RV Roadtrip: Road Rule — “It Doesn’t Say ‘Absolutely'”

I am dreaming that someone is driving our RV while we sleep. This concerns me because it isn’t supposed to be driven with beds open. I wake to realize that the sound of the engine is only the air conditioner, and the RV’s rocking is from someone walking around, not rolling roads. Rain pelts our roof and I peek outside. We are nestled in a copse of trees that seem to meet at a point above us.

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This is either our last day, or second to last. Christopher checks his map app one more time. Yesterday it told us we were 12 hours from our goal — twice as long as our average drive, and well worth another night on the road. But at this moment it says we are only 9 hours away, and hopes rise.

But I draw a line: we are not busting out of here until I get some exercise. If I don’t move my body before we start driving again, there will be levels of crankiness no one wants to see. Besides, we are in the forest! Next to a lake! We don’t get that every day.

“Let’s go over to the beach.” Christopher and I are in agreement, and the boys do not protest.

We need to drive to get to the beach part of the lake, so we clean up, put everything back in its place so that we’ll be ready to roll when we’re done swimming. We pull away from our campsite and find a locked barrier across the final stretch of road leading to the beach. A sign says “Beach Opens 11 a.m.” Another says “Road Closed.”

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Thank goodness for my grandfather’s guiding philosophy, a posthumous life lesson that has stood me well in countless settings like these: “It doesn’t say ‘absolutely.'”

We park our rig and walk around the barrier.

Actually, I jog — and I do not like jogging. But my legs and heart are greedy for exertion, and they are taking what they want, step after step. It feels good to move, and to separate ahead of my family, to be alone in a circle of space for a moment, to hear the sounds of insects and squirrels and birds and leaves whispering. The road curves, and for a fleeting moment it occurs to me to hide and shout “Boo!” when they appear, as if my boys might find me amusing.

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In the humidity, the jogging lasts maybe ten minutes. I keep walking, and the lake opens before me. It is wider than the state park lake in Kansas, and wilder. I descend down a grassy panoramic expanse to water’s edge. About fifty yards to my left is the sandy beach and a small section of lake cordoned off by buoys and rope to designate a swimming area.

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“I wish I brought my bathing suit!” Christopher exclaims as he catches up to me, his voice the definition of wistful. I know he is disappointed to miss a chance to submerge and swim.

“Take your clothes off and go in,” I encourage him.

A quarter century ago, before we were engaged, he and I walked along a stretch of beach near my apartment in Venice. There must have been moonlight. I must have had my shoes off, feet in the water, and it must have felt warm. There must have been a siren song, too, because I stripped and swam in. He added his clothes to my pile on the sand, and we floated and bobbed over waves. That was the first and last time.

I turn to look up the hill at my boys approaching, and when I look back for Christopher, I see his clothes hung on a hook and him gliding into the water, a look of peace on his face. We all walk toward him, each of us is weighing our options. He looks so content. The water is so warm. The boys take off their shoes and socks. Emmett removes his shorts, and Aaron pulls his sweatpants up to his knees. I remove my shoes and socks and roll up my sweatpants like Aaron, thinking it will be enough to wade in up to my shins.

It will not.

“Sorry, boys, you’re doing to have to deal,” I say, taking off my pants. I wade in to the height of my thighs, my hands gracing the water. Better, but still not enough. Back I go to the sand to hang up my shirt and — “Sorry again, kids” — and I am down to my skivvies. I plunge in. Emmett is in all the way, too. The three of us encourage Aaron to do the same, to come further, to do what we like. “Stop inviting me!” he implores. “I always thought I wanted to be included, but now I don’t.” He’s joking, and he’s not.

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The water is as warm and soft as the air. I swim to the buoy, and repeating my grandfather’s mantra, “It doesn’t say absolutely,” I go beyond it. There is something in me that needs to prove — usually to myself — that I am not contained by others’ artificial boundaries. Is this despite my conventional life that appears completely contained by boundaries? Or because of it?

Later we will stand in our wet underclothes trying to air dry enough to put our clothes back on. It’s not working, so I tell the boys that if they don’t want to see me naked they should look away, and then take off my wet underclothes so I can put on my shirt and pants without soaking them. Feeling renewed, we head back to where we left the RV. Just then, the National Forest staff pull up. Clothed, in the nick of time.

“That your RV back there?” The man has a silver mustache and is driving a green golf cart. His voice drips Kentucky molasses.

“Yes sir, we thought we’d swim before we have to leave before a long travel day,” Christopher explains. I stand off to the side, my arms folded across my chest for modesty.

There is no reckoning or admonishment. There is only small talk and kindness. “Y’all be safe now, and y’all come back.”

RV Roadtrip: From Kansas Steaks to Kentucky Fried Chicken

I have known since the time I can remember knowing anything, that Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, holding that “separate but equal is inherently unequal,” was decided on May 17, 1954, my father’s 11th birthday. He pronounced this fact often, as if it was greatest birthday honor an eleven year old could dream of. This was my father’s liturgy and his lesson: the pursuit of justice and equality is the highest good, and is the domain of law and lawyers.

