A Cross-Country Road Trip with Teens, Part Two: Camping in California

By Catherine DiMercurio

After driving for four days, we had finally landed at our final destination: Crescent City, California, and the nearby Del Norte State Park Mill Creek Campground. Once we had breathed in the ocean for a while, we decided we had better go set up camp. This was, after all, our annual camping vacation. We had set up our small, easy tent twice on the way out instead of getting a hotel room. But now that we were settling in for the week, it was time to pull out the roomier tent, our home away from home for the next five nights.

The campground was located south of Crescent City, up a winding, steeply climbing road about two and a half miles off the 101. I had read that it isn’t a drive you want to make to and from camp too many times a day, and I agreed, but this distance and height did leave us far from any traffic noises. It was still and quiet within the park, aside from the noises of other campers, and the early morning squawking of crows.

Setting Up Camp, Contemplation, and Coziness

Setting up camp is a pleasure after a long drive, as long as you aren’t setting up when people are hungry or it’s dark or raining. We had staved off hunger with snacks, and the sun was bright. The kids took a walk to purchase wood for the campfire while I finished loading the tent with our sleeping gear and duffel bags. Inside the empty tent, I had one of those moments, those aching pangs, when you see all so many memories of the past jumbled together. I think this must be a fairly common occurrence for parents of teens. I suddenly recalled camping when the children were little, when our party numbered four instead of three. I took a deep breath, watched a few of the memories as if they were a slideshow, and decided to put them away. I wonder, in the aftermath of moments like these, how other people navigate these twists and turns of memory and the churn of emotions that accompany them. I wonder how others regard the past and its often discordant juxtaposition with the present.

We sat around the campfire that night. Because of the risk posed by bears, we had been instructed to keep our campsite “crumb clean.” Normally, camping for us includes a lot of campfire cooking. Here though, we had to be extremely careful with food preparation and clean up, and having traveled so far, it had been inconvenient to travel with perishables. So we had purchased a lot of instant meals. We warmed up some water over the fire and gobbled up soups and noodles. The night was chilly and the fire and warm meal gave us a heightened sense of coziness. There are few things more wonderful in this world than sitting around a campfire with your kids and enjoying a heightened sense of coziness, especially when you’ve journeyed far from home and are finally at your destination and beginning the next part of your adventure.

Exploration, Relaxation, Laughter, Listening

In the days that unfolded, we explored. One day, it was at the sandy beach, where we brought books and snacks but mostly just played with the ocean. Another, it was on a nine-mile hike through redwoods. We also explored tide pools and little used book stores in town, and the campground. We played games and read our books and laughed.

Seeing the redwoods and the Pacific Ocean had been the goals of trip, and they did not disappoint. Photographs cannot prepare you for the redwoods. Our first glimpse of them had been driving south from Oregon, as the highway wound through Jedidiah Smith State Park, home to some of the most stunning old growth groves. Our own campground was formerly a heavily logged area. The grounds were fully of massive stumps and secondary growth redwoods—not as old, and not as big. Living here for a week, sleeping among new giants and the remains of their fallen ancestors, one cannot help but think of what we’ve done in the name of “progress.” One can also not avoid thinking of the wild, walking and talking trees and tree spirits—the Ents of Middle Earth, the Dryads of Narnia. Being filled to the brim with wonder is entirely unavoidable. Our hike, on a long trail through old-growth redwoods, was nothing short of magnificent. I’d been nervous about navigating the trail, knowing that often, things are not well marked. There were some steep portions, but nothing too technical, and though our map deviated from what we experienced, we stayed on course. The route culminated in Stout Grove, a stand of particularly enormous—and, as the name implies, girthy—redwoods. Side note: trust your ranger. When he recommends one trail for its peace and beauty over another more crowded trail, take his advice.

And the ocean. To spend most of a day, sitting and listening to the churn and crash, to feel the wet sand on your bare feet, daring the next wave to reach you, to crouch among shells and seaweed and driftwood—these are among the most soothing and joyful experiences I’ve shared with my kids.

We weren’t ready to leave. We weren’t ready for the drive home. We avoided thinking about it for as long as possible.

Reconciliations and Compensations

There were several occasions on this trip where the past demanded to be attended to, a crying baby waiting to be soothed. Maybe that’s why I can’t simply ignore memories or griefs of the past when they bubble up. I’m not one to let babies cry it out. While I have a fairly high tolerance for my own physical pain, when something in me from the past is crying out, I have to stop and look and see what’s going on. It’s possible that it is easier to have more compassion for our past selves than for the present-day versions of ourselves. That’s not really fair, is it? Sometimes, the look back brought me happiness. Other times, it forced a contemplation, a reckoning of sorts between the way I thought things would be and the way things are.

