Monday, January 6, 2014
Our Last Day on the Road (for now)
Our last day on the road. We ran into the finality of it like a brick wall. There did not seem to be enough money left in the travel fund to refill the gas tank again. After that realization it became pretty evident we needed to drive straight to Phoenix instead of stopping at the Grand Canyon on the way. This was a little disappointing as it was a site we had promised the kids they would see since the beginning, but our sadness was mitigated by the fact that 1) it was a pretty cold morning to see it anyway and would be even colder there due to the elevation and 2) we were planning on living about four hours away from this masterpiece, within easy range of a weekend or even day trip from our new home base in the Valley of the Sun.
I packed up the car for the very last time and thought about how as much as I dreaded the early morning packing and impending doom of early checkout times I would miss it when we got to Phoenix just because it was part of the trip. I will miss the uncertainty of where we would sleep at night, the excitement of finding the perfect campsite or opening the door to a hotel room that was a little nicer and more spacious than we expected. I’ll miss the momentary silences that overcame all of us when something momentous passed before our eyes and the youthful confidence with which the kids returned to their private conversations or their requests for fast food or potty stops even as the history of the Earth unfolded before our windshield.
I’ll miss sitting in a camp chair next to my wife, playing cards spread out in front of us as the wind outside snaps viciously at the tent and our children snore beneath a hill of blankets and small dogs. I’ll miss opening the map and trying to figure out just where we are at that moment and where we are going. I’ll miss the long pauses that came after breakfast was made on the camp stove and a morning fire was burning low and forgotten in the warmth of the advancing sun and my three beautiful children let their imagination lead them just far enough away that I could read or write or play my guitar truly without any care in the world.
I’ll miss getting up in the middle of the night to watch steam rise up from a ridiculously high arc of my urine lit up by the moon. I’ll miss huddling around the four people I love most for warmth. I’ll miss being able to pack every earthly belonging I need into a mid-sized SUV. I’ll miss the freedom to take any turnoff we want, drive along scenic route to glimpse things that six months ago we would only have experienced in movies. I will miss the fortune of the road, the fantastic yet unplanned experiences that everyone seems to love best, the fearlessness it took to drive toward the horizon with three crying, hungry kids and no freeway exit in sight. I will miss having to pull over to piss on the side of the road because there is literally no sign of civilization for miles and the map is as blank around that little line of road we’re navigating as a missile testing range in New Mexico.
I will miss driving through snowstorms that make me fear for my life. I really will. There is something empowering about having your fate delivered into your own hands with such clarity. In those moments you experience the power of free will, for better or worse. There is no 8 to 5 job to be trapped in, no boring traffic lights to wait on, no friends to offer you diversion. There is only you and this road that shifts in and out of your vision like a ghost and you have your own life and the life of everyone you love in your hands, poised at ten and two, the round plastic beneath them oddly simple and fragile for the undertaking.
I will not miss taping on the bottom of this broken lantern.
I will miss the understanding of dogs that comes with watching them sleep next to the children on cold nights, waking to them barking diligently at things moving outside the tent at three in the morning, listening to them ravage bones from our dinner with an instinctive gnashing ten thousand years in the making, waiting for them to climb up in my lap after the fire is made and the cold has advanced enough that everyone human and furred has grown quiet, as if our collective concentration will help us absorb the heat more efficiently. I will miss but always remember my amazement at how two pampered toy breeds we had owned for less than a year flourished on the road and in the wild with us and for the first time in all my years of owning dogs realizing that dogs often find purpose in adversity just as humans do.
I will miss changing guitar strings in the middle of the trees while my wife sleeps in a patch of sun in the tent and our children climb trees, dig holes, and catch all manner of crawling insects. I will miss waking to the sound of breaking waves. I will miss shopping for the absolute cheapest bargains on food we can find and then trying to cram everything into our battered ice chest. I will miss the realization that $1.62 for a 32 oz can of Miller High Life is a really good deal considering how much better it is than Bud or Coors and how easily it can be chilled inside an overcrowded ice chest compared to a six pack of bottles. I will miss days when my biggest problem was trying to figure out how we were going to get our electronic devices charged. I will miss worrying about whether we have enough gas to make it to the next semi-deserted southwestern town and the dusty gas station at the outskirts of it.
I will miss the absolutely soul crushing honesty of having to talk to the kids about a dog that has passed away. I will miss, but never forget, the window that I was briefly given to see into the deepest parts of each of these four people and myself, to glimpse the things that make them who they are, the things they have been and are becoming, the things they have done, regrets and crowning achievements, the things they love and dislike, their fears and their passions, the things that constitute them beyond the clothes they wear, the toys they play with, or the stories they regaled me with after I returned from a long day of work.
I will miss grasping that work is something you do to provide for your family, not part of who you are. Four months and I never missed working. Writing is working, raising children is working, building fires, cutting wood, assembling the artifacts of comfort in the middle of nowhere, that’s working. The real work we do in life is not governed by a time clock, nor is it evaluated by the movement upward or down of a salary. Work is living, breathing, eating, becoming. Humankind’s work on Earth. Everything else is akin to the frantic scurrying of ants oblivious to the swollen river that’s about to wash them away. Two hundred years from now no one will remember how much you earned and many of even the most “respected” positions will be looked on with the amusement or even horror that comes with perspective.
I will miss reheating my coffee in a saucepan over a propane flame instead of a microwave. I will miss the sound of insects around us in early evening, coyotes at dusk, owls at midnight, loons at pre-dawn, crows at dawn, grackles through the day.
I will miss the not knowing. As I write this and consider the frustrations in my job search a few days prior I remember this is what I wanted, this is what we had on the road. Uncertainty, freedom. It’s only a bad thing if you don’t trust yourself. And the road.
And so we end this chapter of our life on the road. Sullivan asked, “Is the trip over?” “It’s just on pause for a while,” I told him. I think we’ll enjoy our time in Phoenix but I also know in my heart that our travels are far from over. I don’t know if our next stop will be Canada or Mexico or maybe back to good old Maine. I’m just glad that these are the people and pets I will share this journey with.