By Catherine DiMercurio
I recently returned from an eleven-day road trip with my teenagers. Though I knew I’d be taking a break from writing during that time, I set a goal for myself to consciously notice. I wanted to cultivate a deliberate awareness of what I was experiencing—from new landscapes and people, to the way the trip impacted each of us as it unfolded. I wrote down some of these observations, but for the most part, I tried to simply take things in. In a way, I wanted to get out of my head for a while, to be looking outward instead of inward. I tried to absorb as much as I could without filtering it through conscious thoughts about how I felt about this or that. I found, though, that after three 12+ hour days of driving, my endurance for this way of looking at the world was reaching its limit. And that’s not a bad thing.
We departed early on a Tuesday morning, having loaded up the vehicle the night before. We drove across Michigan, through Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa, and entered Nebraska on the evening of the first day. We camped for the night just west of Lincoln, on a beautiful little lake that we had almost to ourselves. The next morning, we hit the road at sunrise and drove across Nebraska and through most of Wyoming, spending the night at a hotel in Green River, and treating ourselves to Chinese takeout for a late dinner after a dip in the pool. In the morning, we left Wyoming and headed into Utah, where we navigated the tangle of highway around Salt Lake City and then drove through the salt flats, which astounded us as much as the gorgeous red rock, Martian-like terrain we experienced entering Utah. Not long after the salt flats, we left the interstate and navigated some through some of the loneliest land I’d ever experienced, through northern Nevada and southeastern Oregon. We camped again, in Oregon, at a little RV park situated on a vast cattle ranch. Perhaps it was an odd choice for a family of vegans, but we didn’t know it until after we checked in, and we always like to see cows (and we hoped they would somehow escape their fate). We had decided that, on the fourth day, instead of proceeding to our destination, we’d make a northerly detour to Crater Lake, which was absolutely astonishing. We drove south and west once more, through thick wildfire smoke, and finally into California, greeting the ocean in Crescent City and then setting up camp at Del Norte Mill Creek campground.
The trip out was roughly 2,500 miles, and though I’ve sketched out our route, this doesn’t begin to tell the tale of the journey. If you know me and/or have been reading this blog for a while, you know that my daughter is about to start college in a few weeks. This trip was her graduation gift. Part of my practice of conscious noticing involved my awareness of my children as individuals and as siblings and as offspring. I wanted to observe our identities and relationships in the same way I was observing the landscapes we were passing through, with curiosity and respect. It’s so much easier to do that on a trip like this than it is in daily life, but it is a worthwhile approach. More on this later.
When the Past Crashes the Party
As we journeyed west, the three of us laughed easily, relaxing more and more with each mile. We problem-solved as a group, our little expedition team working off each other to navigate unfamiliar territory and situations. It wasn’t really until the third day of driving, after the Midwest was behind us, that things got more challenging. For me, the moment came as we entered Utah, and I found myself driving up and down steep and winding roads hemmed in by semis. The heights, the narrowness of the roads, the speeds at which cars and semis were taking the mountain curves all combined to make a fairly stressful driving situation. Later in the day, with the salt flats behind us, we entered into the desolation of the desert. We gassed up the car and braced ourselves, not knowing what to expect. After hours of driving through sagebrush and barren mountains in the distance and little else we crossed the border into Oregon and experienced more of the same. There was one terrifying descent down a mountainside, with a huge drop off and no guardrail. I’d been dreading this type of driving and on that day, it never seemed to end. I relaxed by the time we finally set up camp that night, but as we began the fourth day of driving, I felt myself sort of shutting down.
For a couple of hours on the way up to Crater Lake, a stress response kicked in that left me frozen, detached. I felt as empty as the desert we had passed through the day before. I felt depleted and somehow vulnerable to the past in a way I didn’t fully understand.
Some context: I didn’t grow up traveling or camping. My children grew up camping, like their father. As the kids got older, their father encouraged us all to take on a little more adventure. We eventually climbed three mountains out East. My fear of heights stopped me in my tracks on some of these trips, but it was often incredible to push through that. At the time of these trips, I felt supported through my fearful moments. But later, at the end of the marriage, I realized we both had different memories and perceptions about such things. After the divorce, the kids and I still camped, but it wasn’t until a trip two years to the Badlands in South Dakota that I’d taken on a more adventuresome trip as a solo parent. And this trip out to California felt huge to me. To captain a trip of this magnitude on my own was challenging and meaningful, and not without emotional pitfalls.
On that fourth day, this past, these memories, caught up to me. I collapsed inward a little and I didn’t know how long it would last. The voices of the past had entered into the void created by vulnerability. I questioned what I was doing here, why we had set out on such an ambitious journey, how I would be able to handle some of the challenges that we would undoubtedly face. I didn’t feel fun enough, or brave enough, or competent enough. I didn’t feel enough of anything in that moment, though even swimming in this self-doubt I recognized that not all of these words weren’t my own. But as we experienced the magnificence of Crater Lake I felt this negativity, and the power of the past, ebb away. As I navigated the mountain roads, I tried to explain some of this to the kids. They’d been worried about the shift in my demeanor and it was with some relief that they recognized I’d come out of whatever spell I’d been under.
Fresh Air, Fresh Thinking
I began to understand that the stress of the long drive and coping with my fears had opened a little gateway to the past, and the griefs and failures that I’d experienced in the collection of years immediately before and after the divorce had flooded in. What brought me safely through it was a combination of fresh thinking and fresh air. Part of me was able to recognize what was happening and to name it, and in doing so, I was able to put all the pieces backed where they belonged and to close the gate. Getting out of the car and breathing the mountain air and watching my children take in the lake and the sky allowed me to do the same, to take it in and to return out of the past, the grief, and into the moment, into this part of the journey, the now. I also had the sense that my conscious noticing, that my goal of observing with curiosity and respect needed to encompass myself.
Once we arrived at the Pacific Ocean, at a stretch of beach in Crescent City, California, I thought about what had happened, grateful to the journey to bringing me to that point so that I could move beyond it. I recognized too the way we are shaped by our interactions with their environment, and as I sat on a rock looking out at the water, I allowed myself to be shaped by the ocean, smoothed and calmed by the waves. My son and daughter were peering into tide pools and laughing and exploring. We stretched out into new versions of ourselves, having pioneered, in our way, across prairie and desert and mountain to the ocean.
On this trip, I moved back and forth through speechless awe and wonder, and trails and eddies of introspection. It will take some time and thinking and writing to sort through, so bear with me. I hope you will enjoy this part of the journey with me.