Hey, all you dads out there! Ever wondered what it would be like to take a 9,000-mile, four-month-long road trip through Central America? With your teenage son? Mercifully, Salt Lake author (and former Tribune journalist) Kirk Millson has already done it so you don’t have to.
Ever since taking a road trip through Mexico in 1982 with an old college pal, Millson had dreamed of driving to the “End of the Road” at the edge of the Darien Gap in Panama. When an opportunity presented itself in the summer of 2002 to do so, Millson asked his wife if she’d be willing to let him go.
She said yes — on one condition:
That their 13-year-old son accompany him.
And that’s how father and son, who’d drifted apart over the past few years, found themselves in a 1974 Dodge Dart, heading south of the border with plans to return to Salt Lake City by Christmas. Millson chronicles the odyssey in “9,000 Miles of Fatherhood: Surviving Crooked Cops, Teenage Angst, and Mexican Moonshine on a Journey to the End of the Road” — a new book that is at once hair-raising and humorous. Ahead of Father’s Day on June 15, Millson spoke with the Trib about the experience.
What inspired you to put your teenage son in a car and drive from here to Panama?
Panic. My career was swirling in the toilet and my first instinct was to avoid reality. I convinced myself that having no income was no real obstacle to taking a four-month vacation, but I knew I’d never get out of town by myself. I brought my son along to make the whole thing sound more respectable.
What was the hardest thing about taking a trip of that length (!) with a teenager? What would your son say was the hardest thing about taking the same road trip with his father?
We had grown apart over the previous couple of years, so we hardly spoke at first. And even after our relationship was back on track, the conversation was never what you’d call intellectually stimulating. You can compare the virtues of cartoon superheroes only so often before your brain starts to seep out of your ears. From my son’s standpoint, I was terminally boring and borderline mentally challenged. I couldn’t even name all the X-Men.
How did your son respond to the poverty you saw? Was it hard for him to come back to the relative prosperity and consumerism of the States?
It wasn’t hard to come back because he was sick of living like a poor person. But he did return with a clear understanding of how tough a lot of people have it in Central America. He also appreciated how fortunate he was to have been born in the United States.
You met some interesting characters along the way. My favorite was Edmundo. Can you tell us a little about him?
Edmundo was my Spanish teacher in Guatemala. He’s about 5 feet tall and 170 pounds, at least 60 of which are head. He looks like a bulldog without the wrinkles and yet he always has a girlfriend, because under a comically gruff demeanor he’s very sensitive. He writes poetry, plays classical guitar and sings beautifully, but I only learned all that after a month of unseemly questions about my love life, past and present. He’d spend two minutes checking my homework, declare himself bored to tears and toss out some outrageous icebreaker like “Who was the best kisser — your last girlfriend before you were married or your first girlfriend after?” We got along great, and we still communicate every few weeks. I took him camping in southern Utah in 2008, and he’s thinking of coming back this December.
How would the trip have been different if you’d taken it with your daughter instead? Was she ever resentful that you were able to spend so much time with her brother?
I couldn’t have taken that trip with my daughter. I was so hyperprotective of my son in the first few weeks that I projected a hostility that did not go over well on the streets. I’m sure my demeanor was to blame for a lot of the negativity we encountered early on. Had my little girl been there, I’d have projected murder.
But she never wanted to go on a road trip with me. I’d taken her on a few camping trips that will undoubtedly be the basis for some expensive therapy sessions someday. The thought of spending four months on the road with me was enough to keep her awake until I was safely across the border. We talk about going to Sri Lanka someday to ride elephants, but I’m pretty sure she’s just patronizing me.
What was the lowest moment for you personally on the trip? What was the best?
The lowest was the day I discovered that the plastic-wrapped thousand dollars I’d hidden in a carton of oil was soaked through and ruined. We’d just spent a month in Guatemala living a “Grapes of Wrath” lifestyle to get back on a budget that had been inadequate from the start, and suddenly we were worse off than ever. The best was that moment in Yaviza, Panama, when a young woman’s reaction made me stop and look and realize how much my son had grown up. I almost started crying.
How does your family respond to the fact that you write about them?
They have mostly enjoyed the attention, but I’m not sure my son appreciates the pressure of being described in such mythical terms, even though the events were 11 years ago. Strangers want to meet him now. They expect to see the rock star, but he’s just a normal guy.
What was the most challenging thing about writing this book? The most rewarding?
The best part was spending so much time reliving those four months with my son. The challenge was finding a way to make strangers care about such a personal story. I used a lot of humor to bridge the gap, but it’s not easy finding something funny about some of the situations we were in.
What kind of response has the book received?
The reactions have been positive beyond my wildest hopes. A lot of people really love the story.
Are you working on any new books? Planning any new epic adventures?
No new books for now, and no adventures, darn it.
What advice would you give to other fathers?
First off, don’t take parenting advice from a guy who dragged his kid through Latin American crime zones in a 1974 Dodge Dart. But I will share what I learned, which is that kids respond a whole lot better to positive reinforcement than negativity. When my son realized that I believed he was capable of anything, he proved me right.
9,000 Miles of Fatherhood
By Kirk Millson
Cedar Fort Publishing