Sunday, September 11, 2016

The MRT: Our Massive Road Trip

Last spring, I told my 10-year-old son Truman that our family of five and our English bulldog would drive from California to Wisconsin to deliver his big sister to her first year of college. He jumped out of his seat, exclaiming, "Cool! A Massive Road Trip!" Almost immediately, he began setting aside books, DVDs, and favorite toys for our MRT, as we came to call it. "I don't know if I have ever looked forward to anything as much as I'm looking forward to our MRT this summer," he told me one day.

Truman has big plans and dreams. He draws blueprint designs of houses he wishes to build and inhabit. His career plans waver between architect, comedian, and president of the United States. So although his elevated MRT expectations added yet another layer of complication to my family's preparation to launch our firstborn child over 2,000 miles from home (to say nothing of arranging all of the logistics), I told him that I was ready to embrace his infectious enthusiasm.
As a family of writers, even we feel unequipped to describe the emotional roil of Geneva’s coming exit (or “Gexit”). Instead we busy ourselves with to-do lists -- MRTs take a lot of planning, and so does packing for college. She has enlisted my help to decide what will make the cut and travel across the country to her cramped dorm room. Her childhood bed still sports the floral Laura Ashley comforter I bought for her when she transitioned to a big-girl bed at the age of three. Later, when I see that she has tossed her oldest stuffed animal in one of her college boxes, I know that "Birdy" will provide comfort for my girl who still has one foot planted in childhood.

Standing in the doorway of Geneva’s bedroom, surveying the inadequate boxes and the chaotic panoply of clothing, books, and pastel stuffed animals that surround them, I wonder if I taught her everything she will need to know to manage on her own, or even if I have prepared her enough. As a mom, I hope I have learned why and when to let my kids stumble, to hold back from rescuing them. No one tells us how hard it is to watch our kids struggle. 

Loading the minivan the night before leaving on our MRT, I arrange all of Geneva's boxes and suitcases like a Jenga puzzle. As I see the few more stuffed animal friends she has added to her overcrowded bench, I hold back tears. I have to keep it together; the time for crying will come later, in a different state. On this emotional marathon, I'm going to have to pace myself.
Day One
Day One of the MRT exceeds Truman's expectations: "Being in a plane for 12 hours, that's cool, but being in a CAR for 12 hours...that's aMAZing!" I think the rest of us had a somewhat less exhilarating experience, but we welcome the boy’s eagerness. Our bulldog Dilly is thrilled to join us, resting on the floor in her dog bed, confined between Truman and his big brother Jukie. Everyone has books and podcasts for entertainment, with Jukie loving his new MRT books so much that he doesn’t once ask for his iPad.

All that reading must have been exhausting, for Andy and the teenagers sleep through much of Nevada, as I wish I had. Although Nevada is not my favorite state, on this trip we did enjoy a pelting Nevada rainstorm, with the negative ions making everything outside smell refreshingly inviting. I find it pretty wild to hop on I-80, which cuts right through our hometown of Davis, drive from dawn to dusk, and then arrive in Salt Lake City, a world away. We Californians are surrounded and spoiled by natural beauty, but the rugged mountains and salty moonscape of Utah have their own magnificence.

By the time we arrive at our hotel, we are all tired, hungry, and still on West Coast time, so we go for a swim in the indoor, heated pool: the perfect antidote to MRT fatigue. Just when I finish congratulating myself for planning the perfect place to spend the night, I discover that the nearest restaurant is 15 miles away. Whoops! We eat MRT chips and salsa and cookies for dinner. No one minds.

Day Two
After 21 hours of driving, no kid so far has asked, "are we there yet?" Truman requests a grand announcement upon our arrival into every state. We have driven up and down the Left Coast, but during our kids' first trip through the mountainous west, we are adding to our lifetime list of U.S. states visited (a thing we Americans do).
I myself wasn't a fan of driving adventures when I was a kid. I remember scorched and cramped station wagons, and plenty of bickering. No doubt a backseat DVD player and air conditioning would have improved matters considerably. In any case, this MRT feels as much about the journey as the destination. When the scenery is as gorgeous as it is during this second morning in Utah, we blast music that matches what we are seeing. During our private minivan Fantasia, each breathtaking sight or episode has its own soundtrack.