So when Christopher and I stretched out our paper map on the kitchen counter and trailed a finger along possible routes across the country, my heart quickened when I saw that one route would take us through Topeka, Kansas, hallowed ground.

Is it the rare person who gets excited to see Topeka? We follow directions off the I-70 to the Monroe Elementary School, the segregated school that Linda Brown attended, and now a National Historic Site run by the National Park Service. 

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It is Sunday, and there’s the matter of the pandemic, so the building is closed. But signs and photos outside tell its story and give visitors a sense of its place in history.

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A mural across the street honors civil rights leaders, and includes the legal citation to Brown v. Board of Education in the official U.S. Supreme Court Reporter, volume and page number. My father could have recited it without prompting.

This stop leaves me full up. But the next stop is to fill up with Kansas City steaks. This is Christopher’s domain. He finds a charming little historic district in Kansas City, Missouri, with a local butcher and a soda shop.

Once we are arrive at our campsite, he is determined to grill these steaks over an open flame, despite the remaining heat from the 95 degree day. As the sunlight fades and we sit down to eat, an eery quiet descends around us. The sky turns a dark blue. The river beside us is still. This is when we notice that we are the only ones eating outside; all the other RVs are buttoned up and battened down. No one else is  outside. And then we feel it, little bites on our ankles and shins. We are suddenly being eaten alive by mosquitos. The citronella candle in the center of the table is useless. We make a dash inside, but it is too late to outrun these villains. We have to make several trips in and out, carrying our plates, the cast iron pan, used foil, a salad bowl, camp chairs, and the impotent citronella candle.

We are no safer inside. The mosquitoes infiltrate, then multiply, like some B-movie, RV-horror flick. No one knows how they’re getting in, but new ones keep replacing smashed ones, avenging the blood on our hands and fingers — even though it is our own blood.

We clap our hands as if in random spaces, high and low, left and right. Christopher keels to one side: “My back is in spasm from that last smack.” We are locked inside the RV at 10:22 p.m., scratching at our arms and legs, cursing Missouri.

We wake to pouring rain. So much for the kayaks and bikes available to rent. We cut our losses and hit the road, destination Kentucky, Christopher’s 49th state. We wave to St. Louis from the highway, a small fraction of the St. Louis Arch visible behind buildings. “Boys! The arch!” Christopher shouts.

“Yay, the arch.” They murmur the barest acknowledgement, a faux excitement.

We cross southern Illinois without stopping, and pause in Indiana only to fill the gas tank. Filling up is a clunky, time-consuming effort, which requires constant pressure on the handle or it will stop fueling. This does not even begin to describe what is required to remove the bugs that mar our view through the windshield. Holding my arm high above my head, dirty water drips down my forearm and into my blue glove. The bloom, as they say, is off the rose.

After lunch I take over the driving. “I want to be the one to take you to Kentucky.”

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We are feeling better now, and have just enough time to make two essential Kentucky stops: Churchill Downs for a photo op, and take-out authentic fried chicken.

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The RV smells simultaneously like hunger and satisfaction, as we meander to our campsite in the Daniel Boon National Forest. There we will dive into the best fried chicken any of us has had (and mashed potatoes, creamed corn, mac and cheese, roasted corn, green beans, corn bread, and something else unidentifiable that is likely made from corn). We walk to the lake, and then we go to bed full. We do not know if this will turn out to be the last night of our trip, or second to last, but the kids are pushing to make the long drive home tomorrow. We are all ready for real beds and clean sheets, and tired of transforming the couch and table into beds at night and back again to couch and table each morning.

We have been traveling for a week, making serious mileage every day. The odometer measures our distance from home at almost 2400. It has not been a straight line, but includes detours that are almost enough to satisfy my dual cravings for adventure and captive time with my children — and more than enough to satisfy theirs.

RV Roadtrip: Kansas Is So Big

Before we leave the KOA in eastern Colorado and head to Kansas, there is one dirty job to do. Christopher dons rubber gloves and heads outside to connect the toilet discharge tank via plastic tubing to a hole in the ground. I am still lying in the bed that we’ll need to fold up and slide back into driving shape before we leave.

“I love you more than ever,” I say, and I mean it with every cell in my body. “Boys, go help your father!” I implore. “Or at least go record him.” At this, Emmett goes out. In a moment I hear his news announcer voice through the window. It is 6:45 a.m., Mountain Time.

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When Emmett returns, I go outside to offer moral support. I see my hero bent over a yellow hole in the ground, inspecting the connection between it and the tube he has inserted. My gaze follows the tube to its connection point at an output under our RV, and observe with a queasy repulsion a steady drip of liquid falling.

“Oh my–!” I whip my head back to Christopher, who is watching me go through the same series of realizations he has already been through.

“I know, baby.” He nods solemnly.

We cannot wait to get out of here. We can have breakfast somewhere else, anywhere else. We return the RV to driving shape, and head past rows of RVs holding sleeping families toward the exit.

