatory photos and almost-teary good-byes, headed down I-90 with Mammoth Cave, Ky., as our destination. The kids were terrific until about halfway through Ohio, when it apparently dawned on them that they were trapped in this position for the duration.

Now, "this position" was not all that bad. First of all, it was a minivan, not a '49 Packard. "Things could be worse," I told them, speaking with the voice of experience. Second, I had taken out the middle seat of the minivan and installed a bean-bag chair in its place.

The bean-bag replacement for the middle seat was probably illegal, and certainly dangerous, but it served its purpose: It kept the kids from touching each other and, therefore, kept me from going insane. Only drivers with children will understand this.

I originally had thought of renting a motor home, but almost nobody rents them anymore, citing insurance regulations. Those that do charge exorbitant fees, citing insurance regulations.

So we were stuck with the minivan and, in truth, I think we were better off. Sure, she became an instant mobile toxic dump, but if we had been in a motor home, it would've just been a bigger instant mobile toxic dump.

But I digress. Mammoth Cave was spectacular.

The trail down into the cave is not much more than a spiral ladder with a railing. It is pitched steeper than a normal ladder, in fact, and it descends rather quickly 270 feet below ground. It is not for the clumsy or claustrophobic.

Mammoth Cave offers four different tours, each one spectacular. We took the "Frozen Niagara" tour, basically because it sounded familiar.

What we remember most: The total, ebony darkness in one cave "room," (the guide turned off the lights and told us to put our hands up in front of our faces; Katie, the middle daughter, poked herself in the eye because she couldn't see a thing) and the face-to-face encounter with a brown bat, hanging from a wall along the trail, about six inches above eye level and well within reach. ("They don't usually come out where people are," twanged the guide. "This is very unusual.")

Because the Mississippi was flooded that year, we turned south after Mammoth Cave and crossed the river at Memphis into Little Rock, Ark. The president remains very popular in his home state, if the size of the sign proclaiming Welcome to Arkansas, HOME OF PRESIDENT CLINTON, is any indication.

More impressive to the kids, however, was the size and color of the Mississippi River. It was mud brown, about the consistency of Hershey's syrup, and appeared to be as wide as Lake Erie at Athol Springs.

"Wow . . ." said Michael, clearly, at age 18, the most erudite and ecologically sensitive of the group.

We had no time to admire such things, however. We were on a mission Out West, and we did not stop again until we got to the Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City.

The first big disaster

Ah, Oklahoma City, scene of our first Major Disaster. We stopped at a Holiday Inn for the night and arose eight hours later with every intent of getting an early start.

'Twas not to be. Katie couldn't find a shoe. So we tore the room apart looking for this damn sneaker that refused to surface, finally found it, piled into the car, checked out and headed for the Cowboy Hall of Fame.

We stopped for breakfast/lunch at a Wendy's along the way, and I reached for the map bag, which also contained the traveler's checks, and discovered it missing. So we tore the van apart, to no avail, and decided we must have left the bag, and the checks, in the motel room.

We started back to the motel, only to find that a car accident on the Interstate had closed the exit leading to the Inn. So we had to get off at the next exit and wind our way back through the back alleys of Oklahoma City.

Actually, this was a fortuitous thing because we passed a junk yard emblazoned with the hand-painted sign: "Jesus Is Lord Car Wreck and Salvage," which everyone thought was pretty neat.

We got back to the Holiday Inn and sought the checks at the front desk, to no avail, then accosted the cleaning lady in what was once our room, to no avail, then all of us sat in the van for awhile in the parking lot, wondering what to do.

This was $4,000 in traveler's checks, mind you.

So we ripped the van apart again and, this time found the packet of maps, and the checks, in the dirty laundry bag. We all said a thank-you prayer to St. Anthony, patron saint of lost causes, and proceeded, a bit frazzled, to the Cowboy Hall of Fame.

A full-scale stagecoach, complete with fiberglass horses, a chuck wagon and a replica Western cowboy town in the basement of the building make it an interesting adventure for kids, and an incredible collection of native art and sculpture upstairs makes in a fascinating excursion for adults.

A second building behind the first is dominated by a towering, 18-foot-tall plaster cast of the famed bronze sculpture, "The End of the Trail" that James Earle Fraser created for the Panama International Exposition of 1915.

It was mystical -- practically a religious -- experience, very much like visiting the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.

And the Hall of Fame had a terrific gift shop, to boot.

After a day's trip across Oklahoma and the Texas panhandle, we drove into Santa Fe and landed right in the middle of an art festival in the Main Square of Old Town. There's something going on in Santa Fe every weekend, especially in the tourist season, and art festivals are high on the list of activities.

The native craftsmen come down from the mountains with their exquisite silver and turquoise jewelry, pottery and beaded ware. The eclectic mix of artisans who over the years have migrated to the sun-drenched Southwest depart their back-alley enclaves and set up shop in the square.

