The States: U-Turn by Lisa Dower

As we crested the mountain to Yosemite National Park, I felt my cheeks flush; heat rose in my body, as if it was emulating our truck’s radiator in its struggle to pull all of our possessions and family of five up the enormous mountain pass. I could envision smoke billowing from the hood, the canoe haphazardly thrown from the roof and our three young children playing on the side of the highway, while we argued in the heat, waiting for a tow.

I said to my husband Steve, “I think we should turn around. ”

To my surprise he was in full agreement to play it safe—a quality neither he nor I possessed. We always take chances, push the envelope. But on that day, feeling more like the little engine that couldn’t, we U-turned to the campground we’d left minutes earlier, because it was devoid of newfound luxuries like running water or electricity.

Looking back, it was this very site that would become the pivotal point in our year-long journey. As we began the process of unloading our new home, a 30-foot travel-trailer, we slowed down and regulated.

From the moment we’d met, my husband and I dreamed of travelling together, but with three kids still at home, it seemed impossible. At six, four and three, they were too little and cumbersome for international travel, but maybe a road trip? We did some research, confirmed we could live and travel off our house lease, so we began to plan. The first essential was a renter, and when we secured that we found a trailer, but like sourdough, no matter how much we cut off our to-do list, it, and our piles, continued to grow; garbage bags destined for the dump, dishes, clothes and kitchen gadgets for the trailer, food processor and bread maker back to the house.

As the piles grew, so too did my anxiety. Filling the cupboards of our new life meant emptying our current ones and saying goodbye to so many memories. As I stretched the tape across the cardboard boxes, fears of forgetting blankie or other irreplaceables engulfed me. Leaving the house to obtain the latest round of supplies, I would chant my list: “tape, marker, labels.” I sank my body deep into the driver’s seat and began to sob. At home I had to hold it together, bark orders, but alone I was overwhelmed by the enormity of the task and fearful of the changes.

When the departure date came, we lumbered across our cattle grate, bid farewell to our home, and said hello to the road ahead. Traversing across the majestic Rocky Mountains, Steve and I cautiously shared a high five, revelling in our great accomplishment; oblivious to bikes dragging, a canoe rattling  and a dingy flapping. We were on the road, pulling an overstuffed tin of sardines.

When we arrived late to an idyllic brookside site, we turned the can opener and let the contents spring from inside. We may have been exhausted from the last ten hours behind the wheel, but we were determined to use all that had taken precious space. We biked, fished, played ball and when we sat by the fire after our steak dinner, we fell asleep in our camp chairs until little voices echoed. “Mom we’re tired; can you make up our beds?”

As I opened the aluminum door of my new home, I faced my to-do-later pile. The next morning, two hours behind schedule, frustrated we couldn’t make the original puzzle go back together, Steve and I abandoned niceties and went straight to name calling. Finally, we jammed the trailer door closed, poked a few things into the truck and were back on the road with a new pact: minimize on overnight stops.

Our growing pains continued well into British Columbia. Each time I turned my head to entice our oldest, Caleb, with a road game or song, his usual smile was filled with despair. One day I was coaxing him to play with the kids on another site, when he said, “why make new friends, we only leave them behind.”

I wanted to hug the anguish out of him, tell him everything would be okay, but I was filled with my own anxiety; there was still so much to work out.

At four, Joshua suffered from a litany of medical problems, as well as severe temper tantrums. Over the years, we had ejected his flailing body from numerous hockey rinks and watched his lips turn blue as we rushed to the emergency room for his latest asthma attack. While we couldn’t keep him in a bubble, we could question our parental sanity of leaving the hospital fifteen minutes drive away. Only our youngest, Levi, remained intent on making us smile; each morning he emerged with all his clothes, even his jeans, backwards. His wide grin and fashion style keeping us laughing.

But it wasn’t enough. Steve worried about abandoning future work and in his bid to stay connected he complained incessantly about poor cellular service. There was also the constant squabbling between the boys, who hated sharing a room, the backseat and their toys. Determined to make it work, I put pillows down the middle of their bunk, erected the third-row seat that left our poor dog with little space, bought Tupperware to separate the toys, surveyed phone companies for a better provider, but secretly I had my own doubts.

Each morning, as I tiptoed into the claustrophobic bathroom, I silently grew my list of grievances: pee on the toilet seat, no privacy, no alone time, small tub. There was also the self-inflicted issues: the broken awning that we sometimes forgot to pull it in before we left the campground; the broken trailer jack, from the evening I misdirected Steve into a tree; being hailed down because sparks were flying from bikes dragging. All the while small, medium and large sat in the back seat watching DVD after DVD on the extra small screen.

