To hell and back, and what we found there.

Around the end of April/early May I start considering where and if we'll go on a summer vacation. In theory it's a positive event to plan. Where shall we go? What shall we do? How many thousands of photos will I be able to take?

I look at the calendar, figuring the best time to go, then put in my request for time off. The world is my oyster! Shortly after my throat starts to constrict. I feel panic rising at the recollection of disastrous vacations past, times I've found myself repeatedly begging God for a swift death rather than having to endure one more minute of my children and their incessant whining. 

Inevitably, wherever we go, whatever we do, there's always someone tremendously unhappy about it. The only exception was our trip to New England back in 2007. We all love the coast -  all that collecting shells, dodging jellyfish and what-not – and there's lots of that in New England. Plus, you know how I feel about old cemeteries. Many people have been dead for centuries in that part of the country. I feel great joy spending hours happily tripping over graves, taking hundreds of photos of interesting tombstones, reading inscriptions that are sometimes poignant, but usually warning what will happen if one dares not die in peace with the Lord. Cemeteries make me unnaturally happy. And if the children grow a little impatient waiting, it's good training for the long, drawn out experience that is life. They may as well get used to it now. Roughly 80 % of life is pretty much crap. I consider it a sacred duty to pass that knowledge along to them.

Shortly after our stay on the coast of Maine came time spent roaming around the cities of Boston and Salem. That's when things took a turn for the worse. We learned just how much our children loathe walking miles and miles in 90+ F heat, just to get in as many historic sites as we could. While Paul and I were thinking: HISTORY! THIS IS GREAT! the children were thinking: I HATE YOU BOTH! I WISH YOU'D DIE!

Fortunately, that excursion turned completely around after our camper trailer broke down in what was perhaps the most frightening campground on the face of the earth. The clientele looked like actors you'd see in a teenage slasher movie. Only they weren't actors; they were real. But, once that camper cable went POP!, the children and I realized we'd have to stay in hotels the rest of the trip. At that moment I believed there was a God, that he loved me best of all his creations, and that I'd already gone to heaven. My sins had been forgiven. Yea, verily. I fell to my knees, tears coursing down my dusty, worn out, sunburned face.

Camping, with apologies to naturalist types, is one of the biggest pains in the ass ever invented by man. Man evolved from cave dwelling to living under animal skins to building houses for a reason. It was because someone looked around, realized the current conditions were crap, and decided there must be a better way to do things. That lead mankind to move up to the next level – most likely pushed there by women tired of living on dirt floors, beating things with rocks. Man hasn't been meant to live outdoors since he first lifted his knuckles off the ground, realizing opposible thumbs made it possible to do all sorts of neat things. That's called "progress." And I am all for it.

Camping has all the work of home without any of the comforts or conveniences. And with, by the way, a lot of DIScomforts thrown in for good measure. I am a creature of comfort. I get my exercise working out in a climate controlled environment. Then I come home to shower, flop down on the leather sofa, and turn on satellite TV, knowing I've done a wonderful thing for my health without having had to swat away bugs and run screaming from snakes – which generally turn out to be branches, I will grant. If I wanted to go days without a proper shower, sleep on the ground, and be forced to find my own rustic entertainment, I'd live in my back yard. 

Surprise! I don't!

Vacation inevitably means two weeks of bitching, moaning and a mood of overall crabbiness – if the weather's hot, especially. Dear God, I will never forget the look of dismay on my middle child's face when, getting out of the van in Moab, Utah, he realized what 100 F+ felt like, and that he'd be living in that for the next several days. My own sweating heart cracked in half seeing his look of despair. Though I found Utah, with all its curious red rock formations, more interesting than I'd thought, if it had been up to me I'd have squealed out of the campground immediately, heading for home.

And do not EVEN use the phrase "But it's a dry heat" to me.

Speaking of heading for home, someone inevitably starts begging for that four or five days into any given vacation. Around that time the odor in the van has reached such intensity it triggers a favorite family travel game, "name that smell." One time the stench turned out to be emanating from our youngest child's shoes, which was easily enough remedied. But usually it doesn't come from any single, clear source, so no matter what you pull out and throw into the garbage you can never eliminate it. The very next day it's back, all over again. And yes, even after we've showered.

