Into The Desert

Dear Family,

“When preparing to travel, lay out all your clothes and all your money. Then take half the clothes and twice the money.” -– Susan Heller

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It is certainly a legitimate option, when faced with health issues and challenging life circumstances, to choose low-key/ soothingly boring action steps such as making "lifestyle changes”, drinking less coffee, or finding reliable sources for cheap recreational drugs.

However, as you may know, by the time this past spring rolled around, my life was kind of resembling one non-stop action step. Plus, both Jeff and I are such teetotalers.

Thus: our decision to trade in our house. For a van and a tent camper.

I adore traveling. I am so, so thrilled to be out adventuring (the one main downside of which is being farther away from family and friends back east, at least for now). But, if I’m totally honest, trading in our entire family Action Step for a van + pop-up camper in less than three months' time was really a crapshoot in terms of whether the six of us would be strengthened by the experience, or fragmented into a hundred thousand tiny, highly-stressed family-like pieces.

In fact, I totally don’t endorse the practice of becoming a steamrolling powerhouse of efficiency and clear-it-out stamina, even in service of Doing What We Decided To Do, and even though I can’t imagine how we would have made the insane task list happen if I hadn’t done this. It was effective, exhausting, and really amazingly destabilizing. And yet...we left! We extricated ourselves from the trappings of modern HousePossessionsOnePlaceLiving, and got all six of us out into the world! So I don’t exactly regret it, even while I wish there had been another way.

Anyhow. The point is, I keenly felt, during the months of April through September, some teensy residual fallout from an emotional (neck-wrenching, zillion-mile-per-hour speed) roller coaster spring. I would see it on Ben’s face, or Eliza’s; and most often in the tired, furrowed brow of my darling, exhausted, sweet, calmness-desiring husband.

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Our fabulous visit to Palo Duro Canyon State Park was a culmination, of sorts - or maybe just a re-knitting-back-together of some delicately fragmented Things. Compared with our first weeks on the road, by mid-September Jeff and I were better at figuring out our route, picking campgrounds, picking campsites, figuring out how to figure stuff out, and listening (it would be handy if I am graced with a long life for Additional Practice). The kids knew (mostly) where everything was stored, and what it feels like when home can be anywhere, and how to discover Fun in many different places. Certain symptoms of Jeff’s were finally showing improvement: fewer super-fatigue days, better skin, clearer sinuses.

Entering the desert, so different from central NY, felt a little like we were coming full-circle. No more Efficiency-Crazed-Mama-Organized-Mandatory-Evacuation: now, as a family, we were owning our trip Together.

Ben stopped saying things like “Everyone else wants to travel but me" and “I only sorta like traveling sometimes” and “I wish we had a house.” Instead, he started saying, "Our family lives in a camper now!” and “I think my OCD feels better now that we’re traveling” and “I like living in our camper!" Eliza started saying, “I love camping!” Jem was already completely into the outdoor lifestyle, but after navigating his bike through the trails in Palo Duro, he began displaying an air of confidence that I’m hoping is just the beginning of a More Happy, focused Jem. Plus, he and Ben have been getting along better and bickering less than they have since Jem was a baby. Ivy….well, she is so busy making messes and climbing things and peeing and grabbing things and locating mud to step in and compost to eat and subsequently Pooping A Lot, that she has not a lot of time for reflection. Nor do I. Nor does anyone who spends a lot of time taking care of her. Jeff noted that even though he still thinks he’ll have a heart attack someday, he’s not nearly so positive that moderate hiking and daily life will precipitate it.

By the time we got to New Mexico, Land of Enchantment, we were way more seasoned travelers than the day we left Ithaca, bikes bouncing along, strapped behind the rig that had never been road tested until that very day. By New Mexico, we had a better-stocked pantry, able to supply spontaneous picnics. We could pull into parking spots without needing to sign a prenup.

By New Mexico, we were better able to be flexible with route changes and travel schedule adjustments to visit unmissable sights. We could better deal with moments when things didn’t go according to plan. We were more accepting of (or is it resigned to?) our extremely kid-oriented pace and capabilities. Better able to stretch out the time between shopping and laundry. Better able to drive two days in a row with no rest day in the middle.

You may be thinking: Wow, this amazing family is now a group of Travel Experts!

Well my goodness dearie me, no no no indeed we are not, knock on wood pooh pooh pooh hahahahaHA! Definitely we are not. Before you run off to divest yourself of wordly possessions right before spending Large Sums of Money on More Things, and then hitting the road: my glowingly brief description (above) glosses right over my personal and regular episodes of Bitter Housewife Syndrome, and the days when many family members spend a shit ton of time whining, and the afternoons when it seems like everyone is needy and hungry and dinner is decidedly Not Ready and also I'm tired, and the fact that this was technically a "vacation" at least from Jeff's work and yet things have hardly been restful for even four consecutive seconds, and how Jeff often feels stressed about Money.