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A yellow sign bears friendly reminders — don’t forget to detach your hookups, cover your valves, and bring your wife. Hardy har har. (You know that I do not let this teachable moment pass me by, and am heartened that my boys see the gender stereotype for themselves.)

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And then, the open road. Kansas, here we come. For years we have looked down on these miles as we crossed the sky from California to Pennsylvania. About halfway through every flight one of the kids has asked Christopher where we were, and every time Christopher has looked out a window and answered, “Kansas,” yielding an aggrieved observation: “Kansas is SO BIG!”

As I drive, Gig sets about figuring out how to connect to the Bluetooth so we can listen to music. Through the middle of the country, tunes will be essential.

We sing along with Pink and Bruce and Mellencamp, and each of their songs lend a different spirit to our drive. We “Raise a Glass” with abandon; we meander down Thunder Road; and when we sing, Ain’t that America, you and me/Ain’t that America, something to see/Ain’t that America, almost free…, it feels as if we are singing these words differently than before, as if they are a prayer for justice that is almost within reach.

Kansas is not all flat, but a series of swooning green pastures. I hold the wheel steady during bumpy, windy stretches, passing cornfields for ethanol and wind farms. We switch drivers, and when Christopher pulls off the interstate and heads us north a few miles to a state park he found on Recreation.gov, I am made breathless by bales of hay  scattered across the hills, punctuating groves of wild sunflowers. “It looks like Monet.”

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We pull into our campsite overlooking Lake Wilson, and our jaws open at our good fortune. “Full hookups and a pull through spot!” Christopher says .Then, “I can’t believe that’s what I’m excited about first, and not the lake.”

Hot wind hits us as we step off the RV. Seeing no shade, the boys and I start setting up our portable canopy, which until this week has known only our front yard on the Fourth of July, and the rain in the Rockies two nights ago. We struggle as its blue tarp blows like a sail. A fellow camper rolls up in a pickup truck and stops to chat.

“Cleanest lake in Kansas,” he says, nodding at the water. His job is running the wastewater plant here in Russell County, so I guess his information is good. “But that canopy won’t last a minute,” he warns. The boys and I squeeze its white legs back together and lay it down in the grass to deal with later. It’s too hot to wrestle it into its case now. We get our bathing suits and walk to a spot of the lake away from the populated beach and boat dock.

We step through a parting in the wild sunflowers, down a smooth packed earth path, and past three or four crushed Bud Light cans to reach the water. The boys go first, shrieking like little kids about the slippery rocks, an occasional underwater tree stump that catches them, and the slimy lake bottom.

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I scoot to sit on a wet boulder and put my feet in the water. It is cool, not cold, and I know that I will be able to enjoy it without too much courage. Still, I have to ask Emmett to “count me in.”

“Just get in, Mom.”

“Emmett, I need a 3-2-1. Please?”

Sigh. “3-2-1.”

That’s enough to pull me forward. I keep my head above water to account for my baseball cap, but I am in. When I am deep enough, I tread water, swirling my arms and legs in all directions under the greenish water. My limbs hoot and holler in gratitude for this wild freedom after four or so hours in the driver’s seat.

Out in the middle of the lake, a few boaters pull kids on inner-tubes, but somehow the sound of their motors are muted. One passing boat lofts a Trump 2020 flag, and Aaron implores, “Mom, take a picture.” I do; it is part of the local flora and fauna.

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As we return to our RV, the park attendant pulls by and asks us if we’re the folks with the “lil’ camper.” Out here, our 27-footer looks like a small rig. We start to notice that our neighbors are mostly 40-footers, parked next to muscular motor boats and pickup trucks. What looks and feels to us like a monster truck is to them the mini Cooper of camping.

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The neighbors’ gear.
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Our lil’ camper.

It is too hot to make a fire, so we cook dinner on the RV’s propane stove and microwave — sauteed onions, zucchini, cauliflower, and chicken sausage, over brown rice — a California jambalaya. We eat in the shade of RV at our picnic table, then play cards as the daylight starts to fade — not until after 9 pm here on the western edge of the Central time zone. The air is finally comfortable.

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The sound of music wafts over from one of the campsites with a supersized RV, Counting Crows and Tracy Chapman. These are folks who earlier warned Emmett not to watch too much news. I would have expected something more country here. I find myself wishing I had a way of showing them who we are — maybe a Star of David on my neck, or a mezzuzah on our RV, or an Elizabeth Warren t-shirt — some way for them to see that such people are also just people, to break a possible caricature they may have of who “the other” is, the way their friendliness (and good music) has reminded us that people are multi-faceted.

But maybe they do know, to wit: our teeny RV; the California license plates; and they may have glimpsed our dinner.

The next morning, after breakfast and cleanup, Christopher and I take one more walk. (The boys are done with this place; they stay inside the air conditioning.) He leads me down a path he scoped out at sunrise. “I had a nice time communing with my Dad,” he says.

