The Absolute Right Time

When I was growing up, my family didn’t have the means to take vacations. For the seven years we lived away from Chicago in Iowa, we made a few trips back there to see our family. But once back in Illinois, we didn’t go far away, or even short distances to places like the Indiana Dunes which were fairly close to the city. After my older two siblings moved out, my parents took my younger sister and me on a road trip to Mackinac Island. I remember how exciting it was to have breakfast away from home, the pre-buttered toast feeling like an exotic treat. And buying enormous Bing cherries from roadside fruit stands, eating them straight out of the box, purple stained fingers and tongues our adornments when we finished. I remember riding in the horse and buggy carriages on the car-less island. We were seated in the carriage’s first row. The horses were equipped with sacks to catch their droppings which smelled dreadful and were accompanied by severe bouts of flatulence. I was twelve years old. That was our only family vacation.

When I got older, I traveled as much as I could on the cheap, mostly camping trips or with groups of people to share expenses. In the ten years Michael and I had together before becoming parents, we satisfied a lot of our wanderlust. And we vowed that we’d keep that up when we had kids to build family experiences and memories. But oh, those trips during the early years. Mostly we visited his parents or mine. Basically you had to pack almost everything you owned to be prepared for anything. And there was always something unexpected. For a number of years we shared a family camp experience in Michigan where there was a built-in social life for both us and the kids. That was a wonderful time for years despite packing bed linens, blankets, pillows, towels – essentially an entire household for a week or two of fun.

But then there were the vacations that made you wish you’d never left home. Our two kids, who are just over five years apart, became highly skilled at bickering with each other from dawn to dusk. Sibling rivalry reached dramatic heights, usually when we were all trapped in the car. Michael loomed and bellowed. I tried reasoning with these three whom I’d labeled my beloved narcissists, but I usually dissolved in tears by the end of the day, walking off by myself and bemoaning the giant waste of cash on a miserable trip, when I could’ve been home, peacefully digging in my garden. We had oodles of those episodes. But then the kids grew up. Their dynamic changed. Michael and I, who always traveled well together, were almost through three decades of our marriage. Fast forward to 2005.

Our daughter Elisabeth was more than halfway through her juris doctor, having returned home after college to attend law school at the University of Illinois. We’d always been an intimate family but the age difference between her and her brother hadn’t allowed for them to really get to know each other on an equal footing. Aware that there was no substantive relationship between Michael and his older sister, which she thought was awful, she decided that attending law school while Henry was still home in high school, would allow them to build deeper bonds to carry into adult life. In addition, she’d found a relationship for herself, the man who would ultimately become her husband.

Henry had just graduated from high school. He’d had a great four years, a lovely steady girlfriend and acceptance at a fine university for the fall. Life for our tight family of four was getting ready to go through iterations which likely meant that long stretches of time alone as a little unit were going away. To celebrate our having successfully navigated the complexity of family life and coming out as what we called our sturdy four-legged table, we decided the time was absolutely right for taking one more family vacation absent any new additions to “just us.” We decided to visit a dear friend of ours, known as Uncle Brian to our kids, with whom we’d shared a lengthy history. He’d even lived in our house when it was still apartments instead of a single family residence and was Elisabeth’s first babysitter.

Brian had been the chief conservation biologist at the Denver Zoo from where he was plucked by a wealthy art dealer looking to turn his New Mexico ranch into an environmentally responsible land tract. Brian was to direct that project, adding educational opportunities for biology grad students and natives from surrounding pueblos. Land restoration and bison herds were part of the plan. We decided to head west for an extended trip of a few weeks to enjoy the last part of life as we’d known it. With school over, we packed the car and headed out.

We took the southern route, following as much of old Route 66 as we could. We passed through southern Illinois, Missouri and Oklahoma, but I can’t recall anything memorable about that part of the trip until we got to Texas. We stopped in Amarillo at a restaurant called The Big Texan which offered anyone who could eat a 72 ounce steak a free meal. A real slice of Americana and an utterly grotesque amount of meat. None of us tried it but watching others valiantly participate made for a memory.

After three days on the road we arrived at Wind River ranch near Watrous, New Mexico. Lucky us for having arrived during the beginning of its development. We had no idea that after years of work and fundraising, ultimately this tremendous project would no longer exist in its original form 15 years later. New Mexico has every right to its description as the Land of Enchantment. A beautiful sunny day greeted us, along with fabulous views of a diverse and lush landscape. From the road, what was a short drive away was unimaginable.

