My first reaction upon being asked to do half the driving on a cross-country car trip from Baltimore to Palo Alto, Calif., was to cringe.
"It'll be fun," said my sister who had won a one-year fellowship at Stanford University and couldn't afford to do the civilized thing of shipping her car there. "It will be a wonderful time, and we'll call this our further bonding experience," she said with a straight face.
After she upped the ante by offering to be responsible for all lodging, gas, and half of my airfare back to Baltimore, I relented. So off we headed with no certain deadline to get there.
She was right. The trip provided many snapshots of life from around the country.
Picture this: a September evening in Chicago. The moon was bright, the air was warm, and the jazz was sizzling.
It was the last day of the 12th annual Chicago Jazz Festival, billed as the largest free jazz festival in the world, and the mood was carefree as the smooth sounds of the Horace Silver Quintet washed over the crowd.
The Windy City has been known for its troubling racial divisiveness especially in election years, when emotions run particularly high.
But on this evening, as darkness descended, adults of all races and ages lolled on the grass while their children whooped it up together.
"Get your jazz T-shirts here," vendors hawked while the smell of bratwursts assaulted our nostrils.
The 11 p.m. hour strikes, and it all ends much too soon as people reluctantly roll up blankets and gather their youngsters.
I say goodbye to a friend and ride the crowded "el" train back to where I am staying on the north side of the city. I am sad to leave.
We make it to Colorado. "There just seems to be so much more sky here," I comment to my sister, knowing that the remark
makes no sense. But the sky seems to go on and on, and watching a sunset feels almost like a religious experience as glorious colors are manifest before our eyes.
We decide to go up into the Rocky Mountains. We are driving in the mountains near Denver where the air is fresh. Before I could stop myself, strains of singer John Denver's song "Rocky Mountain High" start coming out of my mouth.
Fortunately, my sister and a friend we were with -- a former New Yorker who now lives in Colorado -- didn't laugh. It just seemed like the thing to do, at the time. We were headed up to Rocky Mountain State Park, but a few miles before we got there, we saw a sight that beckoned us to stop.
High up in those mountains, a young couple practiced their wedding vows on the steps of the stately old Stanley Hotel.
They giggled and blushed while their wedding group descended the grand staircase. The hotel, which was opened in 1909 with its wrapping of balconies and white-pillared porches, looks majestic set against the backdrop of the spectacular Rockies.
It is a pristine and romantic scene. Suddenly -- as if on cue -- a small group of us not related to the wedding party recoil.
The young lovers have chosen as their wedding march loud, screeching heavy metal rock music that sounds almost sacrilegious in such a setting.
"Kind of turns the setting into Harry's Disco," said a stranger seated on the balcony at a table next to us. "At least they could have chosen a little Marvin Gaye music."
The man was obviously of a different generation than the gooey-eyed couple who seemed in perfect harmony with their choice of music.
I expected to have a good time in Chicago and the Rockies, but I was surprised that I liked Utah.
Not being a skier, I had no idea the area is completely surrounded by breathtaking mountains and haunting canyons. Unlike the Denver area, where the mountains are on one side, these babies look as if they were almost in the backyard of homes.
For the heck of it, we decided to tour Mormon Temple Square, which is centrally located in downtown Salt Lake City across the street from a large shopping mall.
We and other tourists were led on the tour of the grounds by two young women in their 20s who introduced themselves as Sister Misbuchi and Sister Cook.
They gave us a brief history of some of the buildings, but we were not allowed into the temple itself. We did get to enter a building called the Tabernacle, which is where the famed Mormon Tabernacle Choir sings.
Finally, we were shepherded into a modern visitor center where we heard a taped recorded message from the scripture while sitting on benches underneath a ceiling painted like a star-studded blue sky.
Then, my sister and I opted to ditch the group and started heading for the door.
We were surprised to find ourselves chased after by one of the women. She inquired if we would like a copy of their spiritual book and said it was free. Being curious -- especially when it comes to free material -- I said yes.
But wait! There was a catch. We were instructed to fill out a card with our names and addresses and told that someone from the church would visit us at home with the book. We declined, and thus ended our abbreviated visit to Mormon Temple Square.