Today was Fetcha Day for our new furry baby. After spending the night in Vernal, Utah, we drove into Duchesne and met the breeder at 9 am. She was wonderful, and Loki (whose full AKC name shall be Happy Go Loki Seven) was perfect from the get go. He played with a kitten, ran around the grass, and then settled into our arms like he had always belonged with us.
The drive from Duchesne to our house is approximately seven hours, and with a new pup we wanted to get home as quickly as possible. Along the way, we stopped several times at parks to let Loki use the grassy facilities and stretch his three-inch long corgi legs. By the time we hit Interstate 70, a point where we should have been a little over three hours from home, traffic came to a dead stop and then proceeded at a snail’s pace. That was about 1:30 pm. We got home at 7:30 pm. You do the math. At least it was a gorgeous Colorado fall day with plenty of color on the mountains to make the sluggish day bearable.
Loki could not have been a better travel companion, all five pounds of him. He did all his dirty business on the stops we made and never in the car. He missed his dinner time, but never whined about it. He entered his new kennel on his own and took several naps in there unprompted. And he tolerated ten hours in a car like a seasoned pro. He is a puppy to be sure, all sharpy teeth and nails, but he loves people and could not have a sweeter disposition. I can tell he is going to give us a run for our money, though, because he is smart. He has already proven he learns quickly. We are going to have to be careful because he is sure to pick up bad habits as quickly as good ones if we are not.
When we got home, we had a plan to slowly and respectfully introduce Ruby to the new brother she did not request. We had Luke walk her before we came home to get her in a calmer mental space. We let Loki run around the yard as soon as we arrived and then we put him in his small kennel, carried him in, and set him where Ruby could see him. She came close to investigate, clearly was not thrilled, but walked away without a snarl or as much attitude as I had expected. Then we left the puppy with Luke and took her for another walk. We are going to work to keep them separate by keeping Loki in his pen or crate when he is around her and not allowing him to play around her until Ruby is ready to accept her new roommate. It might take a couple weeks, but I think our slow approach will work. Fingers crossed.
We are all exhausted now after a long day, so it’s time to settle in for the night. So far so good with the puppy, the doggy introduction, and an only mildly sassy Ruby. Life is better with a furry dog friend or two.
During our car travels, we spend a lot of time talking. We’ve so often used car time to cover deep and wide-ranging topics and have intellectual conversations that there have been times when we have driven three or four hours without realizing the radio has been off the entire drive. In truth, our sons often asked us to turn the radio down so they could join the adult conversation happening in the front seat. A conversation can arise from something we see out the window, but it often morphs into another as a kernel of information from the first topic germinates. Sometimes there will be a few moments of silence as we reflect on what has been said, but then someone will reintroduce a previous topic with a new vision that arose from that silence. We can get into some rather passionate discussions and have to fight for an opportunity to put our two-cents in, but it’s definitely one of the ways we learn the most about each other. Usually at the end of a long trip, one of us will remark about how fast the drive went because we talked the entire way.
There was one time when we talked about religion and faith the entire way to Steamboat Springs because our third grade son got into the car worried that we would not end up in heaven together. There was a summer trip home from the mountains when I had to tell our sons, then 11 and 9, that there had been a mass shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, and we spent the remainder of the ride unpacking that information. Our oldest has led us through prehistory, talking animatedly about geology, dinosaurs, evolution, and birds. Our youngest recently read Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock, a book written 50 years ago, and has been discussing it at length by tying it into our current human condition with the speed of change. During the latest trip, we spent a great deal of time talking about vaccine hesitancy and the Delta variant of Covid-19, about racism and sexism, and about the political climate in our nation too. Occasionally we use car time to discuss our future travel plans, but usually we talk about big picture topics in the world at large because those can carry us the longest distance.
We aren’t always serious. Some of my favorite conversations are ones where someone pops off with a memorable comment. Yesterday, I heard a sarcastic “Nothing shows respect for the American flag more than using it to cradle your ball sack” comment. Once, seven-year-old Joe used a car trip to remark, “You know, Mom, to a car, life IS a highway.” And I remember one ride where my youngest, pulling from something he had seen before somewhere, simply commented out of the blue, “Unfortunately for Joe, he’s made of meat.” Another time I was giving Joe grief about something and from the back seat Luke replied, “You’re not gonna throw him out like day old chowdah.” Yes. New England accent and everything. You never know what weirdness you might hear if you’re paying attention. You just have to be paying attention.
