We had a plan.
We were geared up to see everything America had to offer. We wanted to see deserts and mountains and plains. We wanted to see prairies and oceans. For a family who had never left the east coast, the West was an inviting adventure that stretched on into the sunset. The hope of seeing states we had never visited was like a nagging dream: always spoken of, worked toward little by little, never attained.
Until last summer. Jobs were quit, the house was placed on the market, and we piled armloads, carloads, and U-Haul loads into a towering storage shed. Our family has been talking about moving for a decade. When we piled into our Volkswagen van under the Pennsylvania stars, our feelings lodged between, “It’s about time!” and “We sure will miss this place!”
I climbed into the driver’s seat and pulled our car slowly up the narrow dirt road. The trailer made clattering noises as it rolled clumsily over the rocks and ruts. This road was a memory in itself. Ever since I was four years old, I had been splashing in its puddles and sifting through its dull stones to find one that was interesting or sparkling. As I got older and stopped terrorizing the mud puddles, I loved to walk along it and see the spring roses in full bloom. There were thousands of wild blossoms dangling and whispering in the wind. When I was little, the flowering of the roses was a much-awaited event. My brothers and I walked and inspected the towering, cascading bushes, each hoping that we would be the first one to find a tiny, fresh rose. Sometimes, we knew that they had bloomed even before we found them; their magnificent smell lifted on the spring breezes and floated down to our waiting noses.
I thought about the fact that I might never see another spring here. I’d never see our roses again. But that was okay, I supposed, for now we were going to places that were stranger and bigger and…better? Maybe. California was the road trip destination. We had classic California fever. We wanted to get away from the small towns of Troy and Mansfield where some of us had spent our entire lives. California was warm and sunny year-round, lush and prosperous, a grower’s paradise, a haven for people who had an eco-ish side. Right?
Our family, ever famous for not being on time, left in October. Everyone else had their summer trips done and gone, but ours was still ahead. Each new thing we saw brought excitement. Each state sign proclaiming, “Welcome to…” brought shouts from the car:
“Hey, don’t miss it!”
“Grab the camera!”
“Can you believe this is the first time we’ve ever been to Ohio?”
Two little kids, two teens, and two parents packed into one van makes things interesting. In tight spaces we learned that humor is essential, ignoring people is useful, and shouting is sometimes necessary. At night, we popped the top of our Volkswagen, folded the seats down to make a bed, and lay like pieces in a puzzle that didn’t fit.
We checked off miles and states. We picked up firewood in the dark in a tangle of poison ivy in Ohio, only to learn that honeysuckle bushes don’t give off enough warmth to roast a sausage anyway. We pulled into Illinois at midnight and opened our doors to the sound of coyotes howling an eerie welcome. We’re used to coyotes, as is any backwoods Pennsylvanian, but when you’re living in a car and the outdoors is your kitchen, play space, and living room, you don’t appreciate them as much. I have run through the prairie in Kansas and found the open spaces thrilling and lonely at the same time. I learned that if you stand on top of a rolling hill there, the wind sweeps over the grasses and jumps up over the tops of the hills with enough force to almost blow a person over. Colorado is cold in October—the mountains are dusted with snow, but they are also dusted with a unique, only-there beauty that flings itself towards the sky, proudly showing off wilderness and remoteness. Utah, which I had placed in the “things I don’t want to see” category, ended up being perhaps my favorite place. Looking for a spot to spend the night, our tired family stumbled upon Moab, Utah, and, thus, Arches National Park. As soon as we saw the towering red columns jutting into the sky, we were out of the car and scrambling up mountains of rocks and cramming ourselves into crannies. We hiked to the famous Delicate Arch and got to see a huge full moon slinking around the red stones. We met two funky, fun people who joined our flashlight-less walk down the cliffs. We laughed and joked and told each other about where we had lived. We reached our cars without falling into any abysses, parting with smiles and more laughter, both heading on to journeys of our own.
We stood on the edge of the Grand Canyon in Arizona and looked out over the canyon that almost held mountains of its own. And we saw beauty so magnificent that the human eyes simply cannot comprehend it all.
We reached California and found that it really did have orange groves and pomegranates that hung lavishly from trees, but we also found that they were cultivated in a sort of desert of endless grass and sandy soil. Dry and twisted wild trees, unwatered and unpampered, struggled to pull moisture up through dry roots. The ocean was beautiful, but palm trees don’t spread out with endless shade like a Pennsylvania maple. Sequoia National Forest was amazing, like nothing we had ever seen.
We loved it and were stunned by it—but it wasn’t home. There are no two places that are the same. No two states, no two forests, no two mountains…no two deserts, even. As we went on our way, we met so many people who told us, “This is the town to live in!” Sometimes, the town the person was referring to was in the middle of a Kansas prairie. Other times, it wasatreelessplacecalledMidland,Texas, or a quaint, cool town called Lexington, Virginia. Some said that Carpinteria, California, was the best place on earth.
We were slowly realizing that everyone has a beloved homeland. We were also realizing that we had left ours behind.
The house hadn’t sold. Yes, it was too small for our family…but it was mansion- sized compared to a Volkswagen. We pulled back into Mansfield and felt deep love for our little town. We picked up our pace as we hurried out into the countryside. The trailer bounced and squeaked down the abundant unpaved roads. Finally we reached the road. One last tall hill to climb. We pointed out the windows and whooped, amazed that our favorite trees and dirt and stones had survived a whole six weeks without us.
We had left the mountain. We had had the time of our lives. We had come back.