The city's upper crust abandon their haciendas and everybody mingles in the square, artisan and peasant, rich man and poor, hippie and banker, all rubbing elbows in a great, exciting mix of sight and sound. It was very much like the Allentown Art Festival with a Western flair.

Art in Taos

Taos is less than an hour up the road from Santa Fe, but we were so taken with the art festival that we were late in leaving and did not arrive in Taos until after dark.

All motels on the outskirts of Taos and every one along the main drag were filled. With some trepidation, we drove into the old section of town and into the main square. It was packed with people and cars.

As soon as the sun goes down in the Southwest, the people come out. Shoppers, strollers, gawkers, perhaps even a few pickpockets, roamed the square in Taos. All the shops were alive with lights; music from a saloon spilled out into the night.

And traffic was bumper-to-bumper, slowly circling the two-block square, ready to pounce on the first available parking space.

In desperation, Michael hopped out of the car to check for accommodations in the somewhat seedy-looking Hotel de Fonda, and he hit pay dirt. Not only was the last room available, but the Hotel de Fonda turned out to be a Mecca for art in the Southwest and something of a shrine to the reclusive American writer/artist D. H. Lawrence ("Lady Chatterly's Lover"), whose paintings covered nearly ever square inch of the hotel's lobby and upstairs hallways.

Mesa Verde, perhaps the most famous of the Pueblo Indian sites, is about six hours from Taos in southern Colorado. The parking lot is a half-mile from the pueblo ruins and the walk, while not terribly strenuous, is a bit taxing, along a narrow, winding trail down the side of the mountain.

The pueblo itself is carved into a cave in the side of the canyon wall. Soot from prehistoric Anasazi Indian fires still blackens the roof of the cave, and the Park Service has restored an ancient kiwa, or pit, that was apparently the scene of Anasazi religious rites.

Visitors who climb down a ladder into the kiwa must come very close to experiencing what the Anasazi experienced -- the very calming, dark, cool, sacred tranquility of the pit. Even the most hyperactive children were caught up in the mystery of their moment in the kiwa.

We arrived in Flagstaff, Ariz., south of the Grand Canyon, so late the next day that the girls refused to go out to dinner, and we ordered Chinese take-out delivered to the room.

It came without utensils.

I won't go into gruesome details, but let me tell you, you haven't lived until you've eaten Chinese take-out without utensils.

Lineup at the Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon was packed. We spent 20 minutes in a line of cars outside the park, just trying to get up to the main gate.

We had been on the road a week, had driven more than 2,000 miles, and this was our first major traffic jam. We were not happy campers. Mild grumblings filled the car by the time we got to the park entrance. Rumblings of discontent were building as we inched along with the tourist caravan into the park interior.

In an instant, though, the grumblings turned to gasps.

We rounded a curve in the road, the shrubs along the roadway gave way to dirt and sky, and the canyon exploded before us in a blanket of color: Gold and red and purple and blue ridges spread like a sea to the horizon. Storm clouds dotted the north rim even as we, on the south side, basked in desert sun.

I have seen the purple majesty of Mount Fuji against the crimson Japanese sunset; I have seen the glistening white walls of Casablanca against the stark African desert, the treasures of the Louvre, the magnificent ruins of Carthage, the ancient temples of Asia. I have ridden the Marrakech Express and the waves of Honolulu. I have seen and done a lot.

I have never seen anything in my life that rivals that first riveting glimpse of the Grand Canyon. And now, neither have my children.

They won't soon forget that scene, nor will they forget losing the car keys.

After a nondescript cafeteria meal at the Grand Canyon Inn (all meals in national parks are nondescript, at best), I sent Mike back to the car, with the keys, to get some sweat shirts. He met us a few minutes later in the gift shop, and we went out into the lobby to book passage for an airplane ride over the canyon. After some negotiations, the deed was done, and I asked Mike for the keys.

He didn't have them. He checked all his pockets. The girls checked all their pockets. We went back to the gift shop. We checked at the airline reservation desk. We checked the lost and found at the inn's front desk. We checked the cafeteria. We retraced Mike's steps back to the van, which was locked, and checked along the sidewalk and under all the bushes between the car and the inn.

The keys were gone, the van was locked and we were stuck.

I called Triple A, which referred me to a locksmith in Flagstaff, 60 miles away, who said he could get there in two hours, but could not guarantee he had a master key that would fit the van's ignition, even if he got the door open. He also didn't know what the adventure would cost, but it would be "big bucks."

By this time, we had spent nearly two hours looking for the keys, and I felt like crying. We all sat, despondent, in the lobby of the inn. Maggie, the eldest daughter, finally strolled back into the gift shop and, moments later, let out a WHOOP! that brought us all to her side.

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