Car time is when your kids are a captive audience. We sought to use this to our advantage. We asked them questions to foster conversations, like What are your top three Pixar films or Who are your favorite Marvel heroes (Captain America and Thor for me, if you were wondering). Because our sons never went to a local school, they never had a bus ride. They just had me dropping them off and picking them up every school day, and the commute to school was never less than 20 minutes one way. Listening during car rides became the most efficient way to learn about my kids and talking during car rides became the most effective way to sneak in some valuable information I was hoping to impart. Along the way, our habit of coming up with family discussions took on a life of its own. It helps to be a family filled with idea people who are never short on opinions, but sometimes I wonder if we were always that way or if we evolved into those people because of our car talk.
I like to think our car conversations are one of the reasons our family is as close as it is. We’re heading up to the mountains again soon, then in a few weeks Joe and I will be driving the 1,084 miles back to his college for fall semester, and after that Luke and I will be sharing the driving task to and from his high school as he gets in more hours before taking his driving test. Eventually these chatty car rides will become more and more infrequent, but good lord I am glad we’ve taken this car time together and used it for discussion because it’s made us the family we are.
After racking up about a thousand miles driving around Colorado this weekend, we arrived home late this afternoon. We’re filthy, the camper still needs to be cleaned out and put back together, and we had to order in pizza because the fridge was empty, but we’re home. Funny how walking into your home after time away feels heavenly. Nothing has changed. It’s the same place you left not that long ago. But somehow it’s renewed. Maybe it’s just because I spent the past four days living in a tin can on wheels, but our home felt like a palace when I walked in. It seems huge. I’m feeling pretty spoiled.
The walls might start to close in on me a little tomorrow when I have to catch up on laundry, go grocery shopping, and fall back into my normal housekeeping job, but for tonight this house is the Four Seasons with a luxurious king bed and top-of-the-line bath products. Now all I need is a decent night’s rest and a long, hot shower that turns me into a Disney princess.
They say home is where you hang your hat. Tonight I am grateful that my hat rack is no longer on wheels.
“Happiness hit her like a train on a track.” ~ Florence Welch
I spent today on the Durango Silverton Narrow Gauge Railway. If you haven’t been, add it to your bucket list. The trip takes you a little over 45 miles one way through the heart of the San Juan Mountains in southwestern Colorado from Durango to Silverton. This was my second trip on the train, the first time with our sons. The only way to see this stretch of Colorado is via this train. I spent my entire day feeling grateful that this is where I have spent most of my life. Colorado is stunning. It’s a privilege to live here.
Some are born crazy. Some achieve craziness. Some have craziness thrust upon them. These three lines are all applicable to me. I was born crazy. As I grew, I became adept at increasing my inherent craziness. Then I got married and birthed sons, which left me surrounded by additional craziness. Given the relative level of insanity I have been able to conjure from thin air, it’s no surprise that in January, whilst overcome by oh-my-god-I-hate-winter-and-want-to-run-away syndrome, I began planning a family summer trip to Europe. I live my life from trip to trip. As soon as I finish one, I begin planning the next. In my dream world, I leave Denver at least once every three months. Not because I don’t love it here, but because the world is calling me.
I planned a three-leg, western European capital-city tour beginning in London. We’d spent weeks narrowing down our packing choices to fit into carry-on luggage. I’d rented us apartments in London, Amsterdam, and Paris. I’d purchased train tickets. I’d booked sightseeing tours and printed out Tube and Metro maps. I’d taught the boys a few useful French phrases. But, for all my planning, I was apprehensive. We’d always traveled on tours where someone else was responsible, with full knowledge that if something went sideways it would be their job to resolve it. This trip was all on me. Still, I reasoned, the four of us are capable and seasoned world travelers who should be able to overcome any obstacles thrown in our path, provided we don’t end up choking each other out of exhaustion, hunger, or frustration first.
We flew Air Canada to Montreal and then on to London. The airline, god bless their little hearts, ended up changing our itinerary from a two-hour layover in Montreal to a six-hour one, because why not? About fifteen minutes after we landed, I realized my wedding band was missing. A quick mind combing brought me to the conclusion that when I took my ring off to put on hand lotion during the flight I became distracted by something else and forgot about the ring. It must have fallen from my lap onto the floor or into a crack in the seat and, being exhausted, I had forgotten I had taken it off in the first place. Damn. To kill the six hours in Montreal, we tried some poutine, bought a deck of cards, and played endless rounds of Crazy 8s. Eventually I stopped flagellating myself over my lost ring. We’d bought it in Maui, so I now had reason to plan our next trip.
