I wrote this essay a few years ago after my last “mom and me” vacation with one of my kids, and wanted to share just how much FUN you can have when you don’t plan your travel to the last detail!
Just a week ago, I was sitting on a large rock nine thousand feet above sea level on the side of a dormant volcano in California, with a spectacular view of high mountain lakes, and fields of pink-striped snow beneath me, and the Sierra Nevadas fading blue in the distance to the south. It was a view, and a perch, that I had never expected to acquire, and couldn’t have imagined at the start of a “wing it” vacation with my eighteen-year-old son only days before.
But there I sat anyway, with solitude and grandeur and incredibly clear air surrounding me, marveling that all had sparked this particular journey was five minutes of conversation with a couple from California at a scenic overlook in Yosemite who suggested that a visit to Lassen Volcanic National Park shouldn’t be passed up.
Tennessee William’s tragic character, Blanche DuBois, got at least one thing right in A Streetcar Named Desire, I thought as I watched a red-tailed hawk fly past at eye level and basked in the sun, waiting for my son to nimbly conquer the summit and bring back pictures. Depending on “the kindness of strangers”—at least while traveling—can often turn out pretty well.
I’ve made it a family tradition to take each of my children somewhere interesting “out West” for a week before they leave for college, and now this was the “caboose baby’s” turn. After summer ends, I’ll have an empty nest, and a lot of things in my universe will change. But this pre-college trip had been a fixture for years. With the older three, I had managed to visit the Grand Tetons, the South Dakota Badlands, the Grand Canyon (and rafted down it as well), the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas, red rock canyons near Sedona, Arizona, and Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks in southern Utah.
The one thing that characterized the earlier trips, though, aside from a lot of hiking, was that I usually had a pretty good idea of where we’d be staying most nights. National parks, Indian reservations, hotels, they were usually waiting for us, guaranteed long before with a credit card.
This trip was a bit different, though. For one thing, we were headed for the West Coast, which was absolutely unfamiliar territory to me. For another, I’d been juggling too many plates in the air to rough out any sort of an itinerary or do more than flip through the travel guides at night right before falling asleep. Two weeks before we left I finally booked us our first three nights near Yosemite National Park, and figured we’d wing it after that for the next six. Flying into San Francisco, flying out of Portland, heck, we’d surely find something to do in between! This was the most seat-of-the-pants adventure I’d undertaken in years.
I think that the older I get past…let’s say thirty…the less I need to reinvent the wheel to discover something interesting, and the more often I ask other people what they’ve already found. I first put this theory into practice last year, when I hit the wall in frustration at the length and ferocity of a Midwestern winter, phoned a friend a couple of states over who was beset by the same malaise, and arranged to meet in Peoria for a mad dash to the Gulf of Mexico and a couple of days of some coastal warmth. I took the path of least resistance and the advice of a gal who works in my courthouse, and booked us a room in Gulf Shores, Alabama, which was a perfect destination. Asked at the Tourist Information office what the favorite beach was of the clerk at the counter, and parked ourselves there with our picnic lunch, lazing like lizards in the sunlight and kneading the squeaky, perfectly soft sand under our fingers. Asked an elderly guy at the beach who looked like a local where we’d find a good seafood dinner, and followed his advice right on up the street and into the restaurant he’d pointed out. We weren’t disappointed at any turn.
On the trip with my son, the random string of advice we got from people started early, and created a marvelous set of memories. Conversation with a local couple in the hot tub of the first motel led us to make sure we got out to the end of Glacier Point Drive in Yosemite…and to shop at the Purple Cow gift shop before we left town. Out at Glacier Point, I noticed a woman lining up a photo of her husband before a magnificent backdrop of Yosemite Valley, and offered to take a photo of both of them.
Say ‘cheeseheads’,” I said, and then the conversation really started. She was from Wisconsin, he was from Pittsburgh, and they now lived in California. I asked what would be a frequent question throughout our trip, but which always produced good results: “so what’s the one thing we shouldn’t miss on our trip out here?” Lassen Volcanic National Park, they suggested, in northeast California.
So we put that on the “to do” list. Stopped at the Purple Cow on the way out of town, where I bought a small chain-sawed wooden bear, and asked the artist to autograph it for me. As we chatted, I mentioned that we were heading up to Lassen Park. He volunteered the name of a motel he knew of from living in the area years earlier, Childs Meadow.
When we finally arrived, we found a small resort that was clearly a few years past its prime…but with clean sheets, a great shower, and a delicious breakfast. Our room didn’t have a television, so on the evening that followed our exhausting volcano hike, we sat outside in the carport while he practiced the violin and I put my feet up and read a book. When I got tired of reading, I sat and watched the herd of cows in the meadow across the road as the evening shadows lengthened and the wooded hills behind them grew dark. When the lights went out, the surrounding blackness was total except for the diamond brilliance of the distant stars.
We headed west across California to the Pacific after that, though not before asking the “what’s the one thing…” question of a California couple hiking the volcano trail and getting steered toward a visit to Mount. St. Helens in Washington State. A few hundred miles of driving and one state more than I’d originally planned for this trip, but we made it there anyway, with enough time left to meet some friends of mine in Portland for dinner before flying out the next day.
We hiked, we had a fabulous lunch, I even took a picture of one of my stiletto heels with Mount St. Helens for a backdrop. What can I say? I could use another good shoe picture for my next book cover!
The next time I’m planning a trip, I’m going to try to stay loose and not get too wrapped up in scheduling every stop and every minute. Because odds are, if I just stop and ask someone along the way that “what’s the one thing…” question, I’ll find something wonderful that I’d never imagined in the first place.