But it's not boring. And there has been amazement and beauty and adventure and more gosh darn family togetherness this summer than I could ever imagine possible, at this time last year...

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Our Southwestern Itinerary:

-- Santa Rosa, New Mexica (Santa Rosa Lake State Park) This was a gorgeous, inexpensive gem of a campground - made even more amazing by a visit to Blue Hole, a shimmering, jewel-like pool that you should google...and then go visit. On the day we went, Jeff and I were exhausted from yet another night spent dealing with our perennially teething baby plus Nighttime Urination Issues (not only our own), thunderclouds loomed high over the desert, many family members whined a whole hell of a lot, and my car passenger phobia was badly aggravating both my sweet husband and my fragile self-esteem. Blue Hole was so goddamn amazing that none of that mattered much at all. Really, if you are ever in eastern NM, you absolutely must stop by.

-- Santa Fe, New Mexico (Cousin Lisa's driveway) Traveling with an adorable eighteen-month-old who is always teething does not enhance either ones energy level or ones (long- or short-term) memory, so luckily my mom reminded me - one day before we were slated to Zoom Right By - that I have lots of extended family in Santa Fe. We quickly changed our itinerary in order to climb (well, our van did the climbing) waaaaay up into the mountains - where the mosquitoes finally gave up, the air was clear and cool, and The City Different beckoned.

We ended up parking in Lisa's driveway for days. The kids didn't want to leave their newfound cousins, it was awesome to have cool nights for sleeping, and we had the opportunity (among many) to visit "Meow Wolf", "an arts production company that creates immersive, multimedia experiences that transport audiences of all ages into fantastic realms of storytelling. …a combination of jungle gym, haunted house, children’s museum, and immersive art exhibit, [t]his unique fusion of art and entertainment gives audiences fictional worlds to explore."

The boys and Eliza and Jeff explored Meow Wolf for over six hours. I walked around as much as I could, but was pretty much overwhelmed by insane levels of exhaustion, brought on by... Well, in the interests of brevity and not totally repeating myself, I'll just say: my hormones are ready for some resting!! And while Ivy is actually our easiest baby in many respects, I’m too old for this shit.

Mostly we spent our time at Lisa’s house, visiting her lovely family - and there is something amazingly sweet and rejuvenating about visiting people with whom you share history and blood relatives. So while it was disappointing to explore Santa Fe less than fully, and to have been dealt a hand dominated by hormonal fatigue + Bad Sleep, I was so appreciative that all six of us were loved and welcomed by distant cousins in a cool new place.

-- Prewett, New Mexico (Bluewater Lake State Park) The morning we left Santa Fe, our camper door zipper broke. Meaning, we couldn't close the door. Meaning, this was the desert's signal to rain, plus bring forth frigidly cold temps and blustery winds to rival eastern hurricanes.

That night it was 40f, our teeth started chattering when we climbed out of bed in the morning, and Jeff tested our stinky, scary furnace. We were so freaking cold, and yet we had more fun laughing over breakfast than we ever did on cozy warm mornings in our house; our campground neighbors brought over some apples they’d grown on their tree back in Albuquerque; and we decided that we probably want to keep traveling and living outside indefinitely.

Therefore, it was time to go fix our door zipper, and shop for the hard-sided camper of our dreams.

But first we had a side-trip to make, so that this day could win the award for Busiest Day Ever (plus, we crossed into and out of various time zones so we never totally figured out what time it was, anyway, until well after we were eating our dinner by the light of our solar lantern).

We started driving and within a few hours, the temperature had soared from 40f to 96f. By lunchtime, we were exploring Petrified Forest National Park, and the Painted Desert, Jeff and I both getting to fulfill separate childhood dreams of visiting same. Actually, most of my memories of this amazing place are of Ivy, and how on this day she began to fully master the art of stair-climbing, which meant that All She Wanted To Do Was Climb the Stairs. “Ivy, come lok at this amazing piece of fossilized ancient forest!” “Ivy, look at this incredible view of a vast, rainbow-colored desert wilderness!” “Ivy, don’t walk that way, you will fall off a cliff!” No matter - all Ivy wanted to do was go up and down the freaking stairs.

Which is really what life’s about, when you get right down to it. So climb those stairs, Ivy. Not that I can stop you anyway. I’ll just chase after you until I drop into a puddle of exhaustion and evaporate into the clear desert air.

