Tonight, in my kitchen, we reminisced with friends about our camping experiences and remembered, many of us incorrectly, a night that featured a bloody t-shirt. My daughter observed that I’m always sick while traveling, and I defended myself. This is better.
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…Who would spaniels fear,
Or strays trespassing from a neighbor’s yard,
But that the dread of our unheeded cries
And scratches at a barricaded door
No claw can open up, dispels our nerve
And makes us rather bear our humans’ faults
Than run away to unguessed miseries?
Thus caution doth make house cats of us all….
~Henry Beard (uncertain), “Hamlet’s Cat’s Soliloquy”
Summer is no time for a worrier and mom. Knees are skinned, eyes are blackened, skin is rashed and burned, sweet ears are filled with trapped pool water. In summer, mothers lose their boys—mostly boys, daredevils—to riptides and high cliffs at forbidden swimming holes, their girls to cars racing down the quiet street; lose their children to strangers who pluck them off a corner, lose them to their fathers.
Forget the pair of great egrets fishing in the river, the snapping turtles mating under the bridge, bobbing in the hydraulic. Never mind the whole world come alive with chirps and clicks and calls, whoosh of sprinkler, bounce of diving board, roar of mower—sounds so comforting they could lull grown insomniacs to sleep with the promise of their parents’ protection from everything evil in the world.
Summer is my season of unguessed miseries.
I used to be a competent traveler. By no means was I the kind of girl who wanted to veer off the beaten path, head out on a dirt road in Mexico in a rickety ride with a Spanish map, meander the Escalante wilderness for a week with only what I could carry on my back. Still, I am a good hiker, and I like to mingle with the locals, get a more authentic travel experience than the typical tour-bus tourist. But I need the stability offered by a nearby pre-pitched tent, a toilet with walls and a ceiling to help keep the flies out, a base camp with a four-wheeled, gas-fed sentry beside a wood post with a number. “Please send help to number 28,” I could say into the cell phone I use for emergencies.
A few years ago, while camping in just such a place with friends at Cunningham Falls State Park, we heard loud voices in the night—a big fight at a site not too far from ours. It came and went quickly, ending with a loud pop and squealing tires. In the morning, we found a bloody t-shirt draped over the sign. Please send police to number 28.
I don’t travel well now. When my daughter was born, I began sleeping less and worrying more. My first couple of vacations without her found me panicked about dying on a flight to my camping vacation in Utah, dying in a fall from a high cliff in Zion, dying from an axe murderer in the woods at Dixie National Forest. I worried a little about my daughter, too—being away from me, getting inferior care from my parents—who knew nothing about raising a girl, after all. Mostly I concentrated my fears on my own early death, worried that I’d never see my daughter again.
But my husband wants to show her the world, with or without me. He prefers without. He and my daughter first flew out to Utah two summers ago, rented a PT Cruiser, and bounced from park to park for two weeks while I worried, of course, that she’d fall from great heights; that a bad driver would crash into them; that she’d be sitting in the front seat of a vehicle with an airbag (or without one; it hardly matters); that my husband would go to the bathroom, and a stranger would snatch her from a seat in Springdale’s Bit and Spur restaurant.
These are only the guessed miseries, and they are horrid.
Last year, I decided it would be worse to sit at home and wonder than it would to join them, sleep or no sleep. And so my daughter and I flew to Vegas and then took a bus to St. George, not too far from Zion, Utah. The first thing I told my husband, who had driven an hour or two to pick us up, was that he smelled bad, and that set the tone for the rest of the trip. Traveling with my family, which I have done in past years (we have taken camping trips to New Hampshire’s White Mountains and New York’s Finger Lakes, with success), was not such fun this time. My daughter didn’t want to hike and complained a lot about the heat. My husband was already disappointed with me. I took sleeping pills every night, got a wicked sunburn at Lake Powell, then lost my mind at the grocery store, when my daughter disappeared from my side; I ran up and down the length of the store, screaming her name, then yelled to anyone who would listen that my daughter had been stolen. When I found her, I felt mortified and said an awful thing that I have blocked from my memory.
This summer, my husband and daughter have been planning another trip without me—filled, I’m certain, with all kinds of unguessed miseries—to California, by Ford truck. It’s a long drive, over 3,000 miles, and so they’d need to be gone at least a month to make it worth their trouble and keep them from spending half of the time in the truck. I have dreaded it for every moment since just before the summer began (though their departure date seems to change with each passing hour).
It’s all my daughter has talked about for months—going to California to see the redwoods (and having her own spending money—a bill in each denomination from one to one hundred). My husband has told her the redwoods are something special, so big you can fit a restaurant in one. He has talked it up, made it this thing between them that I cannot penetrate, try though I may with a weeklong trip to the ocean to do her favorite things like ride the Wild Mouse, play mini-golf, collect seashells. The other trip, the great trip, still looms in the background, with it’s big, left-coast promises, my daughter’s personal Gold Rush. And when I get home, I am going to California to see the giant redwoods, and I will have $188 to spend, so I can buy you a shirt.
It’s possible they won’t go to California; heaven knows I have wished for it, as if a trip North, instead of West, were safer. Certainly it is less threatening than a whitewater gorge, echoic red rock canyons, and peaks that can only comfortably hold only one of those angels perched atop the head of a pin. And maybe I will have a shot at being the hero of my daughter’s summer with a trip to the mundane shore, which included a hot fudge sundae crepe for breakfast, a box of Bertie Bott’s Every Flavored Beans*, and a box of three of Tim Burton Tragic Toys for Girls and Boys.
My great wish is to be normal, myself again, less afraid of airplanes and highways, cliffs and snakes, to worry less about where and how I will sleep and for how long, to travel with my soul mate and my heart and even my own soul like I did when my husband first took me out west in 1985, when I could still view the world with wonder, when driving cross country for a month—just the two of us in a Ford Escort wagon with no AC—was luxurious, and when his company was all the company I needed.
I have spent most of this summer tapping my foot and nervously waiting to hear their travel plans. My stomach sinks when I see the road atlas spread like a blanket over the kitchen table. The camping gear taunts me with its slightly ajar top. When they go, I will bite my nails and pray for summer to rush out like the undertow and the start of school to rush the Atlantic shore. Because when summer is over, when my daughter once again spends her days in the school where her father works, my biggest worries will be how she does on the spelling test and whether she is eating, from someone else’s lunch, a snack item that contains high-fructose corn syrup. I will wonder, too, who might kiss her in the coat room or call her names at recess or give her strep throat.
But all the unguessed miseries of fall, winter, and spring combined are no match for even the guessed miseries of summer.
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*Yes, the disgusting flavors do, really, taste like their namesakes; I tried both Dirt and Sardine, much to my shock and horror.