This path hugs the lake and passes through a field of wild sunflowers to a dock. The morning air is warm but not yet suffocating, and our bodies are compelled to stretch before the next long drive. Before we know it, we are doing full blown sun salutes. Let the Kansans with their hulking boats who are starting to show up at the boat ramp watch us do yoga. Let the blooming wind grace our skin and stretch the muscles that have tightened on the long ride.

Finally, we tear ourselves away. Back to our temporary home, too small or too big, depending on who you ask and where you are. Onward to the next place: Missouri.

 

 

RV Roadtrip: Colorado’s Purple Mountains Majesty

I wake up in Rocky Mountain National Park on a queen size bed inside an RV that my family has christened “Big Bessie.” It is an apt name; it feels enormous, as far as things you can drive on a freeway go.

I peer behind the vinyl blind that hangs on the bias over the small rectangle of window. My heart cracks into a smile: trees, mountains, sky. The weather has held. We will hike after all.

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Outside of my view but within earshot, a drama plays out in the front of our camper. Unlike our campsite at Zion National Park on night 1, this site at Glacier Basin campground has no electricity hookup to power our appliances — so no A/C, no microwave, no electrical outlets. We have a generator that could power these items, but generators are not permitted in the Glacier Basin campsite.

I, for one, am okay with this enforced quiet.

But for Christopher, who is realizing that he cannot turn on our coffeemaker, this is turning into an apocalyptic moment. He thinks I am still sleeping, and I hear him ask the boys, rhetorically I am sure, “Do you think I should turn on the generator?”

Without having had coffee, there is no saying what his judgment will be. Or, more accurately, there is exactly saying what his judgment will be. From back of the RV I call out, “Do NOT be the asshole who turns on his generator in the National Park!

“That was a close one!” one of the boys says gleefully. “His finger was right on the button!”

“Everyone would understand if I explained it was for my coffeemaker,” Christopher contends.

“Are you kidding? Look around.” This peaceful campsite mostly comprises families in tents. We are the behemoth on the block. “Do you think they have electric coffeemakers in their tents?” My voice is sharp, to cut through his pre-coffee fog. “Just boil water,” I instruct. (We do have a propane stove that works without electricity) “And pour it over the grounds.”

He listens. The method is a bit messy, but adequately caffeinating, and we avoid being “those people.” Now we can move forward. The morning keeps improving — fresh banana pancakes, and a four-mile hike to Sprague Lake, and Boulder Brook and a loop back to the camp.

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Emmett crosses the creek stepping over wet rocks, and Aaron and Christopher follow. I hesitate. As a kid I used to rock-hop with abandon. Being the mom has changed that.

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“Today is my favorite day,” I repeat (too often) as we hike. But it is. The clear air. My body moving after days of sitting. The epic views. Aaron and Emmett are good sports, passing the time engaged in a made up game involving the drafting of basketball teams.

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Once we are back at the campsite, the kids are ready to leave. Aaron is eager to have dinner with a college friend who lives near Boulder (the reason he agreed to this trip in the first place), and both boys are eager to return to the Xbox. I push back against their pleas; we have time to pause a bit longer in this place of immense beauty before resuming the constant motion. “Don’t rush me.”

I tell them my plan: I will make us lunch, and then I will take another hour to sit in my camp chair to read, and write, and snooze — three must-dos. The boys wonder what there is for them to do here for a whole hour. I generally try not to spend too much time on regret, but in this moment I deeply regret not having taken them camping more when they were little, teaching them how to chill, to enjoy doing nothing.

After we eat, I park myself in that chair with my book, my journal, and a pen. They throw a football in the meadow.

And then, reluctantly, I leave We stop in Boulder and walk on Pearl Street, and over to the University of Colorado. When the rain starts again, my boys tell me to keep going, it’s just a little water — maybe they have learned something about chilling.

Then we drive to a restaurant where Aaron will meet a friend from college, in a mall outside of Boulder — which could be Irvine, or San Mateo, or Van Nuys, or anywhere else in America with a BJ’s Brewhouse. (And this is where I confess that the first restaurant I have patronized for dine-in service since March is BJ’s Brewhouse in Broomfield, Colorado. I never saw that coming.)

After dinner, Aaron and his friend part ways with renewed smiles. This reprieve from so much family time is a down payment on the moment they will return to their college town and resume the life they left before Spring break and stay-home orders.

It is time to move on to where we will sleep tonight, a KOA (Kampground of America) in eastern Colorado. As we head east and the land gets flatter and the landscape becomes rural, we drive under an overpass where Trump 2020 signs hold sway. Ahead of us, the sky is washed in ominous gray; maybe more rain will come. We find the KOA and, under cover of night, we take our place between RVs parked row after row, in earshot of the highway. We feel like conspicuous outsiders who anyone could peg for city slickers. This place has all the “amenities” — electricity, a hookup to the city water line, and places to dump what you’ve been carrying and no longer need. As Christopher plugs us into the grid and I scratch my head at why people choose this KOA over the national park nearby, I know at least that there will be unfettered coffee-making come morning. And maybe that answers my question.