Sometimes such disharmony sets our teeth on edge. But maybe, if we listen closely, we can hear a soft melody underneath. Perhaps the shock of the discontinuities we experience keeps us from recognizing the compensations afforded us. For me, despite the losses and the griefs, I have truly and wonderfully close relationships with my son and my daughter, and I see how connected they are to each other. That is a gift, a balm, but sometimes such gifts seem hidden from us when we are so busy thinking of how different life is from how we expected it would be. Hence, the drive toward conscious noticing. The practice is more easily cultivated, I found, away from the loud hum of everyday life. The quieter moments and moods of vacation—sitting in front of the ocean, or softly winding through redwoods—inspire introspection, and hidden things reveal themselves more readily when our minds are calmer. Whispered melodies are easier to hear.

On our last morning we rose before dawn, having packed up most of our gear the night before, I thought of all the adventure stories the three of us liked to read, and how they always say things like “We’ll leave at first light,” and I tried to think of the way home as just the next part of the adventure, rather than an ending.

Love, Cath

 

On Appearances and Optimism

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes things are not what they seem. And that can be a good thing.

My kids and I hiked this past weekend, seeking the loons we had learned were migrating through the area. The path took us through the woods, and stretches of it ran next to the lake. Spring is slow in arriving this year. All around us were shades of brown and grey, broken only by a few red leaf buds in the dirt, scattered like confetti. The deer and sandhill cranes we spotted blended into this backdrop, though the blush of red on the cranes’ heads allowed us to notice them roosting on their nests. We found the loons too, thanks to their glossy white chests, though they were also difficult to see in the distance, unless they were swimming toward us. Along the path as the woods opened to fields, I noticed a milkweed pod. The cottony insides had long since been carried off by the wind, but the husk that remained bore a striking resemblance to a bird. I had to look twice to be sure. The image stayed with me, reminding me that things that have the shape and appearance of one thing can actually be something else quite different.

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For a long time, throughout the divorce year and in the aftermath, I tended to take a pessimistic view of this idea. As in, be wary and suspicious because things are not what they seem. Proceed with caution: people you care deeply for may look like someone you know but have somehow turned into different someones. I felt as if the world was waiting to trip me up and trick me, and that I perpetually needed to be looking over my shoulder to see what was sneaking up behind me and at the same time casting my gaze far ahead to see what might be coming at me next as I tried to escape what was behind me. I wore this pessimism like a cloak. I put it on and hid myself, but it wasn’t really my true nature.

Optimism versus Pessimism

As time has gone on and the urgency of caution has ebbed, as stability has returned to my life, I find myself becoming me again, the one who can see the flip side to the aphorism that things are not always what they seem. I can recognize once again that something that appears to be a normal, everyday thing, or even something potentially threatening, can actually turn out to be an amazing, wonderful thing. I discovered being alone wasn’t lonely, and later, that a random date with a stranger can turn into something unexpectedly perfect. Life can be delightful that way, when expectations are turned upside down and you discover something new.

Still, it has taken me a long time to move from pessimism back to optimism as a general mindset. Initially, it exhausted me to hear people say don’t worry, everything will be okay. I felt like nothing would be okay again, not ever. That way of looking at the world gradually evolved into to a different mindset. Everything might be okay. But only because I am working my hardest to make it that way. And what if I can’t? Things got better, in part, because I made them that way. But that effort built some much needed confidence and a sense of self-reliance. This was another unexpected gift of the ending of one life and the beginning of another, as the divorce year transitioned into a new year, and a new way of being. I began to trust in my ability to work through things, to handle situations I used to fear. Sometimes it’s still hard to tell the difference though, between fatigue and fear. Sometimes you get tired of handling things, but that doesn’t mean you can’t handle them.

I like to believe though, that one of the things that got me through the toughest of times was the awareness that the pessimism was something I could take off and cast aside when I was ready. I wanted to believe in my own positivity and sometimes wanting to believe is enough. It is a bridge that gets you to the next step.

Irrational Hope

In the course of my MFA work I was introduced to the writing of Clarice Lipsector, and I stumbled across this line: “It is possible that even then the theme of my existence was irrational hope.” This stuck with me, and I latched on to that idea of irrational hope, hope that even in the darkest of days, things will get better. Sometimes optimism gets a little suffocated by circumstances, but it is still there waiting for you, and I think this sense of hope is what kept me going, and continues to inspire me in good times and bad.

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It takes a conscious, mindful effort to see things this way at times. It’s easy to put the cloak back on when life gets stressful. It’s so simple to fall back into the trap of pessimism, so simple it seems like a relief. In a way, it’s familiar and safe, even though it’s a dark place to be. Stress—sometimes little, lowercase stress and sometimes all caps STRESS—can yank me back powerfully into a time where I felt like things kept falling apart, the world was out to get me, and I had no control over anything. The comfort in that, the reason it is so easy for anyone to fall into, is that in that space, there is permission to stop trying to make things better. But when stress sinks into me, I consciously remind myself, this is not that; I’m not back where I was, hiding under the cloak. We have to talk ourselves down from the ledge of panic sometimes. It might be only a panicky moment, or maybe we feel ourselves falling back into a habit of anxiety and worry. But then you go for a walk and see a milkweed pod shaped like a bird and it lifts you, it allows you to reprogram your thoughts and emotional responses. It allows you to remember who you really are.

Enjoy the path that you find yourself on today. Love, Cath