We start with Bruce Springsteen, with me recalling his concert at Soldier Field in Chicago the summer before I left for college in Ohio. I remember the overcast sky, and the wind whipping my hair as we waited for Bruce to take the stage. Later, Wyoming calls out for Bob Marley, and I think about how he got me through college. In the afternoon, somewhere in Wyoming, my husband Andy shows just how much he loves me when he agrees to "let" me play the Dixie Chicks (immediately grabbing his earbuds for an audio book). As we reach South Dakota, only the raucous “brass house” instrumentals of Too Many Zooz will do.  Better than coffee.
Truman fancies himself a presidential historian, so you can imagine his excitement to check into the Roosevelt Inn in Keystone, South Dakota, next to Mount Rushmore. Across the street from the Inn I spot something called the “National Presidential Wax Museum.” Perhaps Truman will volunteer to be a docent?
Amid the excitement, I am keenly aware that the glorious togetherness of our family of five changes (via temporary diminution) in one week. I feel a bit as I did during each pregnancy, in touch with every feeling. Living in this state of awareness and nostalgia deepens our interactions and compounds my already profound love for my family. Who knew that was possible? Despite the Pixar DVDs and the mountains of books around them, the kids are just as mindful and aware of their surroundings as I am. I know they will remember this time and this trip for the rest of their lives.

Day Three
There's nothing like driving for two days straight to make one appreciate spending a day off from the road with no agenda other than simply to wander around, and to look up. If I had no compelling reason to get to Chicago quickly, I would love to spend a week in the Black Hills National Forest exploring the caves, the waterfalls, the trails, and even the wineries. In the morning, we walk the trail along the base of Mount Rushmore, and stare right up the presidents' nostrils. Truman turns to me and says, "You know, 90% of Mt. Rushmore was carved with dynamite." You don't say.   

Later in the afternoon, Geneva and I take our Dilly for a walk, and are approached by a bunch of bikers in town for the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. Placing helmets on their bikes, they walk across the road and ask if they can pet our dog, and then immediately start baby talking as Dilly rolls over onto her back to accept the bikers’ affection, her over-long tongue rolling out of her smiling mouth. That night, just after our agreed-upon bedtime, and after I have shushed the bookend kids for giggling too loudly up in their loft, we hear booming thunder that we initially mistake for more revving of Harley Davidson engines. Lightning flashes light up our rooms, and rain pelting our windows lulls us to sleep.

Day Four
By day four, with the exception of Truman, we have grown tired of all-day drives, and just want to arrive at our destination: my mother's house outside of Chicago, 90 minutes from Geneva's college in Wisconsin. After a breezy two thousand miles, we hit our first stretch of traffic, and none of us has any patience for it. Stopping for dinner a couple hours from Chicago, we all move more slowly than we did back in Utah. Dilly, who loves to jump in the car with every invitation, regards me with disgust and refuses to get back in the car. No one blames her. We are ready for this leg of the trip to be done, and to spend a week in my hometown.
Late that night I find myself driving the familiar streets of my childhood, reflecting upon the state for which I left everything I knew. Following my poet-scholar husband to Davis, I made the right choice. Like many Californians, I can't get enough of the hundreds of miles of spectacular coastline, the cool, foggy NorCal winters, the hot, dry summers with chilly night breezes, the wine, the redwoods, the Sierra Nevada, breathtaking Lake Tahoe, the world-class public universities, and the progressive politics. But I think most of all, I love the people, with their generosity of spirit and general goodness. Californians have a reputation to live and let live, and I think it's well deserved. I can't imagine living anywhere else.
Nevertheless, as much as I love life in my adopted home state, I will always feel pulled back to my roots in and around Chicago. Each time I return, I'm reminded of all that I didn't even know I was missing. Waking to early morning bird calls, I remember the morning music of my childhood, the distinctive and glorious cacophony of insects and birds each evening here in the Midwest. "What is that SOUND?" Truman asks when we arrive late Monday night. "Bugs," I tell him. "Is it like that every night?" He wonders how he will sleep through that unfamiliar racket. I open the window above my bed, and sleep like a baby.
Truman has now flown to Chicago a few times, and he loves the city, too. The first time he saw the Chicago lakefront, he couldn't believe the wonder of having an "ocean" right on the edge of a city. "It's a lake," I corrected him. His expression suggested that he didn't believe me. "Where's the other side?" he asked.   

I'm eager for my California girl to discover this other world, to fall in love with everything that I also love and now miss about life in the Midwest. She will learn to appreciate fall as a true season, filled with color and those first, crisp autumn days – "sweatshirt weather," we call it. She will discover the magic of those first flakes of snow, likely falling sometime around her birthday in the first week of November. She will experience the misery of winter lasting way too long, and then treasure all the more spring's eventual arrival. Californians take a lot for granted (the weather, for starters). The four seasons must be experienced to be appreciated.
I remember my own early days at a small, liberal arts college and hope that Geneva feels less overwhelmed and experiences less homesickness than I did. And although she tells her dad and me nearly every day how much she loves and values us, I know that living without us for the first time will fill her with gratitude for her parents. I remember that feeling.
Waking early on my daughter’s last day before college, I check in on my three children, sleeping in their separate beds in their grandmother’s home. Geneva is clutching Birdy, and perhaps her last day of childhood. I anticipate the campus hand-off of the next day. Here we are: 18+ years of parenting all leading to this moment. Soon the family will kiss our Geneva goodbye, turn around, and start the MRT back home, leaving her to find her own way, and leaving us to find our way without her. 

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