When we finally landed at Heathrow, it was not quite 11 am and a heat wave already had us at 85 degrees. Operating on almost no sleep, we found our way onto the Underground and landed at Victoria station. From there, we wandered around awhile, melting in the sun under our backpacks, waiting for our Vrbo check in time. We found a Pret a Manger (a quick food/coffee shop that became my London go-to because it has gluten-free and healthy items), grabbed some sandwiches and a protein box, and set off in search of a picnic spot. We googled a nearby park and arrived only to discover it was a private and gated park from which we were banned like mangy, stray dogs. So, we gave up, sat down in some shade outside said private park, and ate on the sidewalk. We are flexible and know when to cut our losses.
After checking into our rented flat, a basement apartment on a residential street in the Westminster borough, we headed out to show the boys some sights we were looking forward to seeing again. Steve and I had traveled to London in 1997 with his folks. We arrived on August 30th. Princess Diana would die in a car crash in Paris in the early morning hours of August 31st. We were there in the week leading up to her funeral and witnessed the mourners and piles of flowers and endless lines to sign condolence books. While we enjoyed our visit then, we hoped this trip would find the city lighter in spirit.
We began our whirlwind tour by hauling it over to Westminster Abbey, a 20-minute walk from our flat. The line was short and we went right in. Much to my surprise, our teenage sons were fascinated by the abbey. They were struck by its size and architecture, as well as by the history contained within. They stared for a while at the markers for Charles Darwin, Winston Churchill, Isaac Newton, Stephen Hawking, and Nelson Mandela. I stood in Poet’s Corner, paying my respects to Jane Austen, George Eliot, and the Bronte sisters, greedily wishing they were given greater due but grateful they had been recognized at all.
After leaving the abbey, we walked the short distance to Big Ben. Apparently I had fallen down on my research because we found the clock tower shrouded in scaffolding as repairs to the facade are being undertaken. The clock face was still exposed, but we were not going to get an Insta-worthy photo of the tower on this trip.
Undaunted, we pulled out our London Pass again and walked to the Churchill War Rooms. Although it hadn’t been by intentional planning on my part, our trip coincided with the 75th anniversary of D-Day Invasion. Our sons are both world history buffs, so I knew they would be fascinated by the War Rooms as I had been back in 1997. As it was my second time through and I was tired and growing hungry, their comprehensive exploration of the museum was less charming than it might have otherwise been.
From there we wandered to Buckingham Palace where we witnessed the motorcade for newly elected Boris Johnson disappear behind the gates on the palace grounds for his first official visit with the queen. The boys, being boys, aren’t much for palaces, so we ended our long, hot day with fish and chips at The Laughing Halibut before heading back to put our feet up. We opened all the screen-less windows, put on some local television to settle into British life, and drifted off excited for what London would share with us next.
When the idea was first floated to take a trip to Africa for safari, we had no agreement on specifically where we wanted to go. Africa is massive with myriad intriguing places, varying ecosystems, and animals to see. Eventually we narrowed it down to two typical safari countries, South Africa or Tanzania. I was in the minority in wanting Tanzania and, like a candidate running for office, I waged a campaign. I wanted Tanzania because I needed to see Mt Kilimanjaro because I hope to summit it someday. I wanted Tanzania because it was closer and would involve less travel time. And, finally, I wanted Tanzania because it contains the Ngorongoro Crater.
The Ngorongoro Crater isn’t actually a crater in the geological sense. It’s the world’s largest inactive, intact, and unfilled volcanic caldera. The crater formed when a large volcano exploded and collapsed in on itself 3 million years ago. Its floor covers 100 square miles at an elevation of 5,900 feet. Its walls tower 2,000 feet above. It is a conservation area and a World Heritage Site. And, it’s a perfect place for the approximately 25,000 animals who call it home. Large numbers of zebra, wildebeest, cape buffalo, gazelles, and antelope graze the floor where lions and hyena keep a watchful eye. There is no other place like it on earth.