Then there's my absolute hatred of putting on sunscreen. That awful, thick lotion makes my skin feel as though all my pores have been blocked, causing my skin to try desperately to sweat it off. It feels grotesque and itchy, leaving me sweaty, greasy and miserable. Yet, I can't go anywhere in summer without sunscreen. I'm so pale my skin isn't as much white as blue. It's underside of a fish pale, just without the scales. I'm so pale my dermatologist can't fathom why I haven't died yet from skin cancer. If I so much as see the sun through a window I burn. And my children? They hate sunscreen, too. But their father's had skin cancer four or five-ish times. Heredity is not on their side, so grease up they must.

When we head to the more outdoorsy destinations, a couple days in two of my three children will suddenly remember how much they absolutely detest nature. One of them is usually willing to go on a hike or two, but the others will droop like plants in a drought, wailing how they JUST WANT TO GO HOME! And, HAVEN'T YOU TAKEN ENOUGH PICTURES OF FLOWERS? CAN'T WE LEAVE? WHERE IS THE GIFT SHOP?

Admittedly, I like my nature on a limited basis, too. The more controlled the natural environment the better. A nice porch with a view of lovely flowers, a comfortable chair (Adirondack preferred), a few trees, and some small wildlife suit me just fine. Something like what we have here at home, come to think of it, where civilization is minutes away, and in hot weather finding air conditioning is as simple as opening a door. Ah, Paradise!

Part of my opinion regarding nature stems from my hysterical fear of bears, buffalo, and pretty much every animal you can't keep as a pet without needing a special license from the state. At Yellowstone National Park, back in 2000 or so, we were walking through the park on a boardwalk flanked with signs reading, "IF YOUR CHILD STEPS OFF THIS PATH HE OR SHE WILL DIE A PAINFUL AND PROTRACTED DEATH! BENEATH THIS THIN CRUST LIES HELL!," when suddenly we heard someone shriek. Directly behind us, so close I could have touched them if I'd taken four or five steps, was a SMALL HERD OF BUFFALO.

Have you ever seen a buffalo close up? Without bars and a moat separating you? They are very, very dangerous animals, capable of doing much violence to homo sapiens. You have never seen a group of people disperse so quickly, except, perhaps, when I turned and ran like a sissy after seeing another sign at Yellowstone which read: BEARS SIGHTED HERE WITHIN LAST WEEK – PROCEED AT OWN RISK.

That porch is looking better and better all the time.

Yet, year after year, I start feeling irrationally upbeat at the prospect of going somewhere, seeing something that isn't the suburbia I claim to detest. I justify the idea of vacation by telling myself we'll gain all those great memories we'll talk about forever - stories that will become family legends, passed down from generation to generation. Though, looking back, I struggle to come up with anything I'd term "great."

Here's a little tour of our "special memories" so far. Remember when:

… that cicada the size of a cat got into the boys' bed, and mom's screams could be heard within a tri-state area?

… our campsite was so close to the bathroom it was difficult deciding which was worse: the smell or the sound of flushing 24-hours a day?

… the number of times mom has prayed for death and/or used the Lord's name in vain (albeit under her breath)?

… the time it rained for two days straight, all the mud washed in front of our camper, everything got damp and disgusting, and we were stuck in a camper TOGETHER? With the associated smells?

… mom awoke to the sound of a large animal sniffing outside the camper, and still believes it was a bear?

… when our youngest was bitten on the ear by some sort of insect, and we wound up in the emergency room with him?

… in Nova Scotia, when mom was sick with a cold and nasty earache, so she couldn't appreciate the prettiest scenery this side of the pond? And now we can't even go to Canada without a passport?

… the time we were driving in the middle of Nowheresville, Wyoming? All the emergency lights lit up in the van, it started making that odd sound, and we spent hours gripping the seats, white-knuckled, knowing we wouldn't see civilization for several more hours?

… when dad tore his meniscus tendon at Disney, and had to limp through the rest of the week?

… when we camped next to the man we thought must have been an ax murderer? The one who talked to himself in his tent?

… when mom was seven months pregnant, and she and dad decided that was a great time to take that last tent camping trip? And, with their site near a lake, the sound of the water made mom have to get up 15 times that night to visit the bathroom?