Being in a beautiful, natural space allows you to let go of pressure really fast. All of us seemed to instantly relax. I remember how surprised I was that the bedroom Michael and I shared had no window coverings. Having no one around for miles but wildlife was something we’d never experienced. A whole other kind of freedom.

The trip was remarkably simple. We hiked. There were horses to ride. Henry, who at that time was building on an insect collection he’d started in a field biology class in high school, was blown away by the lubbers which are huge, colorful grasshoppers and a myriad of species not seen in our part of the country. Michael had to manufacture a carrying device to bring them all home. That collection is a bit tattered but still here.

We all brought books and read a lot. We played cards, mostly Spades but Hearts as well. We were mostly detached from cell service which was a challenge even back then. Brian guided us as we experienced the magic of a mountain lion, real roadrunners and jackrabbits hopping through the cacti and brush, along with a variety of toads and lizards. I learned the names of the wildflowers while hanging on to Henry’s specimens in baggies.

We walked and talked and laughed a lot. Sometimes we sat in what we called our family pile, legs crossed over each other, feet together, reading or doing crossword puzzles.

We had what is so often elusive, a break from the demands of daily schedules, down time to really be with each other, no pressure, no expectations. Just the simple pleasure of enjoying each other’s company. We were anxious about Henry going off to college without ever tasting alcohol, so his sister plied him with wine to teach him how to be safe. I guess that’s the thing – we all were feeling open and safe for days on end. What a luxury. We were staying in a double wide trailer in the middle of nowhere. You couldn’t flush toilet paper in the bathrooms and there were no fancy meals, swimming pools or hot tubs. A different kind of luxury, an exceptional kind.

As all of us were history buffs, we did go exploring. We drove into Santa Fe which is a wonderful town, one of the two oldest in the country. We visited a few museums, historic sites and its bustling midtown marketplace, a celebration of art, music and traditional foods.

The ranch was also a historic site. The Santa Fe trail ran through it. Ruts in the road were still visible along with the ruins of homes and businesses that nudged the trail as it wound its way from Mexico to the west. Old cemeteries overrun by grasses and wildflowers appeared intermittently.

There was a colorful character who’d spent his life on the ranch, embroiled in a controversy with the owners about his rights to a tract of land. Ben C. DiBaca lived in absolute squalor across the Rio Mora river which flowed through the ranch. Brian introduced us to him. He took us on a tour and invited us to his place. I crossed a wobbly, scary bridge to get there – everyone else did too, but it didn’t push their fear buttons the way it did mine. Ben was a diabetic who contrarily served us Mountain Dew and doughnuts. He said we couldn’t take his picture unless we promised to send him a copy which we did.

We also traveled to Fort Union, a national monument which was built initially to protect travelers along the trail and updated during the Civil War to protect against the Confederates who thought they might slide through New Mexico and annex the west to the southern states. Here is a link to more information about the fort.

Along the road we saw herds of elk along with dead ones who fell victim to traffic. Vultures were always nearby, landing on fence posts to cool themselves on hot days.

The weeks went fast. I think we all felt rejuvenated. In addition and most importantly, we were so happy to share the time together and feel the inexplicable glue that bonded us together. Like all things, eventually the time was up. Our kids were ready to get back to their sweethearts and we all needed to return to work. We thanked Brian and his family for sharing their wonderful space with us and took off on I-25 north to Colorado. We squeezed out another stop at the site of the horrendous Ludlow mining massacre, checked out Pike’s Peak and Garden of the Gods, with one last adventure into Cave of the Winds in Colorado, another challenge for my claustrophobic self.

Here is a link to information about the Ludlow Massacre.

We turned east toward Kansas under an incredible supercell thundercloud and driving rain that was utterly frightening and a nail biting jolt back to reality.

After hours of jangling nerves, except for Michael’s who thought that kind of stuff was no big deal, we made it to our hotel in Topeka. Straight to the luxury of the hot tub after that experience.

We managed another quick stop at Harry Truman’s library in Independence, Missouri before finally heading home.

That trip was just perfect. Exactly the right time although looking back, I realize how lucky we were to have just done it without realizing how all of us would cherish that vacation. Times have changed. Our initial family of the four-legged table is now three-legged and also six-legged with Elisabeth’s crew. I hope to be more before we are less. No matter what, there is our amazing history that’s like an invisible cloak with fibers so interwoven that it’ll last forever.

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