To enter the crater, you must drive up to the rim before beginning your descent to the crater floor. Although I intellectually understood what the crater was, I could never have grasped what I saw from that lookout point without standing there. I think as tour guide Ammy never tires of the reactions of guests as they stumble dumbfounded to the edge of the rim and breathe in the magnificence of the view. It’s unimaginable. And photos cannot do it justice, which is why I wasn’t prepared for the emotion I felt that morning despite having spent hours viewing other’s images of the crater online before our trip.
After we took a gazillion photos that again would not do it justice, we loaded back into the car and turned onto a one-way, 4×4 road to drop the 2,000 feet to the floor. We rocked and rolled from side to side on the way down. Sometimes the downward angle seemed impossible.
Down, down we go
When we finally reached the bottom, it was overwhelming. The views were 360 degrees for 10 miles. Everywhere you turned, there were animals. We saw thousands of zebras communing with thousands of gazelles and antelopes and wildebeests. We saw some lions lazing in the sun. We watched a couple zebras fight, kicking and biting each other. Then we saw an ostrich running from an annoyed wildebeest.
As we all surveyed the surrounding area viewing different wildlife interactions and trying to choose which to focus on, Luke shouted that he saw a honey badger. Say what? Aren’t those nocturnal? This poor fellow seemed to be lost. Ammy surmised he might have gone out hunting and gotten a little too far from his home. He searched for a while before finally settling down near some jackals. While honey badgers may be fierce, apparently they also can be forgetful. Don’t trust this guy to be key master at your keg party.
The one thing you don’t expect on the crater floor is the plethora of Land Cruisers. The crater is a popular place. But because it is also enormous, you don’t feel crowded save for a few areas. The hippo pond is especially popular. Good luck getting a view there without waiting in a line of vehicles.
The other time when we were bogged down by other tourists and their open-roof vehicles was while attempting to view a rhino. Rhinos are a rare sight in the crater because their population, which numbered about 108 in the mid 1960s, is now only about 12-18 individuals. Ammy heard on the radio there was a rhino to view, but took the long way around hoping the traffic would break up before we got there. It did somewhat, and we were able to park and observe it with our binoculars. Steve, with his crazy camera lens, was able to capture this shot from about 150 yards away.
I felt sorry for the rhino. It just wanted to live its life and cross the road, but all the traffic was parked in its way. (Why did the rhino cross the road? Because it was sick of all the damn tourists.) It eventually gave up and retreated far enough back that it could not be seen from any of the established roads. It would cross another time.
At midday, Ammy found us a picnic spot in the Land Cruiser parking lot and we set up lunch. We could not eat outside the 4×4 because the birds were aggressive and not taking no for an answer. We watched them dive bombing other people and decided that indoor dining was the best option.
A friend recently asked me what you do when nature calls on safari. Well, there is no bathroom in the vehicle. So you go into nature when nature calls, which is much easier for the men than the women. Fortunately, after decades of camping and hiking, I have no issues with baring my hind end in the great outdoors. Still, you need some privacy, so the back of the vehicle is where you go. We called this “checking the tire pressure.” Too much coffee this morning? Tell Ammy you need to check the tire pressure, hop out, head to the back of the vehicle, and hope no other Land Cruiser comes pulling up before your pants do.
There are so many critters in the crater that there are endless viewing and photo opportunities. The animals are so close that more often than not you do not need binoculars or a zoom lens to see them or get a photo. I never thought the kids and I would be able to spend 8+ hours a day for a week without wifi or texting, doing nothing but staring at animals, without beginning to miss our life back at home. I was wrong. We weren’t missing our technology at all.
What’s new, gnu?
Zebras with a view
Old male cape buffalo
Select any photo above to enlarge it.
If you’re going to make the trip to Tanzania for the purpose of going into the crater, though, be forewarned that in the dryer months views in the crater may be obscured by dust kicked up by Land Cruisers. Ammy told us that sometimes you can’t see from one side to the other because of airborne dust. We lucked out because we needed to travel over the winter holidays. After the short rains of November and December, the grasses were low but green and abundant and, because of the periodic light rains, the roads and landscape were not dried out. Best of both worlds. It made for fantastic scenery in addition to wildlife viewing.
Reflecting hippo pool on a clear day
Every night at dinnertime we played a game called High/Low where we each recounted our high moment and low moment of the day. As I recall it, this was one day where we all had to dig for a low. Seriously, what kind of low can you recount while eating a gourmet meal at the Plantation Lodge after a clear, sunny day in the Ngorongoro Crater? Perhaps only that your stops to check the tire pressure subtracted from your time enjoying the wildlife.