 

RV Roadtrip: Rocky Mountain High, and Low

As we make our way from Utah to Colorado, we stop at a “View Site” — our bow to sight-seeing on an otherwise forward-motion-progress type of journey. (There is always enough tie to take a photo staged to make a grandmother nervous.)

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We have a little more than an hour to go before we arrive at our cousins’ townhouse in Avon, Colorado. They won’t be there, but they’ve allowed us to take refuge there on this, our second night. This may turn out to be a strategic mistake; we may never leave.

The Colorado River glides beside us, going the opposite direction. An idle train adorns the hillside. I am reading The Liar’s Club in the passenger seat while Christopher does the bulk of the eight hour drive today, our longest day. I look down at a section of river that is brown and looks almost still.

“I’m so happy there’s basketball,” Aaron says from the back, looking up from his computer screen with a look of relief and joy. He is watching the third NBA game of the day, on the first day of NBA basketball since it ran off a cliff in March.

As we approach Avon, we call a local restaurant to order takeout, then pick it up (with masks and gloves and six-feet distance). We eat, shower, and get into real beds, and before I fall asleep I say a prayer of petition: Please God don’t let our RV tip over.

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The next morning, the RV is still upright, despite the angle of the ground it is parked on. Such relief. Emmett is lying on the long soft cozy couch in the living room wearing clean clothes and feeling reborn after a shower, sunken into it like he will never leave. He is looking at his phone. “I’m just saying, if we move to Pennsylvania, with a permit we could legally own a kangaroo.”

“I’m not hating it as much as I thought,” Aaron says to a friend on the phone. “My parents are sitting up front so I don’t have to listen to what they are saying, and Emmett and I are playing Xbox for hours.” I’m happy he’s enjoying himself.

When it is time to leave, I get on the listing RV and let Christopher and the boys direct me to safety, with only the necessary amount of stressed shouting. Then we manage up passes and down again, cresting at 10,000 feet. The evergreen coated peaks are like Titans commanding the world below.

And then the downpour begins. It does not look like it will let up. We worry that Siri is pranking us with every new turn, that makes this drive longer than expected. I am building up a head of sorrow over the fact that we are still driving, curving, meandering, ascending, going out of our way to get to Rocky Mountain National Park, only to get rained out. “I am not used to feeling disappointed,” I say. “I don’t like it.” I am willing to sound spoiled or petulant because I’m confessing this to Christopher and he already knows this about me.

The rain is still coming down when we arrive. Christopher sets up the blue canopy we brought to protect us from too much sun, and our camp chairs underneath. We gather and sit and wait as rain falls around us. I hear a child at a nearby campsite shout, “There’s a double rainbow!” I can’t see it from where I am. I have to get up and move. And there it is.

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The rain runs its course. In front of us is a vast meadow, clear across to the mountains. With the COVID restrictions on reservations, there are few other campers in our view.  The mountains are dwarfed by thick white-gray clouds, with a few small blue spots of sky piercing it, like tiny jigsaw pieces of cloud are missing. The mountain breeze is steady and gentle, like a grandma’s kiss goodnight.

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It is too late for a hike; that will be tomorrow morning. We make dinner and eat as the sun sets.

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After dinner, Christopher teaches the boys how to build a fire, we roast marshmallows and make s’mores, and only now do I feel that we have officially begun.

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RV Roadtrip: Reaching for Zion

I now have the peace of mind of knowing that driving the RV is not the scariest thing I’ve ever done. (What is the scariest thing? That is a solid writing prompt for another time.)

Pulling away from home was scary. I sat in the passenger seat and trusted Christopher to drive. (Even as I write these sentences I am aware that they are offering me metaphors rich enough to explore on their own.) Life is a highway. (Okay, that one was on purpose.)

I take out my notebook and pen and take notes of the dialogue, centered on getting used to the whole concept of an RV.

“Do you think this thing is actually going to brake going downhill?”

“Oh shit, I spilled.”

“This will be the best day of the trip, so have a good attitude.”

“Look kids, it’s the ocean!”

We slog through California’s freeways, waiting for America’s beauty to reveal itself. We have time.

I take notes on the scenery as we ascend the 15 toward Adelanto, recalling the first time I went to the ICE Detention Center. Christopher and I start a conceptual discussion of our next big idea, scheming to make the world in the image we would like it to be, where everyone has a fair chance. A billboard for “California’s Largest Gas Station!” captures our eyes with an image of a giant ice cream sundae. We see a confederate flag sticker on a pickup truck north of Vegas, and will later see a Black Lives Matters sign on a front yard tree in the town leading into Zion.

In Nevada, we stop to make sandwiches in the confines of our rolling home — sourdough toasted over the gas burner, with turkey, salami, cheese. I have forgotten the mayo, but it doesn’t seem to be a problem; Emmett asks if he can have the exact same sandwich tomorrow.