But on that day, as we u-turned back down Yosemite mountain, we began to enjoy the Now. The monotony and simplicity of travel became a recipe for wellness, angst melting into the seats.

As Caleb collected fire wood, he began to shed his cocoon and the white patches on Joshua’s translucent skin, along with his temper, began to disappear.

By early October, we were in Arizona, passing the cartoon of Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Resort, having opted for the heavily-forested Grand Canyon National Park without hookups or luxuries. With little to do on entry, we jumped on our bikes to head straight for the interpretive centre and survey the variety of animal pelts, invasive species and plants. Our simplistic life and tiny house began to achieve its desired bliss; everything was scaled down, except our enjoyment and family time. To punctuate our week, we collected all the comforters and pillows, turned the couch into a bed, made popcorn and recreated bygone years with movies like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Herbie The Love Bug.

By the time we reached San Antonio, Texas we were on top of the world. Our chosen mom and pop campground had large oaks, spacious sites and sandboxes with miniature tractors, offering hours of entertainment. It had been months since Steve and I had alone time, so we improvised, bought a bottle of wine, raised our camp chairs and talked into the late hours.

In the morning, we made the hour drive to explore the city, but when we pulled into the rocky lot, Levi emerged shoeless. He’d become accustomed to having all his worldly possessions in tow, but luckily we’d become accustomed to laughing at mishaps. A piggyback ride to the supermarket produced oversized flip flops and we were back on our way to the Alamo, where names like Crockett and Bowie came alive.

It was October and while you wouldn’t say fall was in the air, we noticed a definite decline from the usual 40 degrees of soaring heat. The open road called us to New Orleans, so we drove till early evening reaching a beautiful canal site, minutes from all the action of Bourbon Street.

The city appeared more like a village in Europe, while we looked more like The Beverly Hillbillies’ Clampetts, canoe on top, dog and kids hanging from the windows, while young adults sloshed their way down the alleys and jazz poured from doorways. Gorging on freshly made beignets, we allowed the sounds and sites to enrich our senses, but when tiny noggins began to bob, we returned home to the sweet scent of moss, and the music of frogs.

We were only a day’s drive from family in Florida, where a lot of love was waiting for us. Our older son Brandon was attending college, my parents were snowbirds and my sister settled there with her family providing the same aged cousins. Tiny hands folded pieces of ripped paper towel; we voted to travel on.

We enjoyed hugs and being stationary, but it was short-lived. In a couple of weeks, back on the road to the Florida Keys, there were no u-turns only smiles. We picked our way along the aqua blue coast, made time for impromptu snorkelling and camped beside the ocean to the sound of the waves. Eventually, we reached Key West, the last island in the chain and it was time to start heading back north. Camping in Florida would not be complete without a visit to Orlando and Disney’s Wilderness Resort, where we roasted marshmallows with Chip ’n’ Dale and shared our campfire with other stuffed characters.

Between the fun, each month we mailed our completed package of school work, filling in the blanks with visits to the science centre and museums, projects that fit our lifestyle, or geographical location. In Florida we studied bridges, building swing, suspension, and beam bridges from K’nexs. We took side trips to see them in all their glory, a definite advantage to being in a state where bridges are their lifeblood.

By spring, with country music blaring from the radio and cowboy hats sitting on the shelves of each pit stop, the boys began to reminisce about our Calgary home. We took day hikes throughout the Smokey Mountains and canoed under their shadow as we had in the Rockies. We were still far from home, but feeling close.

Eventually, we made it out of the granite rock and trees of Ontario and onto the vast wide open spaces of the Prairies. Like Nevada, you could see the miles in front; the mountains were a mirage more than 1000 kilometers away. It had been a year since we shared that high five and the idea of being home started taking over. Walking through our front door, 367 days after saying goodbye, was euphoric; our home was so vast! There was unpacking and rediscovering all that had been put in storage, but there were also many visits to the trailer to retrieve something we needed—the great irony of having this huge home with all its luxuries and yet we still relied on our tiny travel trailer for essentials.

In a couple of weeks, Steve was back at work, and the kids went back to school. I was reminded of our first month in the trailer when we were settled but not content. One evening, as we all sat in the hot tub, enjoying the last of fall’s warm winds, the boys asked if we could pack up and leave again. In their young minds it was an easy decision; just move back into the trailer and hit the highway. For Steve and I, things were more complicated: bills, school, work. But as we tried to explain our responsibilities, we knew the seed was planted. There would be budgeting and logistics but once again the vote was unanimous “travel on.”

Lisa Dower wrote: My husband and I took a break from work to travel with our three young sons, 12 years, 50 countries and 5 continents later we were still making memories. With over 35,000 followers on popular travel web sites, my ideas and creative sense of family adventure is set out around the world. The attached article is from our year in a travel trailer.

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