-- Winslow, Arizona (Homolovi State Park) At Homolovi, we recuperated. The upholstery place where our zipper would finally be fixed couldn’t fix us till Thursday, so Jeff rigged up a very effective set of garbage bags and blankets, attached with clothespins, which kept us dry in the desert winds and rains. We took a walk around the site of an amazing, formerly-very-busy Hopi Village. Jeff took Ivy shoe-shopping and got her two pairs of shoes, to try to keep up with her rapidly expanding feet. We chatted with our elderly campground neighbors, a couple who first met one another in fourth grade and had grown up and lived their whole lives in Winslow. Now the wife has dementia, and the husband cares for her and occasionally takes them and their camper for local trips to the state park.

The day we left was sunny and beautiful, all the rain and wind having been temporarily used up (until our next stop!), and a truckload of prisoners arrived to do the campground maintenance and clean the bathrooms.

As we pulled our rig out of the state park, some members of our party felt distinctly grateful that they were currently neither suffering from Alzheimer’s nor incarcerated.

— Flagstaff, Arizona (Fort Tuthill County Park) Over the preceding several days, Jeff and I had spent every spare moment fantasizing about and researching (when internet and a free moment on the crapper presented itself) The Hard Sided Camper of Our Dreams. We finally found a company that appears to construct their RVs with durability and at least some amount of non-toxicity in mind. They import formaldehyde-free plywood from Spain. They even have a floorplan that is nearly perfect for our family, with three stacked bunks and a sofa bed, plus a convertible dinette and many other fine features. We spent an afternoon’s drive drooling and figuring out a semi-local dealer to visit during the layover to fix our zipper.

And then we pulled into the amazing county park in Flagstaff, surrounded by Ponderosa pines, and discovered that the campground hosts had a Lance camper, almost exactly like the one we want, which they’ve lived in for the past eighteen months! We spent over an hour getting a tour, drooling even more over the four-season features of this camper (google “Lance 2185” if you want to see the model we want), and admiring a healthy tarantula that came prancing through the campsite.

Over the next two days, we got our zipper fixed; we experienced the nearly-wintry weather of Flagstaff (including a significant amount of rain, which thankfully mostly let up by the time we had to put our tent back on the camper); we went to tour a whole lot of different campers, including the Lance of our dreams; and we spent just a short time at a most amazing mountain bike park that was adjacent to the campground. This was a very peak experience, watching Jem and Ben and even Eliza (and Jeff! And me, just a little) zoom through a beautifully-landscaped course that winds through the Ponderosas, allowing novices and advanced riders a chance to challenge themselves and enjoy.

— Kingman, Arizona (Kingman KOA) And then we were in Kingman, Arizona, almost to the other side of the continent! And we thought we had finally reached the desert.

—Joshua Tree, CA (Maya’s driveway)

And then…we actually reached the desert. Holy guacamole, now THIS was the desert! This day’s drive was amazingly desolate and pretty darn bleak - especially because we forgot to fuel up in Winslow, and by the time we realized that we Really Needed Gas, there were no gas stations. For hours. There was pretty much nothing at all, apart from Nature, in all her arid glory, complete with salt flats, No Trees, and Vast Expanses of Space. It’s really easy to understand, sometimes, that we are just the minutest of fly specks on this twinkly little spinning thing.

(We made it to the gas station, which our Trip Range Meter predicted we would.)

And we arrived in Maya’s driveway, and suddenly here was my friend, all grown up with a KID and everything - whom I hadn’t seen in person in about ten years! It’s so awesome how traveling is finally allowing us to see people who used to be so super far away…

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9/29 Letter Home “From Eliza Ruth Matilsky “I've seen lots of Joshua trees! The sky here is pretty at Joshua tree. I long to see you. And I love you! “Love Eliza”

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Jefferism: "I used to be afraid I would die early, and that I'd have a lot of regrets. Now I still think I'll die early, but I'll have a lot fewer regrets!"

Bennerism: Concerning a relentlessly windy day: “What is wrong with the desert?! I am not satisfied!”

Jemmerism: Concerning his grandparents celebrating their 51st wedding anniversary: “Wow, that's amazing!!"

Elizaisms: “When did I fall down today? Didn’t I fall” Oh - do you mean when Jem accidentally dumped you out of the wagon on your head?? “Oh yeah, that’s when I fell. I don't even want to talk about that!”

"Mosquitos are my not favorite bugs!"

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And there you have it. Yet another leg of our journey is over, while the next one has already begun!

Thanks so much for the super fun notes from all of YOU! I can’t wait to see you, out there in the world. :)

Love, Sarabeth