Journey to the Land of Giant Trees
As one of the originators of the American television series Backseat Drivers, John Chuldenko created the first car show for kids. Now he and his wife are visiting Yosemite National Park with their daughters and the
What was it? The poster of the
As a young boy, I learned to write by reading the dozens of car brochures I’d collect at the auto show every year. As I started writing and directing for film and television, I always searched for a way to tap into the wild enthusiasm kids have for cars. In developing Backseat Drivers, we wanted to make a car show that feels like it’s made just for kids. We wanted them to interact with the cars as much as possible, to have fun and form a real connection with cars. After all, today’s kids will become tomorrow’s drivers.
As my wife Mirabai and our daughters load their bags into the trunk and the kids marvel at the retracting door handles, it becomes clear that this trip—perhaps the world’s first family road trip in the
With a battery full of charge and a cupholder full of coffee, I hammer the accelerator onto the 5 Freeway. The car flies off with a squeal—not from the tires, but from the two girls in the back seat. They are delighted, beaming. In those short seconds, they understand everything this car is about and everything this trip is about: to explore California via the open road, to experience this special car in a special place. And as the
Something happens when you ascend the winding road that leads into the Sequoia National Forest. Everything goes quiet. The wind, the kids, the world—everything. We all fall strangely silent as we glide peacefully through the majestic three-thousand-year-old trees. The electric whisper of the car seems almost reverent, as though it, too, understands the significance of the moment.
Stopping to picnic on an ancient fallen tree, we’re greeted by a gigantic, nightmare-inducing insect clinging defiantly to the cherry paint. Adeline, my oldest, jumps for cover behind the rear door, while Charlotte, my youngest, asks if we can bring it along with us. I marvel at how different the two are, then check twice to make sure Charlotte hasn’t hidden the bug in the glove box.
As the sun sets, we arrive at our lodge near the entrance to Yosemite. Like a crime-show detective, I search the car for any misplaced snacks that might entice a bear to turn the
If you think bears are scary, try waking up two kids at 5:15 a.m. But if you want to experience nature, there’s no choice: adventure is not going to wait. So we load our bleary-eyed kids into the back seat and set off for Yosemite. Dawn is now breaking over this majestic landscape. It’s almost surreal—like a scenic painting hung far off in the distance. An Ansel Adams print brought to life in glorious, breathing color.
Yosemite is humbling—the kind of place that gently, but firmly, reminds us that we are merely a blip in the timeline of nature. The kind of place where almost everything we see will outlive us.
Winding around a tight twisting road, Adeline exclaims, “I love this car!” Bingo. Seconds later, the trees part to reveal a magnificent view: Half Dome, a rock formation rising 2,700 meters above the massive trees below. A waterfall cascades in the distance as we stop to climb on the nearby rocks. I can’t help but think of the first indigenous people to settle in this area and the passionate individuals who fought to keep it preserved. Not to mention the blissful fact that at this moment, neither of my children needs to use the restroom.
Before leaving the park, we bound from the car and into the forest one more time. Wandering through the trees, Charlotte befriends another insect. This time a caterpillar she names “Fuzzy,” whom she thankfully decides to tuck in the cozy bark of a nearby tree and not in her pocket.
The following morning we meander back toward Los Angeles through California’s seemingly endless golden fields. And while we successfully manage to keep the woodland critters from coming home with us, we do return with a new member of the family: a slightly overpriced chainsaw-carved wooden bear whom the girls name “Gunther.”
The soul of any road trip is its spontaneity, the freedom to roam on a whim and stop at will. Here, the Cross
“These miles will become memories.” John Chuldenko
Later, cruising on a wide-open freeway, Mirabai remarks on how fortunate we have been to share this experience. I glance in the rearview mirror and see Gunther buckled into the middle seat between our daughters. He returns my gaze with his wooden eyes. We understand each other, too—we’re both glad to be free, glad to be on the road.
With its extra room, the Cross
Interview first published in the