I remember before we left for our Tanzania trip, my sister-in-law asked my husband if he thought they would have decent coffee where we’d be staying. We giggled a bit before he assured her our caffeine needs would be more than adequately met with tasty coffee. At the Asilia properties where we stayed, Little Oliver’s Camp and later Namiri Plains Camp in the Serengeti, they brought it to our tents every morning on wooden trays so we could enjoy it while we readied for breakfast. There are days when I wake up at home now and look forlornly around the room in the sad realization that no one has brought my coffee in. Dammit.
All good things must come to an end and so, after our morning coffee and a delightful patio breakfast where a pair of hornbills came to steal some food, it was time to say goodbye to our hosts. I will not lie. I legit cried as we pulled away from Little Oliver’s Camp. I cannot state highly enough what a magical place it is. The quarters are luxurious with no attention to detail spared, and the outdoor showers are the stuff of dreams. The main lounge area is stunning and comfortable. The food is delicious and served in large quantity along with wonderful wine and cocktails. The people working there are the best. You go to Tanzania for the animals and the experience but, make no mistake about it, the kindhearted and gracious people will convince you to return.
This day, we would drive head out of Tarangire National Park, visit Lake Manyara National Park, and eventually land at our next home, the Plantation Lodge. It would take several hours to exit Tarangire, so we left early to ensure we’d have time to stop and view the abundant wildlife on the way out.
One creature we loved seeing was the dik-dik, a small, territorial antelope. Yes. Such a thing exists. Steve, the boys, and I became obsessed with these little guys, forcing Ammy to stop over and over so we could watch them defend their territory with their tiny horns or dart off, stop, and then eye us suspiciously. Most people go to Africa and go crazy for cheetah or giraffes. Here we were, losing it over 11 pound antelope. But, look at this photo and tell me you blame us.
We had seen a few giraffe at a distance during our time in Tarangire, but on our way out of the park on New Year’s Day, we saw over 40 of them in the span of only a mile. We watched a pair battle each other with their long necks. We saw one bend at the knees to eat grass and saw others stretch to reach the tips of the treetops to grab the most tender bites of acacia leaves. Ammy said he hadn’t often seen them together in such large numbers. We joked that perhaps it was their annual giraffe convention. It felt like they were coming out to see us off.
After bidding a fond farewell to Tarangire, we headed to Lake Manyara where we expected to see zebra, wildebeests (aka, gnus), and cape buffalo. The first thing we encountered in the park were baboons along the road. Baboons are fun to watch. They, like the elephants, are always up to something. Anywhere you park, you must roll up your windows because they are opportunists. On more than one occasion we saw a baboon dive into a vehicle and make off with food. I couldn’t decide if I thought they were creepy with their huge canine teeth or adorable with their mischievous and spunky personalities.
Not long after beginning our drive though the park, the sky opened up. It was the only time on the trip when we endured a sustained daytime rain. We closed the roof and tried to take photos out the windows. The area around Lake Manyara is marshy, and I was grateful for the Land Cruiser as we passed through some standing water. As the rains began to lighten, we saw some zebras that looked as if they wished to switch places with us in our dry vehicle. I started speaking of them with the traditional British accent because zeh-bra sounds much more dignified.
The wildlife to be seen here is impressive: elephants, hippos, zebra, wildebeest, cape buffalo, and all types of water birds. Because the weather wasn’t in our favor, we didn’t spend much time in this park but I believe it would be worthwhile to give another shot at a later date.
We headed out towards our next lodging, stopping at a shop filled with locally crafted items. There were paintings, carvings, and all manner of beaded and other textile gifts. We had fun choosing special treats for our family back home. And Steve did his best to barter lower prices. In the end, I think he felt he could have done a better job and saved us some money. I told him that we were helping the local economy and, let’s face it, could spare a little extra for people who didn’t have nearly what we do. It’s all good.
Ammy turned off onto a dirt road that wasn’t marked and we bounced our way back a few miles to our final destination of the day. As we pulled up the long road towards our lodging, it was obvious we were in for a treat. Plantation Lodge is set on a hill, the entire property shrouded from view with greenery. We pulled up to a parking area and got out of the Land Cruiser. After climbing some stairs to reach the property, I began shaking my head. Ahead of us lie perfectly manicured lawns, all manner of tropical plants, and white cottages with heavy wooden doors. Arbors were covered in flowers, plumeria bloomed everywhere, and several cats lounged lazily in the shade of day waiting for their night shift to begin. Were we really in Africa? This was my second choice lodge for this portion of the trip, and I found myself glad we’d landed here. It was clear we were in for a treat.
