By Tanya Ward Goodman, The Next Family
According to my daughter, most things are “creepy” or “awkward.” She decided our road trip to New Mexico had the potential to be both. It would be creepy because we would sleep in the mountains where I grew up, and it would be awkward because…well, because everything is awkward. (I mean, have you seen me car dance to Taylor Swift’s new single “Bad Blood? Have you ever heard me order a coffee at Starbucks? No room for cream. Um… awkward.) Despite the potential for creepy awkwardness, she was still relatively game.
My son flat out refused to take the trip. Of the two, he has the greater chance of being described as a blunt instrument. “I’m not going,” he told me. “I am old enough to stay alone for two weeks. This is my life. You can’t tell me what to do.”
It turns out that I can tell him what to do. The end result is often brooding or outrage, but when we left Los Angeles, he was in the car, white ear buds sprouting like mushrooms from his ears, the tinny sound of Skrillex swirling around his head like a herd of angry mosquitoes.
Ah, road trips!
The kids and I make the journey from Los Angeles to Albuquerque nearly every summer. The summers of my own childhood featured a drive from Albuquerque to Rapid City, South Dakota to visit my grandparents, and while these trips were often creepy and awkward, they were also fun. I remember damp, freshly mown grass, the taste of icemilk, the scent of my grandmother’s Lemon Pledge dusting cloth and the thrill of sliding down the algae slicked spillway at Canyon Lake Park. I am convinced that my kids need to forge their own memories and that a long, hot car ride away from the comforts of home is the best place to do it.
The road to New Mexico is filled with wide-open space. The uncluttered sky expands above me while the desert rolls out on both sides giving my mind the freedom to wander. Tiny dust devils kick up sand and tumbleweeds. In the weeks before our trip, I was a whirl worthy of these devils. We all were. Each day was filled with end of school events, my own work deadlines, the packing and unpacking of our home. I woke up spinning and didn’t stop until I collapsed into bed at night. It all felt so important. Seen from a distance, these puny columns of dust seem ineffective and insignificant. I can see my own furious action dwarfed by the enormity of the world.
We have packed hiking shoes and swimsuits, a few pairs of underwear and a few pairs of shorts. We are traveling light. We are shaking off the load of homework and volunteer hours and the emotional wallop of moving from fifth to sixth grade and seventh to eighth. This progression affects us all.
“Where have my babies gone?” I wonder.
My kids ask, “Who is this bossy woman and why can’t she see I’m fully grown?”
Out here in the wide open, I try to open the space inside the car. I put my story telling on hold. I stop asking questions. I am starting to realize that more and more, my role of parent should mirror that of a birdwatcher. I need to sit quietly, watching, waiting for a flash of wings, a jolt of color. I need to give my children the space to find their own words and their own ideas.
We drive in silence for many miles. We are lost in our own thoughts. I try hard not to judge the electronic pop leaking from their head phones, I let them share photos of the desert and the sky with their friends on Instagram. I don’t ask them to pack a sketchbook or a journal, but I continue to pack my own. They are digesting this world in their own way. I have brought them here, but I have no control over their impressions or enjoyment. This trip might be creepy or awkward. It might turn out to be fun. Hell, it will probably be a little bit of all three. I have no control. My job is to steer straight on the road, stop for food on a regular basis and do my very best to listen when they talk.
Tanya Ward Goodman is the author of the award-winning memoir, Leaving Tinkertown.