The hubs, my younger son, and I just returned from the longest trip we’ve taken since 2011, a week spent visiting my firstborn in his adopted hometown of Bellingham, Washington. It was my first ever visit to the state, and every turn I made presented an opportunity for a postcard-quality photo. I understand now why he loves it so much and will probably never leave the Pacific Northwest.
He was eager to share with us his delight in the natural wonders of the area. Like so many folks in these difficult years, my two kids have both had their struggles, leading me at times to lie awake at night questioning every parenting decision I’ve ever made. But seeing my grown-up son in absolute child-like bliss while investigating tide pools and telling me everything he knew about the life forms in them helped me resolve some of those angsty feelings. Here was solid evidence that we did some things right raising our kids.
Though we always had enough to meet our needs, we didn’t always have a ton of money for extras. I didn’t sign the offspring up for a lot of organized activities with associated fees. But my husband and I are big believers in outdoor play and exploration. Family vacations were often camping trips to state parks, where we hiked and did cave tours and listened to park rangers give presentations about area wildlife. Our kids never went to summer camp, but we spent a lot of time taking them to parks and places with rocks and creeks, where they could investigate and learn organically. When many of their teen peers took a rather pricey science trip to the Grand Tetons, we acquired the needed maps and supplies to go orienteering locally as a family. Firstborn, especially, always took a keen interest in any member of the animal kingdom, from tiny to huge.
My heart grew three sizes during our trip, seeing the child inside the man. The same things still bring him joy. His finances are a bit ragged currently, but he has heaven in the form of a rocky beach a thirty minute walk from his house. “Imagine, for you this is a fabulous vacation, but I have this available as part of my daily life,” he said.
The only “nightlife” activity we did during our visit was a midnight visit to a beach where we could wade out and see bioluminescent plankton, a magical experience. We didn’t sign up for any tours and kept shopping mostly to food. The one real touristy day we spent was a trip down to Seattle for the Van Gogh Immersive Experience (amazing!) and a quick visit to Pike Place (collectively our purchases amounted to a sheet of stickers — lol.) For the most part, we spent the family time much as we did in the old days, climbing around on rocks, splashing in the water, exploring nature. It was good medicine.
I just got back from spending a couple of days in a place without Internet or a cell phone signal. Apparently the world survived without my constant check-ins. The husband, kids and I stayed in a state park – Missouri has wonderful state parks – about two hours from home. Not quite the European treks some of my kids’ friends are experiencing this summer, nor the Alaskan cruise more than one of my acquaintances has taken recently. But it provided a much-needed refocusing for me.
Right before I left I was a hot mess and came close to canceling the whole thing, feeling overwhelmed by how much work it takes to get ready for any kind of trip. I didn’t want to have to plan for meals, or grocery shop, or find people to cover for me on projects at work, or pack, or catch up on the laundry, or arrange for someone to feed the pets. It was all too much. Nothing was worth it.
That was displaced emotion. Really, I was overwhelmed by everything else in my daily life, the things I needed to get away from for a brief time. And, too, the general state of the world, with wars and climate change and so on. Plus I was a little freaked about the possibility that some major development with my mom’s health or well-being would occur while I was unreachable.
But I left my brother’s phone number with the nursing home and the park office phone number with my brother, and off we went. For 48 tremendous hours. I’m so glad that anxiety-ridden me got over herself and let me have this experience. Removing myself from contact with much of the outside world helped me stop fretting about it. And having the whole family removed from this contact helped us be with each other. With my kids growing up, I’m not sure how much more of that I’ll get.
My 16-year-old took his guitar and spent hours practicing, something he has more trouble getting around to at home. I read a big chunk of a novel (The Pure Gold Baby by Margaret Drabble, if you’re interested) without the usual mosquito buzz of guilt about all of the tasks I was neglecting. The 19-year-old also got a lot of reading done. My husband found the opportunity to interact with the river via his fishing poles, something he doesn’t get to do often enough. We spent time simply sitting around a campfire, talking, also something we can’t always fit in at home, what with everyone having different schedules and jobs and school and various responsibilities.