More roughing it
We settled into our rooms, took some time to wander the property, and grabbed an evening cocktail before dinner while the boys took to the pool. It’s such a pleasure to travel in a way that affords complete relaxation. Because Deeper Africa took care of every last detail, we were able to show up and just be in the moment. I breathed deeply that afternoon with my cocktail in hand, sunglasses on my face, and the promise of another wondrous adventure day on the horizon.
“Making the decision to have a child – it is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.” ~Elizabeth Stone
Right now, if the above saying is true, my heart is walking around India. On Saturday, we drove our oldest to the airport at 7:30 a.m. so he could board a flight to Asia with fifteen classmates and three of their high school teachers. We had spent the better part of two weeks making sure he was geared up for this trip, both mentally, physically, and personally. We bought him the requisite power adapter and made sure he had adequate, quick drying clothing along with several sticks of deodorant we knew he would need in the 100 degree summer-in-India weather. Oddly, both my husband and I were calm and collected as we said our goodbyes to Joe and left him at the airport to embark on a 24-hour travel day, including a 15 hour flight from Newark to Mumbai, without us. There were no tears or histrionics, not even in the car on the ride home. I’m not sure how we pulled it off.
The decision to let your child travel without you is a leap of faith. Like a child learning to ride a bicycle, we began with training wheels. First, we sent Joe to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota to do some service work for five days during his freshman year. Last summer, we left him for a week at summer camp at the foot of Long’s Peak. This past March, Joe went to Grand Cayman to earn his scuba certification. Each time we let him go, he returned a little braver, stronger, and more self-possessed. Each time he left, we grew a little more resigned to the reality that he really is growing up.
Each time Joe has gone away, he has done so without a phone. For the trip to India, we were given the option to get him a cellular plan or let him take his iPad and use hotel Wifi to reach out when he could. For us, it was a no brainer. We weren’t sending him halfway around the world so he could ride in a van creating bunny-eared Snapchat photos as India teemed with life around him. He was traveling with responsible people who would be updating us and who had cell phones. He didn’t need his. He would experience more without it.
It never occurred to me that not letting him take his phone might seem foolish. It wasn’t until I was met with incredulity from other parents regarding my son’s phone-less status that it even crossed my mind that our actions might be beyond the pale. How could I let my son go halfway around the world without a way for me to check in on him? What if he needed me and was unable to get a Wifi signal? What if there was an emergency? I don’t let my son walk 1.5 miles to Target without his cell phone. What the hell was I thinking sending him to ASIA without one? I questioned my sanity.
Then while talking to another mom with a child on the trip, she showed me the app she uses to track her son’s whereabouts. She showed me exactly where our kids were at that moment, in their hotel, near a hospital in Mumbai. That was when I remembered why we sent him without a phone. As uncomfortable as it may be for a mother’s heart, this is Joe’s experience. He deserves the room to have it his own way without constant input and monitoring. If something comes up, he can be trusted to to figure it out. What he needs is the freedom to experience India and Sri Lanka without my two-cents.
Right now, it’s 1:35 a.m. in Mumbai, and my second heart is probably sleeping, exhausted after a day touring the slums of Dharavi and viewing that world through its first-world, teenage boy filter. My second heart, the one I grew over nine months and delivered into the world seventeen years ago, is having an 18-day adventure in life in southern Asia. It’s feeling and stretching and evolving. It’s not simply going through the motions and it’s not staring at its phone. It’s living in the moment unencumbered by its usual reality. That is worth a little sacrifice and emotional malaise on my part, being out of instant touch with my boy, one of my favorite people on this planet.
I won’t feel whole again until my heart is back with me. When it gets here, though, it’s going to be fuller than it has ever been. And the experience it has had will be a gift to me, not only because Joe will have grown in ways he never could have without this solo journey but because this time apart has given me an appreciation for what an open, curious, resilient person we’ve raised. He’s a rockstar, far braver than I was when I was his age.
Someday maybe Joe will give life to his own second heart and let it wander the world, adventuring without him, and he too will stretch and grow in ways he never imagined possible when he had only one heart.
