What I Did on My Summer Vacation

John Steinbeck can’t “write hot.” In Travels with Charley, his famous road trip narrative, he says observations simmer inside his head until he’s ready to shape them, weeks or months later. I can’t write hot either. I also can’t write like John Steinbeck, so maybe it doesn’t matter. Too much distance, though, and the immediacy and impression are muddied by everyday life, which might just be the poison of the creative impulse.

Trying to capture our 32 day, 8,000-mile cross-country trip has been a challenge. And now, 21 days out, so much is a blur. To pick and choose what is notable when so much feels important — or at least important to me — is straining my powers of recall. On the road, taking in the passing landscape while navigating or parenting or viewing it through a camera lens made me want to shove the hard work of digesting the trip until later. Driving allowed for some reflection. Freed of the parental duties (I’m driving, ask Daddy!) and left “alone” with thoughts, ideas would form. Most would be lost, but a few stuck and there was no un-sticking them, which is fortunate for me sitting down weeks afterward.

It was exhilarating being on the road moving from state to state, watching the changes in landscape and personality. It was difficult too. For as much as the kids were enthralled with the newness of each place, they had their same kid gripes about sharing the iPad and being stuck in the car, again. And I don’t think they’ve ever eaten as much in their lives and never will again, which meant constant snacking. Our skinny 6-year-old (non-eater) gained almost 2 pounds. (Note to parents: Take picky eaters on the road, trap them in the car for hours and boredom will break them. They’ll eat stuff you won’t. Chocolate-covered nut roll bar — sure!)

The whine of “When are we going to be there?” took on a whole new meaning as Jerry and I secretly hoped some of those 10+ hour days would end. But then we’d arrive in Santa Fe or Ukiah (not Eureka!) or Casper and in the late night dark we’d be revived by the people and place. Even in a generic chain like Best Western or Hampton Inn, you’ll find local character. And it was always interesting if only because it was so different from you.

We’d settle in, turn on C-Span or an old black-and-white movie to put the kids to sleep and collapse with a glass of wine in a plastic cup. Dining standards, bedtimes and “perfectness” are not things to maintain on the road. We got to exist outside of our routines and schedules and regimens and that was not just a relief, it was a blessing. To exist outside the bounds of our idea of “control.”

Sitting down to coffee after we got home, a good friend remarked, our trip was a one of “privilege.” She’s right. Not only a privilege to take the trip (for all budgeting, it is still way more expensive than you plan), but a privilege to stay with dear friends, take in the Parks, stare out at the Pacific, travel through the wide open spaces of desert, alpine meadow or fields of sunflowers, to cross mountains and smell the eucalyptus in California. Even our mandate of “no fast food” was a privilege. Who wouldn’t want to stock his car with provisions from Whole Foods?

But even as we were bickering over stupid stuff or our six-year-old got car sick again (he never did before) or Google sent us on a route that only a computer would think was logical, at the end of every day Jerry and I were both struck by how blessed we felt. And blessing is the only word that works because the feeling came from outside of us, not inside. And it was definitely unearned. It appeared in the most unexpected places.

Our car, a 2006 Acura SUV (with 172,000 miles to start), acted brand new, as if it had been born to do the drive. It powered over mountains and around switch backs and cruised the 80 mph (legal) speed limits, accelerating to show off. It sits in our driveway now forlorn and resentful and — I kid you not — underperforming. It’s like a puppy, whining, locked in its cage, wanting to play. Not another trip to Shop Rite — please.

The kids — for the complaining, pinching, scratching and drawing on each other — did really great, even after they had exhausted their interest in kid apps and TV shows. (“Look out the window!” Yeah, right.) Our 8-year-old made how-to videos of herself “doing hair” and together they invented a sword fighting game using whatever trash had piled up in the backseat — a game we loathed, prompting much scolding, which they thought was hilarious. Thank God we lived in that studio for as long as we did. I’m not sure we would have survived as well in the close quarters if we hadn’t. In fact, we thrived because of it.

Many many friends who are parents told me, “I couldn’t do it.” Yes, neither could I. Patience is not my strong suit and the trip didn’t magically make me more so. We all got to show off our worst selves from time to time, but as hard as we may have tried to mess up (the flash flood in Kansas City, a memorable parenting fail), there was something pulling us to our better selves. But that’s what I mean by feeling blessed. It doesn’t add up any other way.

Add the anecdotal experience and witness of so many people who are hurting or depressed or lacking resources and you have to wonder, “Why me?” Why were we given this privilege, this blessing? What do we do with it?

But then we got home and got busy again. School started. Our schedules took over and it was hard to hold onto the feeling we had on the trip. We were all glad to be home. We live in a great place with great people. But we were sad too. Sad because it was so hard now to remember what we knew then. The scenery fades. You can look at the picture, but you can’t re-experience the mountain. The feeling of wide open freedom, of your day being filled with the unknown, it faded fast. Like the car, we’ve been sputtering about, going through the motions of normalcy, but not quite engaged. And we’ve begun to forget the blessing.

People ask the kids, “What was your favorite part of the trip?” They have clearly rehearsed their answers (reminds me of the perennial “Why did you move to New York?”). To their credit, they change up their responses and sometimes surprise us. “The Grand Canyon?? Do you remember how much you complained about your feet hurting and how hot you were? I do.