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We switch drivers after Las Vegas (look out, America, I’m in charge now). The sky transforms from the color of cement to blue dotted with clouds, until finally, into the northwest corner of Arizona, the rocks start revealing their blush.

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And then it’s as if all the beauty has been saving itself up for these hours, to drench the landscape in latent colors all at once — red rocks striped with charcoal layers and dotted with green trees rise up on either side of us, as we follow the path a river has cut into southern Utah.

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And, voila! All the planning, the perusing of online black and white maps of campsites, the hoping the one-day drive here will be reasonable, leads us to the real life version of that map, our spot of earth for this night next to the burbling Virgin River, to Zion.

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A snack, a walk (boys separate from parents — their choice), and then dinner. A moment to pat myself on the back for obsessing about what we will eat on this journey. I prepare plates of flatbread, butter lettuce, and microwave-warmed chicken shawarma I cooked last Saturday night, with sliced cucumbers, tomatoes, and yogurt sauce with fresh lime juice. (Reality check: by night 2 we order takeout.)

I take my stab at deep conversation, ready for eye rolls or grunts, and am met with contemplation and sharing of something deeper than our typical everyday chatter. This is everything. This is worth the price of admission.

There is a mild amount of shouting and groaning about how difficult it is to make an RV bed. There is bumping into each other and getting annoyed. And there is a knock on our door. A fellow camper letting us know that there is a rattlesnake outside our camp. “Don’t worry,” she says, and reports that they have taken matters into their hands and run over it with a car three times to kill it. It’s still alive, but one more roll ought to end things. WTF? We go outside to bear witness to the death throes of the poor reptile. And learn a serious lesson: Do not mess with RV’ers.

The boys go inside to play 2K  (#roughingit), and Christopher and I take two camp chairs out to look at the stars (scanning first for avenging snakes). We forget that NEOWISE is in the sky, but see a couple of shooting stars, slap at a couple of flying ants, and take in the fact that we are actually here.

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In the morning, after breakfast, we clean up, walk on a trail, let the kids have one more ride on the electric scooters the RV guy threw in, and resume our odyssey for what we hope will be our longest day behind the wheel. On to Colorado.

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How to travel across America during a pandemic. And why.

During a pandemic, what is the best way to visit your family across the country?

If it were just the two of you who are rolling up on 22 years of marriage, driving across the country with a tent could be sort of romantic. But it is also your sons — the one who had to finish his freshman year of college with you as his housemates and who blows a gasket at the suggestion of being trapped in a small car with you for a week; and your 16-year-old who thinks an RV sounds cool. And there is your own childhood RV fantasy that has never been quenched, and the undeniable tendency that you and your husband have to let big fantastical ideas bleed into magical thinking, and — lo and behold, abracadabra alakazam! — you are on the 15 freeway heading north through Barstow, with the Pacific Ocean a hundred miles behind you and 2600 more to go.

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But back up to the preliminary question: During a pandemic, why would you visit your family across the country?

This was to be the week that we traveled to the San Juan Islands for Christopher’s mom’s big birthday. But his father passed away in February, and the world as we knew it ended. In March the whole world stopped, as if in tandem with our family’s personal pain, and like so many other families during this time, separated by a continent and a virus, we have not yet mourned together. Grief needs company.

And this is how you decide to haul yourselves and your necessities across the country.

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Before the trip, you worry, you prepare, you set your intention for it to be good, and then forget that thought, and then remember again, and forget again. You predict that it will be total shit at times. You keep reminding yourself about bonus family time and starry nights.

Your husband drags from the garage the sleeping bags that have not been used since Mother’s Day 2015, and shakes them out to be purified in the sunlight. Your living room transforms. The tiles in front of the fireplace are covered by a growing pile that collects as you think of things. The kitchen items go in a bin — plates, forks, knives (the spoons must wait, because you don’t have enough to put four out of commission for a week); a table cloth for icky picnic tables; a mixing bowl; a spatula missing half its handle; a cracked plastic colander. The things you could live without if you have to ditch the whole enterprise by the side of the road. Another plastic container with paper towels, aluminum foil, ziplock bags, toilet paper. Benadryl, Neosporin, Bandaids, Tylenol, migraine medicine. A sealed wicker basket obscures marshmallows and three kinds of chocolate for taste testing s’mores. (That is your mother-in-law’s influence.) Granola bars and nuts. (That is your mother’s influence). Microwave popcorn and instant oatmeal. Five gallon jugs of water for backup. Diet coke for sleepy afternoons.

We have our sheets, our pillows, our blankets. We have the comet at night, and we have the highways in the day. We have each other.

And all the planning and worrying  takes my mind off one certain moment: We will walk into the house at the end of the long driveway in Washington Crossing, Pennsylvania; we will hear two dogs barking; and we will be greeted by Christopher’s mother and sister, but not Peter.

My husband and sons will not be wrapped in his arms. I will not feel his heartfelt hug, which always cut through the chasm of our politics, my left and his right, the hug that said ‘I see you for who you are and how deeply you love.’