Back in February, at the bequest of my eldest son, I added the eclipse on August 21st to our family iCalendar. Then I forgot about it. In April, Joe mentioned he wanted to travel to Casper, four hours north of us, to view the eclipse in totality. He told me this eclipse was a huge deal and we should make a plan. I shrugged it off. August was months away. I told him I would get to it. By early June when I finally got to it, there were no rooms available. No rooms. Zero. In Casper. Wyoming. No camping spaces anywhere within the Wyoming area of totality either. On AirBnB, houses were renting for upwards of $1k per night with a two-night minimum. I thought I was in a parallel universe. This is a state where you can travel for hours and see more pronghorn than people. Joe enjoyed a hearty I told you so, and I ate crow and dug out Plan B.
So on August 21st, we awoke in Nebraska. Through ludicrous amounts of searching, I managed to discover a spot within the Nebraska area of totality to park our rPod trailer for a bona fide, eclipse-mania bargain of $50 a night (two night minimum, of course). We spent the previous night camped in a grassy field in the Morrill County Fairgrounds in Bridgeport with about fifty other families who also had put off nailing down an eclipse plan until the last possible moment. These likeminded procrastinators were my eclipse tribe, and we were poised to use our verified, paper, solar-eclipse glasses to see our magnificent star blotted out momentarily by our only satellite. We lucked out. The morning fog had burned off, and the Nebraska sky was clear, blue, and ready to oblige us with an unobstructed view.
I struggle for sufficient words to describe what I felt as the moon eclipsed the sun. As a family we had made a conscious determination to spend our minute seven seconds of totality present in the moment and not absorbed with the misguided notion we could capture and catalog this singular experience with an iPhone. When the moon made midday in Nebraska into dusk and exposed me to a 360-degree sunset, I exclaimed to myself (but somehow loudly enough for my family to remember): This is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. It was incomparable. I could not hold back the tears.
I recount this personal tale not because I felt the world needed yet another #solareclipse2017 story, but because I realized on our way home from Nebraska that an older version of me, a Justine 1.0, would have missed the experience of totality. Being ever realistic and focused on the big picture, I would have done what many Denverites did. After finding lodging completely booked and reading road signs warning of high traffic and news articles advising travelers to bring extra cash, extra food and water, and emergency gas cans because of the unprecedented amount of day travelers expected to make the trek, I would have cut my losses and stayed home. I would have decided it wasn’t worth the risk or the expense or the vacation day hubby would take or the potential 8-12 additional travel hours in endless traffic or the missed first day of school for the boys. I would have determined that 93% of an eclipse was close enough. I would have told myself I would catch the next total eclipse in 2024. And I would have shared all those same rationalizations with my son in lieu of an apology for making him miss something he had been begging to see. I would have told him he had an entire lifetime to catch one later.
But I am no longer Justine 1.0. I am Justine 2.0. Because of my sons, I am daily aware how short life is and how quickly time goes. I know you don’t always have a second shot, a do over, another day. I have learned sometimes if your intuition tells you something might be important, you have to take a leap. You have to decide the adventure is worth it. You have to make it a priority. You have to tell the myriad excuses to talk to the hand. We left the house Sunday night hoping to see a total eclipse, but knowing we might not. We discussed all the things that could go wrong, including rainy skies, running out of gas, and wasting hours in traffic to see not much more than we could have seen from our yard. We decided that at the very least we’d come out of this with an amusing anecdote of a crazy family trip. At most we would fulfill our expectations and maybe even be surprised by something greater.
We weren’t disappointed. Despite the glitch that left us scrambling for lodging at the last minute, Justine 2.0 proved a definite improvement over the earlier version. I’m starting to suspect that Justine 2.5, currently under development, will be even faster on the uptake.
Life is funny. There you are, going along on autopilot, head down, cruising blindly through your day when suddenly something completely unexpected happens to remind you that you’re alive.
The day started out as our typical travel day. We were up at the butt-crack of dawn to head to the airport. Got there early, checked one bag, cruised through TSA-Pre and were sitting at our gate guzzling lattes with an hour to spare before our flight. (Don’t get me started on how early my husband finds it necessary to head to the airport. It’s been a 20-year battle for which I’ve only ever managed to negotiate a 15-minute delay in the alarm clock.) Flight took off and landed on time, we breezed through the rental car counter, and were quickly on our way to a top-rated, Trip Advisor restaurant for a Montana-sky-sized breakfast. So far, so good.