We threw in a little adventure, too, as I knocked an item off my bucket list. I have wanted to try ziplining from the moment I first heard of it, four or five years ago. My frugal self found some on-line coupons for a zipline tour a short drive from our cabin. It was still pricey, but come on – bucket list. We all went and it was a thrill. I loved it. The entire odyssey involved four ziplines and three suspension bridges: over the parking lot, over the trees, over the river. I know it was adventuresome because we had to fill out paperwork beforehand stating our insurance coverage and preferred hospital, plus signing off that we, the parents, gave our minor son permission to risk his life. The wording may have a been a little different, but that was the gist.
We did a tour of Meramec Caverns because, as my older child says, “You can’t go anywhere in Missouri without ending up on a cave tour.” Pretty much the truth. If you go, expect to do a lot of walking. The cave system is huge. And fascinating.
Our tour guide told us most cave formations grow at a rate of around an inch every 100 years. Then again, she also told us this cave was used as a hideout by Jesse James and I’ve heard that about every cave in the state, so… But some quick on-line research backs up the idea that the stalactites, stalagmites and columns we saw have been thousands upon thousands of years in the making. I find that comforting somehow. There’s a constancy to it that feels so dependable.
If I had to choose a favorite part of the trip, I’d say looking at the stars. I live in a city. Not a huge city, but I’m right in it – not nearby or even in a suburban area. For the most part it suits me. I can walk to work, and to the grocery store and the bank. My street always gets plowed when it snows. But I don’t get to see much of the night sky. There’s a street light directly in front of my house and another one right behind.
At our rental cabin, there were no artificial outdoor lights. And we were treated to two cloudless nights in a row with no moon in sight. We couldn’t see much from our “yard” due to the tree canopy. But a short, flashlight-illuminated walk led us to an open field where I witnessed more stars than I’ve ever before seen at one time. It was the sky as my mom and dad grew up with it, out in the Arkansas countryside. The first night, only my husband and I went stargazing. I had a Moment there with him. I don’t know how to describe it. We could see the Milky Way so clearly, our galaxy. And there we stood, little specks on one planet, part of this whole huge galaxy, part of the whole huge universe. Yet somehow the atoms had come together to form the two of us and the two of us had found each other. We were there, hand-in-hand, so close in the middle of all that vast space.
The second night, the whole family trooped down to the field. My firstborn went inside before too long, claiming an existential crisis, but I suspect there was a DVD inside a laptop, waiting to be viewed. Or maybe it was both. I know lots of people speak of the existential crisis they feel upon witnessing the vastness of It All. But I’ve never experienced that.
My favorite Twitter feeds come from NASA and individual astronauts. I can’t get enough of the photos. When I see the earth as a whole, or a space phenomenon like a nebula, or a field of stars, I feel the same kind of comfort I got in the cave. I don’t feel insignificant, or even worry about whether I’m insignificant. I’m awed that I get to be a part of it. It All. I always have been and always will be. So it is for you, too. The Universe recycles, you know. My atoms weren’t always me as I am now, but they were here, somewhere, being. And once I’ve died, they’ll go on to be something else.
I’m reminded of a couple of quotes:
Nothing in the entire universe ever perishes, believe me, but things vary, and adopt a new form. The phrase being born is used for beginning to be something different from what one was before, while dying means ceasing to be the same. Though this thing may pass into that, and that into this, yet the sum of things remains unchanged. – Ovid
If you can see a thing whole,” he said, “it seems that it’s always beautiful. Planets, lives…But close up, a world’s all dirt and rocks. And day to day, life’s a hard job, you get tired, you lose the pattern.” – Ursula K. Le Guin, “The Dispossessed”
I’ve been losing the pattern. I need to see the stars every once in a while to remind me of the beauty, the continuity, the whole.