For the past ten summers, I have started the season with a trip somewhere with my kids. Two days after the end of school, we left behind uniforms, books, calculators, backpacks and schedules—all of the equipment and ritual of classroom learning—and boarded a plane to somewhere.
One summer we headed west to Montana to visit ghost towns, go river rafting, hiking, horseback riding and fly-fishing. We met real cowboys with bow-legged gaits, ten-gallon hats and a decidedly slower pace of speech than we were accustomed to as New Yorkers. We hiked high into bear country with a guide who regaled us with stories of surviving alone in the wild for weeks at a time; she would feel the urge, she said, to be “out there,” so she would just head north or west with a pack, a sleeping roll and bear repellent. One of the kids’ favorite activities on the ranch was “helping” in the barns, where they learned how to pick up chicks; a skill not obvious to a city child, but that can be mastered quickly, especially if the ranch hand demonstrating has a wide grin. We sat on bales of hay at a cook-out, under stars that seemed as close as the glow-in-the-dark stickers on the kids’ ceiling at home but so much more hypnotizing. I remembered my first camp-out with my family and how my grandmother’s cigarette would glow in the dark with each inhale, like our own familial north star.
We discovered the danger of gopher holes when my seven-year-old son was racing a friend down a hill and stuck a foot in a gopher trench. He went down in a flash, as though felled by an Indian trap, and fell so hard that we wound up at the local Emergency Room. The diagnosis: a concussion the old-fashioned way. The doctor advised keeping him awake, so we all watched Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid with breaks for s’mores. It was a first-time thrill for the kids, but brought a flood of memories for me, especially, to hear “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” during the bicycle scene; my childhood returning in a rush to bump up against their childhood.
This summer, though, we didn’t take a trip together because my daughter turned 18 and declared that she would be traveling on her own. She found a language school and housing in Berlin so she could work on her German and then made plans to meet friends in different European capitals. She ended her five weeks with a stay with family friends in France, where she spent hours at the dinner table trying to follow the volley of conversation between generations. Even with her limited understanding of the language, she reveled in excavating the cultural differences and similarities that you only learn in an intimate setting. At a similar age, I had chosen to live in France, so her newfound love for all things French inspired my own nostalgia. While I was sad that her high school graduation marked her outgrowing our particular post-school ritual, one where the focus was on what can be learned by being out of your normal comfort zone, I had to recognize that it had instilled in her a deep spirit of adventure and a hunger to learn what the world has to teach all of us if we are open to the lessons.
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