We have a long way to go to cross the vastness of our country, its massive beauty and pain and contradictions and promise. I set the bar low: expect bumps and rattling noises and foul smells and white knuckle moments. And I set other bars high: stay curious, listen well, learn more of who my boys are becoming, stay present in the journey.

Here we go.

 

 

 

Life in the Time of Coronavirus: Bright spots (you must read to the end)

Hello friends,

Well, I am one week into my hardcore understanding that “social distance” means do not breathe on anyone with whom I do not live. Maybe you’ve just arrived at that understanding right this second, or maybe you’ve been there longer. For me, it’s about a week, the same one week since our freshman came home from college, and our 9th grader’s school closed its doors. My kids do miss their friends. But they love their grandparents, so they get the point and (mostly) do not complain about these extreme measures. To paraphrase my friend Monica, it’s only extreme if you’re willing to cull the elderly and immune-compromised population.

Let’s move on to the bright spots. And do please continue to the end.

1. Exercise with my kids. I credit Boredom for two milestone events: First, Aaron said yes to a sunset walk with me yesterday, just us. Second, this morning, Emmett joined me for a 20 minute yoga video. (We did Yoga with Adrienne on YouTube, it’s free. Adrienne is calming, not “precious,” and can start very slowly for beginners. Or try your local yoga studio and pay them so they can pay their teachers.)

2. Create. Writing to you now. Working on my work in progress. Planning a virtual book club for our community for Palisades Reads 2020. And made a dance video for pre-schoolers. (Will share when that link goes live, my dears.)

3. Play. My friend created an obstacle course in her backyard. We went to the beach with a football (only among family!) and will steal that obstacle course idea.

4. Connect. Zoomed coffee with friends. Zoomed with a gaggle of cousins (and learned we need a moderator for such a large group.)

Am hoping for a Zoom dance party, game night and, of course, a Zoom Seder. Will teach my mom to Zoom today. And I old-school called my cousin I haven’t seen in too long.

And, now, your payoff: my most Zen moment of the week: Watching my friend feed his baby on Facebook Live.

Be well and love the ones you’re with.

Laura

 

Life in the Time of Coronavirus: Fear and Comedy

Toilet paper rolls in the hall used as buffers against the rolling ping pong ball that is coming down the pike, aimed at the dominoes set up to fall. Toilet paper?! They are using toilet paper?!?! But I don’t get mad, because they are playing and laughing and together and happy for now, when what they really want is to be outside, or with friends. (And because these will be their rolls when they’re done.)

This is who we are now. “Five, four, three, two, one!” comes the countdown, and the ping pong ball comes sliding down the tape-measure-slide from the top of the stairs, and bouncing just shy of the dominoes again. “Nooo! Okay, Five, four, three, two, one.” Again. We’ve got nothing but time to get this right.

Is this for real? Are we doing this? I have to ask myself every time I remember why we are here.

I’m in the other room doing a yoga video on YouTube, Yoga with Adrienne. It’s only my second time doing this. She’s outside by a lake, and I’m on a mat in the living room, taking advantage of the dogs being out on a walk and not licking my face when I’m in downward dog, and I’m breathing, trying to breathe, trying to stretch and feel.

And trying not to feel — anxious and cooped up. Trying not to feel afraid. Also trying to feel afraid enough, because nothing looks different and yet we have to act as though everything is different.

I thought I had coronavirus the other day. I sneezed twice in the morning, and felt tired enough to stay home from the trip to the airport to pick up Aaron from college. “Better play it safe,” Christopher agreed. Be cautious, heed the advice, “if you’re not sure, stay home, stay home, stay home.” In bed in my bathrobe, under the blankets, maybe feeling a tad warm, but maybe that was from the blankets and the bathrobe?  I coughed twice, and it was dry, and my worry deepened, but I applauded my decision to stay in bed. Aaron came home, and I heard his voice, “DOGGIES!” call out like a little boy, heard the dogs scramble to the front door, their nails sliding on the wood floors. This was the longest he’d ever been away from home, two months. Longer than the fall quarter, with its Parents Weekend and Thanksgiving break. I was afraid to hug him. Afraid that if I was sick, I would give it to him. I did not hug my son who came home from college. “Let’s just wait until tomorrow,” I said, “I’m sorry. I want to see if I’m sick. I don’t know.”

I don’t know. No one knows anything. “Asymptomatic” is our new vocabulary word – maybe you’re walking around with this disease, and maybe you’re not. Will I kill my parents just by looking at them?

The next morning, I woke up. Still alive, not sneezing, not coughing. I went downstairs in my warm bathrobe. The coffee was made and I poured myself a mug, thought about wiping down the carafe afterward, just in case. Aaron came downstairs in his pajama pants and a sweatshirt that said Humble. I smiled at him, said “I don’t have coronavirus,” and I wrapped my arms around his waist. He let me squeeze him tight. I squeezed the air right out of him.