During breakfast we discussed our options for the day. It is rainy and cool here in Billings, so we decided to take a scenic drive to see some pictographs. The drive took fifteen minutes. Fifteen minutes. Why is everything so much closer in a smaller town? So much for killing time before our family dinner meet up. As we checked in at the visitor center, we discovered the cave where the pictographs can be viewed was closed due to a rock slide earlier in the year. Bummer. We took a short walk around, but decided that cold and wet was no way to spend vacation. We got back in the car and discussed an art museum visit and a mansion tour. Both options were met with grunts and eye rolls. We negotiated a settlement. We would check in early at the hotel and, if the boys let their exhausted parents catch a quick nap, we would hit the pool. It was the most optimistic and ambitious plan we had all day.
The boys let us sleep about thirty minutes and then began their pacing. I could hear the drum beats getting louder and more insistent. The natives were getting restless. I gave in to the increasing volume, sat up to offer an ultimatum, and spied out the window a man on horseback in the hotel parking lot. Only in Montana. I mentioned it to the boys who ran to the window.
“There are three guys on horseback out here!” Luke exclaimed.
“What the….there are cops out here with rifles!” Joe added.
“What?” I questioned. “Are the rifles drawn?”
“Yes!” Joe exclaimed.
This piqued Safety Dad’s interest. He went over to the window to investigate. I gave up and crawled back under the covers, hoping to extract a few more precious moments of rest.
“There’s something on the ground back there behind the horse trailer,” I heard Steve report from the depths of my semi-conscious state. “The police keep walking back there and taking photos.”
I turned over toward the window and opened my eyes. They were all three lined up at the window, staring out of the partially drawn curtains like nosey neighbors.
“Why don’t you go walk around the hotel and see if you can figure out what is going on?” I suggested, hoping they would all leave so I could get some decent sleep.
Steve’s phone rang. He looked at it and mentioned it was a local number. I sensed something was amiss. The only person in Billings who would be calling us did not know we were here. Fifteen seconds into the call and I had determined we were involved in whatever was going on outside.
“I’ve got to go downstairs and meet a police officer,” he said. “Apparently a bull hit our car.”
“What?” I said, jumping out of bed. He repeated himself as means of explanation.
“I’ve gotta see this,” I said.
I started pulling on street clothes while the boys began grilling their dad about the phone call. Steve was anxious to get downstairs so we rushed out while I was still pulling on my sweater and boots. We headed down the stairs, four people armed with three iPhones for photos and social media updates.
We popped the fire door to the parking lot and saw a fire truck, wet, soapy pavement, and the rental car we had left in perfect condition looking no longer perfect. The hood was dented, the grill was cracked, and the plate had been knocked askew. Damn. Should have sprung for the rental car damage waiver. An officer approached us and told us that a bull had gotten loose from the stockyard downtown, run amok for miles, and ended up in the parking lot of the Hampton Inn. They had to put the frothing beast down. After they shot him, the bull lurched and fell onto our car for a moment before his last bit of adrenalin kicked in and he took off running around the corner to the other side of the hotel where he eventually died on a grassy lawn. You had to give it to the bull who saw the writing on the wall in the stockyard and stubbornly determined he would rather not end his life in a slaughterhouse and chose one last adventure instead. I tried to imagine us explaining it all to the rental car company, though. Dog ate my homework. Bull fell on my rental car.
Fire personnel were hosing off the sidewalks and parking lot, leading us to discern that the bull left a bloody trail before succumbing to his fatal wounds. The officer gave us a business card with his name and a case number, and we headed back inside to figure out how we’d be paying for the damage to the car. Steve waives insurance coverage every time we rent a car, citing that our credit card will insure us if necessary. I guess we’ll find out soon enough if that is true. In the meantime, we finish our trip here with a big, old bull-dent in the hood of our Nissan Sentra. And to think we’d fretted about the little paint scrape over the gas tank when we conducted the vehicle once-over before driving off the Alamo lot.
When I woke up on Friday morning, I could never have guessed that our rental car would be a victim of the running of the bull. Life is stranger than fiction…or at least as strange. I am convinced that things like this happen once in a while to remind you you’re alive. If only occasionally, life can be unpredictable. Pay attention, people. You just never know.
**We did actually settle the insurance claim through the credit card company as Steve expected and we got it all worked out. It took a year, almost to the day, but we eventually freed ourselves just like that bull.**