… when, during that same camping trip, the raccoon got into the car and ate all our food?

… same trip, it rained so hard we wound up sleeping in the car - a compact Honda - in which it was impossible for a seven-months' pregnant woman to get comfortable?  Much less sleep?

… we stayed in the campground with the very nice bathrooms. The ones that had combination locks to keep out ruffians, and mom, having to "go" desperately in the middle of the night, couldn't recall the combination?

… the infamous CANOE TRIP, in which mom kept running poor Middle Child into spider webs hanging out of trees? We basically zig-zagged from side to side of the stream, beaching alternately onto each shoreline, then jamming the paddles into the mud, backing out so we could go forward and slam into the opposite shoreline. For about five hours.

…  during the same CANOE TRIP, when we pulled over both canoes and attempted a mutiny against dad, for planning the *#&290@*#&* trip in the first place?

And, last but not least, the time when, just after we'd arrived at the log cabin we were staying in, Youngest Child promptly threw up, all over their blankets and rug?

And that's just what I remembered in ten minutes. The list goes on and on.

So, once again, it's late April. I've looked at my calendar. I've coordinated dates with my husband's schedule. I've requested the time off. Now it's time for us to sit down and discuss the general direction we plan to head this year, or if we're even willing to deal with it at all. Despite the unusually decent memories of Maine, in this economy our preferred method of "hotelling it" may be impractical. Can we camp in Maine? Yes, in some areas. Is there large wildlife there, the sort with big, sharp teeth and a taste for human flesh? Yes, but at least the weather tends to be a few degrees cooler there. It has that going for it. Will we still need sunscreen? Unfortunately, yes. Is the annual return of the stench guaranteed? I hate to say it, but that's all but guaranteed.

We don't want to raise three children so scarred by family trips they refuse to go anywhere with their own children. But the alternative is going nowhere, which sounds depressing, too, in its way. It also makes us wimpy, denying ourselves two weeks' worth of misery so we can say we screamed our way through (fill in blank), and here are the 5,000 photos I have to prove it.

Rock, meet hard place. Hard place, meet rock.

I wish there were easy answers. This is where that 80 % crap rule kicks in. We're damned if we do, and damned if we don't. Something tells me we're not ready to commit either way just yet. The time is blocked off, so that's not going anywhere. And, ironically, it's possible we won't, either. Time to procrastinate a little longer, straining hard to recall a good memory or two. There must be something. Anything?

In the meantime, I'm off to do some homework. Compared to worrying about vacation it's a holiday unto itself. Come to think of it, maybe pursuing a second Master's degree would be preferable to going anywhere …

Don't tempt me.

4 thoughts on “To hell and back, and what we found there.

  1. Once again you make me realize the deep delight of being older (nearly 70). WE stay home and welcome grandchildren visiting from Texas. We do exactly what they want which is dig on sandy beaches here in Delaware, play miniature golf, eat at peculiar, usually very cheap restaurants, which their parents shudder at and play board games. We gaze at them sodden with love; it’s a wonderful time of life!


  2. Lisa – I well remember vacations dragging children around to places they did not want to go and as for camping, well you have a kindred spirit here. I LOATHE it with a loathing so deep it is impossible to describe though you have come pretty near it.
    However, if it is any consolation a few weeks ago my younger daughter said to me ‘Mum you know all those stately homes you used to drag us around and how we used to moan? Well, I am really glad you did it because I appreciate it now and that is partyly why I became a historian’. So you never know how things turn out. To say I was gob smacked when she came out with that comment is to understate my reaction.
    Recently I have been scanning old photos and presented both my girls with one for Christmas with 200 photos on each, all of their childhood, holidays etc and they both spent the next hour on my laptop screaming with delight and remembering all the holidays and the funny things, and yes the ghastly things too, that happened. And you know what? They remembered them all with laughter and affection.
    So GO LISA GO and yes carry on visiting cemetaries – you never know one of your kids may grow up to write his/her thesis on this subject…..


  3. Ah, you inspired a brief trip down vacation memories lane for me. Why does it always seem that I need a vacation after a vacation? Vacations are so exhausting!
    We actually have a series of a few pictures from family vacations when i was growing up of “car troubles” on the road. It seemed to be a theme of vacations in the 70’s for our family.


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