Taking it on The Road (part three) Mother /Daughter #vanlife

Chef Annie making my dinner night 2 in Olympic National Park, WA

A week after selling our home of twenty years, the house in which we raised a family (and collected generations worth of bric-a-brac), I exercised my first expression of freedom — three weeks in the Pacific Northwest with our daughter, Annie. I wanted to gain a glimpse into the #vanlife existence she’d been living for the past year.

When you live in a van, the world is your backyard.

She has all you need in that van, even a little library of books written by great authors who took to the road. She relayed a pertinent quote from Suleika Jaouad’s wonderful memoir BETWEEN TWO KINGDOMS on one of our hikes, “Every trip has three parts — preparing and packing for the trip, the trip itself, and the memories of the trip.” As far as prepping went, I didn’t do a great job. I was so focused on moving, the closing, and then getting my hands on her, I didn’t even research the places she’d be taking me. I flew to Portland, OR in a whirlwind where she picked me up with a full refrigerator and a well-researched itinerary. The trip was incredible (see all the photos). But ever since returning on August 27, my reflections have only intensified. It was the type of experience that demanded meaning making and an assessment of lessons learned. When people asked — how was your trip? I gave a very superficial “great!” But hopefully this post scratches a little deeper beneath the surface.

Trail on Mt Ranier

I’ll begin with the way it ended: Annie and I safely parking her van at the Denver airport (where she is now living permanently!) and flying to Rhode Island for ten days of concentrated family time. Between August 28th and Labor Day, we’d crammed a whole summer’s worth of activity into ten days and the five of us would return to our respective pursuits with full hearts, stomachs, and good intentions for the New Year.

Of course, our joyous end-of-summer reunion was set against a back-drop of national crisis, from hurricanes, forest fires, drought, pandemic, to our country’s departure from Afghanistan. There was spiritual work waiting me in preparation for the High Holy Days, and then there was the pause on 9/11 and disbelief that it has been twenty years. And so, all that has also gotten wrapped up with my reflections on the trip. And my primary takeaway is impermanence. To be more specific, accept impermanence.

The opposite of impermanence, at least in my mind, was that red-brick home on Beacon Hill. It was very permanent, had actually become something resembling stagnation in my head. Built in 1826, we occupied her for only 10% of her existence. She stands in one of North America’s oldest cities, in one of its first neighborhoods. She represented the stability I had been in search of my entire life up to this point.

A picture of Jeannie’s sleeping space taken by Annie from her bunk

That’s how it is with me, black or white. Because one week after closing on the sale I was sleeping on the floor of Annie’s converted cargo van, or depending on our locale, a tent just outside it. In the van, we were on the move, staying no longer than one night in any spot, staring at each beautiful view only once. Everything good that happened and everything challenging that happened came and went and if we didn’t live it, we missed it. Every bit of scenery whizzed past the windshield whether you wanted it to or not. Landscapes were either seared into my memory or gone. Impermanence.

Impermanence hit home while we were in chilly Glacier National Park, Montana worrying about my husband and two sons facing down the eye of Hurricane Henri at our summer home in Westerly, RI. All family heirlooms or memorabilia worth keeping had been delivered there after the sale of the Boston house and was now sitting in a structure vulnerable to storm surges and high winds. As we hiked a misty mountain trails in full rain gear, I braced myself for the irony of all our material possessions being swept out to sea. Mother Nature was challenging me, “You said you wanted to simply your life, well let me help you get rid of all the rest of your stuff.” She also managed to put some grizzly bears on the trail we were hiking, which quickly got me thinking about what really mattered. I became a loud singing hiker, driving Annie crazy in an attempt to keep from surprising any bears. It was hard to sing and worry about Henri at the same time, but being the experienced worrier that I am, I managed. Somewhere along the way I made peace with the hurricane and prayed to GOD to keep John and the boys safe, and that I’d be fine losing the rest, even the grand piano that had been quite an ordeal to move… I pictured us taking the insurance proceeds and starting anew. A few hours later, however, I’d learn that despite Henri making landfall in Westerly, our property had suffered little damage…

Sunrise through the steam in Yellowstone.