The kids have taken a break from the dominoes project, and we all tiptoe around it in the hall. Even the dogs haven’t knocked it down. As I write, I can hear the voices of my family doing their activities. Maria is on her computer, saying “Wow” to one of her pre-school students. Emmett has his earbuds in, talking to a friend between online classes. Aaron is making the best of his Spring break, toggling between group chats with his college friends and an online game against his best friend, who is also locked in only a couple of miles away.

I feel sad for the kids with milestone years, the seniors in high school and in college — the athletes not getting to play their last seasons, the actors not getting to do their last musicals. In this stage of my life there is less loss. I work from home, I get to have the company of my kids, who are old enough to handle online school on their own (so feeling for this mom). I worry more than normal, but not more than the new normal.

Nothing is normal now. Maybe we’ll all become new people when this is done. Maybe my dad will take up skydiving. Maybe my mom will learn to knit. Maybe I will shave my head. I scoffed when I first read that Spain let the hair salons stay open, but now I get it. I see the grays increasing, not just roots, but everywhere, exponential, like the virus.

My parents ask who will drive the other crazy first. “Help, she’s keeping me hostage” my dad jokes, “call the police.” It takes us all a long time to compute that stay home means stay home. I hadn’t realized what pack animals we humans are. The sheer volume of things to cancel! Not just sports and concerts, but the meetings, the book clubs, the writing groups, the dance classes and walks and drinks and goings for coffee, the shiva. Our Cantor FaceTimes us to say Kaddish, and even in that setting, we cry.

We did Torah study online today. All of us, mostly older folks, figured out how to use computers to hear and see each other and our Rabbi. And what was today’s parshah about? Building sacred community, by bringing forth gifts from the heart. Exactly what we are figuring out to do now. Artists and musicians and dancers and yoga instructors and regular people giving from their hearts, posting music and jokes and even lunch with their baby. My friend Mary said it in my favorite way so far, and so I’ll leave you with this:

Nature is not canceled. Laughter is not canceled. Singing is not canceled. Writing is not canceled. Relationships are not canceled.

This happened yesterday.

I add to that, building dominoes is not canceled. Fighting with your brother and wrestling and calling him “dumb@%%” is not canceled.

And dancing is not canceled. Virtual dance party anyone? Let me know. I’ll send the invitations. Black tie quite optional.

With love,

Laura

Stay safe, and a couple of jokes.

Well, hello, it’s been a while. How’s by you?

Helluva month it’s been. And by “month” I mean two days. Over the weekend, little by little, the dawning realization struck me — “social distancing” is a polite but ineffective way of saying “STAY THE F- AWAY.” It’s simple math, right? The chance of passing or catching a virus is zero if you have zero contact with other people. The more contacts, the higher the chance of contagion. Forget limiting gatherings to 250, or 50, or 10. “Approaching zero” finally has real life meaning.

Like many of us, I’ve been slow to catch on. We sent the kids to school last week, now they’re home; we allowed a couple friends to come over during the weekend, now we’re locked down, as these conversations from this morning illustrate:

“Can I go to Chick-Fil-A?” “No.”

“Can I go to Sammy’s house?” “No.”

“Can he come here?” “No.”

“Can I—?” “Can you vacuum? Why, yes you can!”

We have silver linings: Our pantry has never been more full! We have ice cream in the freezer! Two kinds! We read more, watch movies more, talk more, and cook more (all that food I bought before it goes bad). Chicken soup and turkey chili and teriyaki bowls, and other meals combining chicken and broth and rice and leftover chili (put it on chips, throw some cheese on it and it’s nachos!). Maybe, just maybe, if this lasts long enough, there will be arts and crafts.

We are lucky. For Christopher and me, who already work from home, little has changed, other than more time with our kids and a lot more hand washing. We walk the dogs, walk to the bluffs and look out at the ocean, and wave to neighbors (who now cross the street to avoid us). I work on writing projects and he learns code.

But. This is weird. And. It will not last forever (though some hours it may feel like it.) It can be lonely, especially if you do not have a house full of young adults. If the hermetic life does not suit you, or if you are going crazy being locked up with too many near and dear ones, reach out. Phone a friend. Connect over group chats, and WhatsApp, and Zoom. Try a yoga video (or see if your local yoga studio is livestreaming classes so they can pay their teachers) like these livestreamed dance classes. If you have K-6 kids, Scholastic offers this homeschool help for you.

And let’s aim to keep our patience, our kindness, and our sense of humor. To that end, here are two jokes from Laughfactory.com/jokes, one G-rated and one a little spicier:

G-rated:

“My friend thinks he is so smart. He told me an onion is the only food that makes you cry. So I threw a coconut at his face.” [that slays me!]

PG-rated (for language, or perhaps violence, if you are a member of PETA):

“A man kills a deer and takes it home to cook for dinner. Both he and his wife decide that they won’t tell the kids what kind of meat it is, but will give them a clue and let them guess. The dad said, ‘Well it’s what Mommy calls me sometimes.’ The little girl screamed to her brother, ‘Don’t eat it. Its an asshole!'”

Stay safe out there, people.

Love, Laura