No summer is complete without a good old-fashioned road trip. For me road trips have always signaled the end of summer: loading up the yellow Mercury Capri to head to college, driving from coast to coast with the summer boyfriend that felt the need to confess his undying love for his ex-girlfriend somewhere around North Dakota, or a last dash West before the leaves start to turn just to watch the sun set behind the Pacific unobstructed by rain, wind or clouds. Road trips have a certain sense of the unknown, a nervous anticipation, and freedom. That’s what I was thinking about when I convinced my teenage daughter to spend her last week of summer on a mother/daughter road trip. In retrospect, I can hear other teenage parents muttering, “Are you out of your mind?”
The key to a successful road trip is good food, good company, and the unexpected serendipities that await you. It pays to have an adventurous spirit backed with a fool-proof itinerary. The goal is not just to get from point A to point B in the least amount of time, but rather to progress from point A to point B creating a unique set of memorable experiences. I admit that embarking on an adult/teenager/mother/daughter road trip tested both patience and the romantic ideal. What was the first clue? Perhaps it was that my daughter refused to sit in the front passenger seat of the car. I listened to a complete analysis of why sitting in the front seat makes one car sick. I wonder how she will feel next year when she wants to learn to drive? Little does she know the multiple miles I suffered in the back seat as a child sans seat belts and surrounded by a smoky cigarette haze produced by two young, naïve parents. I was one of three kids who fought for the momentary respite from the nausea and elbow fighting to sit in the front seat with the vents that blew the smoke to the back caverns of the car. My fantasy of long meaningful mother/daughter conversations was replaced by feeling like a chauffeur reduced to yelling pithy insights at the rear view mirror to a tuned-out iPod listening teenager that responded with “Did you say something?” We did eventually hit a rhythm of driver/navigator for part of the trip and we managed to make light of the various orange road construction warnings that taught us what “chip and seal” work meant, or how to minimize the instinctual panic as we passed the roadside fires that were signed “planned”, and coming up with alternative mischievous scenarios for the powerful pilot cars donning blinking “Follow Me” signs.
Food and accommodations play an important role in providing texture for a road trip. We were well stocked in the car with air-popped popcorn, nuts, beef jerky, and water. But several of the highlights of our trip were stops at the local farmer’s markets to immerse ourselves in the summer bounty of fresh fruit, newly cultivated cheeses, and tender aromatic breads and pastries. This was a “no camping” trip, so we had a good assortment of pre-booked budget motels, bed & breakfasts, and places we would never recommend to another human being. There were days we were tired and cranky, but at least we didn’t face the sinking feeling of flashing “No Vacancy” signs. We became partial to the B&Bs. Nothing starts the day better than a home cooked breakfast with someone else waiting on you. And every road trip needs a good dose of guilty indulgence and for us it was our dinner at an haute cuisine restaurant that cost half of our food budget for the week. The best part was hiding our flip flops and jeans under the white linen draped table and enjoying the stark contrast of the fine dining experience with the rumpled road weary traveler.
So what were the serendipities of our trip? Being upgraded into the master suite at our first stop for no particular reason other than my daughter lives a charmed life totally obscured the fact we had no access to TV and internet. We spent a day white water rafting on a weekday and had the entire river (and our guide) to ourselves. Spending a good portion of our time “unplugged” was insightful. I learned that I’m really good at Monopoly. (Thank goodness since having a reliable breadwinner is an important attribute to a teenager.) In that vein, I learned that my daughter is not only competitive, but took undue pleasure at attempting (but not succeeding) to crush her opponent. Many hours can be whiled away perfecting the fine art of rock skipping and hammock dismounting (ouch!). Following the recommendations of the locals took us to extraordinary places that included waterfalls, geological wonders, and roads less traveled on. We learned that small towns have a different concept of time and distance. Just down the road could mean 20 minutes or 50 miles depending on how sparsely populated the area was. And for us small towns became famous for the world’s largest small ice cream cones and Paul Bunyan sized breakfasts. Small towns are struggling and gasping for their lives, but one thing still remains true; the big truck with the gas guzzling mileage is still king. Our road trip took place in our hybrid which was akin to having the circus car whose wonder became the number of miles you could drive on a tank of gas rather than the number of clowns that you could fit inside.
Being unplugged also allowed us to document our trip more diligently with our digital enabled cameras and cell phones. The cell phone may not have been able to get a connection, but it could still snap a photo. There is a certain monotony that can set in after several days of vacation snapshots, so we found threads to entertain and curate our photography. We looked for compositions that would be a tongue-in-cheek approach to art photos on a color theme (i.e. Study in Green was a close up of the green nail in our picnic bench, H-art in Brown was an etched heart in a tree trunk, etc.) and we captured signs that we found funny or unusual. I also discovered that I look better in my imagination than I do in photos. Thank goodness for the digital “delete” button.
Our road trips also incorporated a bit of our family history. This was my opportunity to pass on stories and recognize lives that came before my daughter. We spent our last evening in a small town on the Oregon coast just a short drive away from the beach where my first-born daughter’s ashes were returned to the sea. She was born and died at that time of year when summer is waning, the light feels more golden, and the mornings have the nip of autumn in its grasp. I took my daughter to the beach and although she has been there many times before, this was the first time we were there just as mother/daughter. We walked with an impromptu picnic in hand and followed the shoreline until we reached “Jenna’s Rock”. The wind was cool and blustery and we zipped our coats as we spread our blanket over the sand. As we sprawled over the blanket we were quickly warmed by the heat reflecting off the sand and we unpacked our picnic and quietly took in the beauty of the moment.
You would think after sixteen years and a life that somehow found a way to move on that I would have made peace with the loss of such a precious life. After all, I’ve had countless joys watching my second daughter grow, flourish, and thrive. She has soothed the gaping wound with her ability to make me laugh and has healed me with her tender touch holding my elbow and wrapping her arm through mine not for security but for comfort. But as I Iistened to the waves crash and the gulls call I still felt the familiar edges of despair. I asked my daughter if my sadness was uncomfortable for her and she nodded and averted her eyes. Unfortunately sadness is part of life and sometimes life is uncomfortable and hard to look at. We sat in silence as the afternoon sun headed west and part of me imagined what it would be like to lie on the blanket until winter arrived. I would let the heat of summer fade from my body and let the decay and decomposition of autumn cover my pain and create a buffer from the deadness of winter. But then I felt the warm touch on my arm and the gentle nudge of the daughter that is not only alive but eager to move on. We grabbed our blanket and stepped apart and came together several times to match corners and fold until its bulk became small enough to fit into our beach bag. Slowly we turned our backs to the sun and retraced our steps along the beach to continue our road trip, this time pointing home. Even now as summer continues to fade, this memory of the road, my two daughters: one alive, and one gone; lingers on and I'm reminded that the end of summer is also the beginning of a new season with leaves turning, colors changing and new roads beckoning.