[continued from Part I
The drive from Custer State Park into town was demoralizing. All of the kids cried, but Thing One was inconsolable. She cried long after the other two had stopped. “How are we supposed to do this if anything can happen at any time?” she asked.
I said, “It will get easier,” but I wasn’t sure it would. In town, we stayed in the Custer Motel, a cute and cheap place I found. It was built in the 30s, and all low ceilings and thick, white walls and bad oil paintings, and after we got undressed, we took turns in the shower trying to warm up. Afterwards, we curled against each other on one bed. I had pulled the blankets off the other one and layered them over the kids before I climbed in. We all said we were cold and this would be the best way to get warm. This was only partially true. Somewhere on the plains, the thunder was still rolling, and every so often, a flash would play against the heavy curtains. We fell asleep like that, all smashed together, worried over the weather, and still remembering how quickly everything had fallen apart.
The next morning, Things Two and Three were cheerful—bubbly even—but Thing One held her stomach in her hands and said she was sick. “I want to go home,” she said. “Please, just take us home.”
“We have to stay at least one day,” I said, “to dry everything out.”
“I want to be home. This is too hard.”
“Everything will be fine, sweetie,” I said, and I hugged her, but I wanted to go home, too. I wanted my own bed, the familiar smells of my kitchen. I wanted to be at the pool down the street from our house, reading a novel and buying the kids shaved ice. This was decidedly not a vacation. This was work.
I left Thing One in the room for a few minutes while the other two kids and I picked up pastries, coffee and juice. Things Two and Three seemed unaffected and asked when we’d get to Wisconsin, and what would New York City be like. I gave pat answers, but I was suddenly worried about our ability to complete the trip. We couldn’t even survive a simple thunderstorm, I kept telling myself. Who are you kidding about this?
Back at the motel, I gave the kids breakfast and then backed the car to the room door. Inside, it smelled a little musty already. The leather seats were still wet in places, and there were streaks of mud everywhere, even a long dramatic one, inexplicably, on the ceiling. The foot spaces were loaded with gear and wet books. As I looked at the car, I considered just loading the kids up and turning around, everything still muddy and wet. I could wash it all when we get home, I thought. Doing it here would be such a huge undertaking, and it depressed me to consider the cost. It would take an extra day at the motel, at least, to get everything washed and dried. Things could be broken or ruined, and they’d have to be replaced. We’d have to go to the laundromat, and we’d have to eat out instead of cooking the food we brought. Maybe it was just better to turn around.
I went into the room. Things Two and Three were contentedly watching Nickelodeon, but Thing One was still lying in bed. She didn’t want to eat. “When are we leaving?” she asked.
I rubbed her back as I thought about what I would tell her. She wanted me to say, “We’re leaving now and we’re going back home.” I imagined it—turning around here—and how I’d explain it to everyone, all the people I had told about the trip, all the people who were rooting for us to make it. I wanted my own bed, but I also didn’t want to let anyone down. “We have to dry everything out,” I told Thing One. “Let’s do that first. We’ll spend another day here and then we’ll figure it out.” She nodded, but she still looked upset. “It’ll be okay,” I said. I tried to sound like I believed it.
Outside, I unloaded the car, laying everything out carefully in the parking space next to ours. Sleeping bags in one section, tent components in another, food in another. The air mattress was soaked, but I reasoned it would dry and still work. I spread it out in another section, face up so it could dry. I piled the wet clothing in front of the car. The few things that weren’t wet, I stacked in the front seat. Our atlas was fine, if a little dog-eared. I checked the camp stove, and it lit up immediately. I blew the flame out and tucked it with the rest of the dry things.
It took the better part of an hour to lay everything out and take stock. The bright spot was that nothing was ruined and everything of worth was accounted for. We were only missing three tent stakes and a few cans of Coke. But as I looked over the backpacks and clothes and the packs of mac ‘n’ cheese, and the pots and pans, I realized both how much stuff I’d brought, and how much of it wasn’t as useful as it should have been. I had a dozen washcloths and a dozen kitchen rags. I also had a dozen kitchen towels. Two of each would have been fine, but somehow 36 total seemed reasonable when I had been packing. Our first aid kit was a joke: an old-fashioned, hard-sided toiletries suitcase loaded with burn cream and diarrhea pills and Benedryl and three kinds of acetaminophen and cotton swabs and strips of gauze and medical tape and a box of Epsom salts and Neosporin and five sizes of band aids and two pairs of tweezers and a snake bite kit. It made me look, firstly, like a neurotic, and secondly, like we were going to Terra del Fuego to live off the land, instead of moving from civilized place to civilized place. The easy answer is that I had packed the car absolutely full because I was afraid we’d need things and be unable to find them wherever we were. The truth was much simpler. These things were a security blanket. A way to preserve the semblence of life we had at home, before the trip. A means of keeping anything that would do us harm at bay.
There are few times in a life when you get to experience an epiphany. This was one of them for me. I sat on the steps leading to the hotel and starred at our mountain of stuff we’d hauled along. Then I remembered something from the night before, something that I hadn’t quite made sense of yet. As we drove out of the campgrounds, we turned a tight corner, and suddenly, in a wide vale, stood a small herd of deer. There were no more than five, maybe six, deer, all delicate legs and long necks. I whispered to the kids, “Look,” even though they had already noticed. The buck, tall and stately with an immense set of antlers, looked right at us. And then he turned, and begin moving through the grass. The rest of the herd followed, and all four of us watching them until the road turned and they went out of sight.
We’ll keep going, I realized. I’m not turning around yet.
-to be continued-