At each place we stop on our trip through the Grand Teton, Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks the quarters are close. I have a ringside seat to the lives of other travelers. This morning at Lake Yellowstone, while the boys sleep, I stand at our cabin’s bathroom window and watch as parents with two girls load up their car. They are tidy in matching outdoor attire, hair brushed and breakfast bars in hands. The packing process is orderly and efficient. Their coolers, tote bags and supplies are color coded and all have predetermined places in the back of their car. The entire process takes minutes and not one outside voice is used by any family member.
This is the norm of the families I watch at the National Parks which adds to my suspicion that my family is a bit high strung.
In contrast, we are loud and emotionally messier than any of the families I have encountered. I find this at home too, so I should not be surprised – but I am. Our departure is always chaotic as we push our need for one more experience to the edge. I beg for a late check-out as the boys haphazardly stuff things into our suitcases. Once again we decide that we’ll shower at the next stop. Leo and I grab something to eat but Eli is vociferously complaining that he does not have access to any of the four foods that he finds acceptable.
Like the spectacular physical surroundings of the parks, the emotional terrain has been humbling too. We all come to this trip with different motives. I have the dream that this will be the ultimate bonding experience for me and the boys. Our eighteen days together will absolve us from all our sins and we will be saved. Saved from every slight that has occurred between us.
Now I admit that’s a colossal expectation to put on one road trip. I have a pragmatic front that I wear on the outside. My realistic self tells friends that I have no expectations and that my only goal is for us to get along. Both are true, like a novel with two plot lines.
Leo has no time for absolution. I keep forgetting what nineteen is like. His energy and focus is all about experimenting with his newly minted adulthood and the physical challenges of climbing and pushing past his previous limits. His expectations are as simple as what mountain to climb.
Leo can’t even fathom my middle-aged desire for emotional closure. He is at the beginning of his life and absolution is something for the old.
This road trip has been most challenging for Eli. He is thirteen and still has one foot in childhood and another in teenagehood, which makes him almost impossible to predict. He can go from being sweet, to angrier than a cornered badger, and back to sweet again in one afternoon. He wants Leo to be his best friend and that is this trip’s greatest hot spot.
What has surprised me the most is how they both accept me as one of them. I feel myself morphing into a teenage boy. I eat more junk than I have in the last decade, don’t shower, run up mountains, swear more than I should, and am amused by their scatalogical jokes. I have to stop short of a complete transformation though. In order for this trip to keep moving forward without bloodshed, I must access my most potent and covert parenting skills.
I learned that I am a mother first – the ringmaster of the road trip show.
Our car rides are the weakest link. At some point in every leg of the trip the boys begin trash-talking and wrestle over the seats of the car. It’s all fun and games until one is pushed too far and then they fight like bear cubs. Eli is always the loser. When we arrive at our destination, the emotions pour out of our car as if our Ford Focus was just pulled from a lake.
The boys go to their corners and I manage the detente. It usually involves Leo taking a short hike by himself and Eli and I going off on our own. In a couple of hours we regroup and the slate has been miraculously cleaned. Then there is laughter, campfires, and plans for the next activity. We are loud, unkempt, and definitely don’t do transitions well, but our in-betweens are pretty darn good.
Therein lies all the absolution I need.