We drove from Montana through most beautiful landscape to Wyoming. All in all, we visited 7 states and 6 National Parks, hiked incredible trails from the shores of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington to the geological wonders of Yellowstone, even a made detour through Alaska. We stayed overnight in little hideaways off the beaten path, city streets, and Walmart parking lots. We soaked our tired (and dusty) feet in cold, glacier-blue streams and took showers at Planet Fitness. Despite the beauty and the sense of adventure, I woke most mornings with a frantic bladder and an aching back, and wondered how long I could keep it up.

Rialto Beach, Washington

But then…. But then I would watch sunrise and mist from a landscape in some remote spot, or do a downward dog and totally zone out on drops of dew clinging to grass in a meadow, or I’d brighten as Annie watched me brush my teeth from her bunk in the van and say something like, “Mom, I am so grateful you are here. I don’t think many moms would be able to do this.” Or we would spend the afternoon wading through a rushing river in search of a natural hot spring only to discover its perfect temperature, dragonflies and butterflies buzzing about the surrounding wildflowers as if to celebrate our arrival.

Pre-dinner game of cards

What made it really poignant were all the contradictions, the beauty of our country as seen from mountaintops as well as through the haze of smoking wildfires. Or seeing friendly faces pass by on a trail only to be among masked faces in populated areas and remember — oh yeah. There were the searches for public restrooms and legal places for us to pull off road to sleep, and the humility of knowing larger and larger portions of our population live in survival mode all the time. There were many fleeting worries over daily situations and logistics that are imbedded in #vanlife, but for better or worse, whatever we experienced was usually in our rear-view mirror six hours later. Impermanence. The thesaurus offers transient, transitory, here-today-gone-tomorrow, and evanescent. I prefer the sound of evanescent.

Equally meaningful were the miles driven and hiked providing opportunities to catch up, for conversations we never seemed to have the time or the appetite for and for the continuation of those conversations. It was a time to reconnect after being apart for a long time, for her to be the host and for me to be her guest for the first time in our lives. She cooked our meals and cleaned up, mapped out where we should go next, treating me as a passenger in her life and I really did love it and appreciated it. Or as I learned to say on the road — I appreciated HER. My first trip with my college graduate, independent adult daughter, a best friend. But we are both completely aware our friendship is best taken in bite-sized doses. It’s like a bonfire, bright and warm, but requiring space for oxygen as much as it requires fuel. When Annie and I are together all the time, we aren’t as patient and sunny, we aren’t always singing at the top of our lungs. The sweetness of those three weeks in her 8x5 van was made possible by an impossibly long absence beforehand and the knowledge it was finite. Evanescent.

Glacier Bay, Alaska

I couldn’t be more grateful for our health and safety on the road. I’m grateful Annie invited me into her world and that I was able to accept. I am grateful for the warm welcome our boys gave us when we got home and the prospects for a new chapter with my husband. I remain in awe of our beautiful country and more determined than ever to do my part for the environment. Physical matter might be impermanent but luckily for human beings love isn’t. Despite all the contradictions, all the competing forces, what hit home after the trip was the importance of laughing, singing, appreciating, and loving. Oh and of carrying bear spray, a really big canister of bear spray.

Used to cart these chairs to soccer games….

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Jeanne is the award-winning & best-selling author of EDEN (SWP ’17) and THE NINE (SWP ‘19). A graduate of Smith College, she lives in Boston & Westerly, RI.

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Jeanne Blasberg

Jeanne Blasberg

Jeanne is the award-winning & best-selling author of EDEN (SWP ’17) and THE NINE (SWP ‘19). A graduate of Smith College, she lives in Boston & Westerly, RI.

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