But their question to us was most interesting. “Why do people ask us about our favorite thing? It’s annoying.” “Okay, I don’t think it’s annoying, but why do you?” “Because it’s hard to answer. I can’t think of just one thing. It’s different than that.” Yes, very different

What we “did” every day doesn’t capture the feeling of the trip. I don’t know what went on inside their heads and it may take years before any of that bears fruit (you know it will come out in unexpected ways). But I can say what it felt like for me. It was freedom to think. To observe and gain perspective. Wow, the perspective. It is hard at home. Too much pulling us in too many directions; too much myopia.

To be outside and witness such natural beauty that it pushes your brain past some pre-imposed limit. This is what Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir recognized and persevered to preserve. It isn’t just the beauty of the land itself, it is how that beauty affects us. Changes us. Lifts us beyond ourselves. Everyone should stand at the feet of El Capitan or on the shore of Jackson Lake and drink in the view. It should be a prerequisite to adulthood and there should be buses loading up school kids to drive them there regardless of their circumstances.

To be pushed outside yourself and engage with people who are very much not like you. Who live differently and have different values. Who treasure different things. To see the pride of place no matter the place and to actually observe that each state IS different. Really. No kidding. Those state lines aren’t drawn by accident. We all loved every minute of the differences. We loved being engaged and not at home watching it all on TV. But you can’t live like this, can you?

Around Day 21, we were at the Monterey Bay Aquarium watching phosphorescent jellyfish undulate against a neon backdrop and I thought of Phil Vischer, creator of Veggie Tales (a.k.a. Bob the Tomato). He lost it all in what amounted to career hubris and out of the wreckage started a new company called Jellyfish Labs because (to paraphrase) he realized he had no business controlling his life. He believes God is in control of his life and he should go with the current of wherever God wants to take him, like a jellyfish — which can propel itself up and down, not right or left, and must rely on ocean currents to travel. (Some actually can swim, but most can’t.)

That’s fine, Phil, I thought while watching the jellyfish. But when you have a mortgage and kids and soccer practice and a business to build, you have to decide “right” or “left.” You can’t just go with the flow all the time.

Nothing came to me at the time — my notes say, “jellyfish, Phil Vischer, mortgage??” The beginnings of every great story. But this is where the benefit of writing “cold” comes in. As much as the trip has faded, it still happened. It is still trapped in our imagination somewhere. Now that I’m back, trying to recover the observations creates a new set of connections. The perspective broadens.

No offense to Phil because he really is a smart, talented dude, but I don’t think he quite got it right. We aren’t medusae of goo that live at the mercy of our nerve nets. God, as I understand him, wouldn’t want us to be unthinking blobs for him to control. How boring. But in that strange tension between acting and following — the real mess of life — God does his best work. When we act and then trust that he does have a plan, even as the disorder piles up around us, that’s where we find the blessing and the joy. We are freed of trying so hard to control everything around us.

“God who?” you ask. Okay. I get it. It’s passé to think we aren’t in complete control of our future. Self-sufficiency being the ultimate goal of our culture. I used to think that way too (and still do sometimes). I can do anything! All good things come from me! Who needs otherworldly eternity when I have myself! But standing at the feet of the Grand Tetons, looking out over Jackson Lake, try to explain the feeling sweeping over you without using the words “awe” or “reverence.” There is an impulse to worship.

My teenage self, a me-centric island, felt this impulse years ago looking at the same view, but had no vocabulary to describe it. A heightened awareness is brought down on you. You don’t have a choice. You are humbled. The mountains don’t care whether or not you worship them. So something else does, doesn’t it? You are standing there being blessed and your will to participate is not required but welcomed.

In answer to the school-kid, cringe-inducing question imposed every September (when you would secretly hope summer wasn’t really over), What I did on my summer vacation was remember the blessing. It’s ever-present. You don’t have to be on a month-long trek around the country to know the blessing. You can have it at home too, though it can be harder to recognize in piles of paperwork and dirty laundry.

But in a startling conclusion to a privileged break from daily life, I learned I can’t find this power or impulse inside myself. This doesn’t exist inside me. It is not something I can conjure no matter how hard I try. It is very much outside. Beyond my control, beyond my plans, out in the world where people live their lives, laugh and grieve. God is very consistent in his desire for us to be out there. You can look all over the Bible to see no one gets blessed without getting kicked out the door first.

So, if I’m not out there helping or just listening, if I stay inside my head and worry about my problems, I can’t be blessed. And if I’m incapable of recognizing the blessing, I can’t really find joy. I’ll catch glimpses, but joy won’t be constant, it will be euphoric and then gone — like a day in Disney World or opening presents on Christmas morning. Which is not the character of true joy. Our trip from beginning to end with all of the frustrations and unknowns was filled with joy and not just because we were often surrounded by towering, monolithic reminders of our tiny place on this planet.

Where do we fit in? We don’t, I’m pretty sure. But fitting in is overrated. It’s good to feel at home, but home can be anywhere — a tiny studio, a glued-together beach house, an old SUV. I suspect for us to “fit,” we may have to sacrifice the blessing. And I’m not willing to take that risk.

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Jerry rounded out his blogs too. Check out 30 Cups Across and Best (Healthy) Road Food to find out exactly how much coffee we had to drink in 32 days and if we ever sneaked McDonald’s or Chick-fil-A.

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