Goodbye, Girl
When a mother and daughter hit the road for a trip down the West Coast, the city wasn't the only thing they left behind.

By M.L. Lyke
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, May 12, 2002

We hit the highway south out of oozy gray Seattle, two sun-seeking road-trippers with no particular place to go and all the time to get there. I was at the wheel of the Honda CR-V; my 14-year-old daughter, Liz, rode shotgun. Too soon, I thought, she'd be in the driver's seat and I'd be out of the picture.

Maybe not soon enough for her.

Nothing's as simple as a free-form road trip, and nothing's as potentially tangled as the relationship of mother and teenage daughter. I was pretty sure my coming-of-age companion would rather be spending precious vacation time with friends -- "my friends" -- the teens she sighs with, rolls her eyes with, when clueless Mom -- "Mahhm!" -- comes around.

But the long, winding road to nowhere is full of surprises, and so was my daughter.

Trip prep was a cinch. Power down computer. Check. Pack road atlas and camera. Check. Stock car with water and junk food. Check. Recite Tao wisdom: "If you don't know where you're going, any road will take you there." Check.

Fill 'er up, crank up the rock-and-roll, blow town.

Check, check, check.

We headed down Interstate 5 listening to Liz's Red Hot Chili Peppers CD, our heads nodding to the easy beat of "Road Trippin' ":

Now let us drink the stars

It's time to steal away

Let's go get lost

Right here in the U.S.A.

About six hours down the road, crossing Highway 18 toward the Oregon coast, that old, delicious, sense of wind-in-the-hair freedom took hold. All of the bills and papers, faxes and phone calls, homework and deadlines, e-mails and spam promising two inches of overnight bust growth were 250 miles behind us. Ahead lay the wide-open unknown.

And any road would take us there.

I'm a veteran ad-lib road-tripper. I've closed my eyes and let my finger do a Ouija board crawl across a map to determine the next stop on a cross-country jaunt. I've traveled the West Coast tossing coins for "I Ching" readings to determine destinations. I've crunched up papers in my hands that say "go" and "stay," juggled and had road buddies pick one to determine whether we'd roost or fly.

I looked over at my newest road companion. She looked so still against all that moving landscape. She was smiling, serene, already deep into asphalt meditation.

Let's go get lost

Let's go get lost

This was the cautious little girl who once opened gates for an imaginary mouse, ate clouds for breakfast, insisted she fell out of a tree when she was born -- straight into my arms -- and declared, at age 5: "Life is so . . . invinegarating."

She was something else now. Smart. Curvy. Sure of herself. A lady-in-waiting, two inches taller than I am. Someone to get to know, all over again.

We arrived at the Oregon coast just before sunset. This quiet, misty area is one of the underplayed wonders of the Northwest, every bit as enchanting as Big Sur, with miles of people-less beach, tide pools, gnarly driftwood and 20-million-year-old rock stacks and arches jutting out of the crashing surf that sculpted them.

We checked into a modest-priced oceanfront motel in Lincoln City in time to watch the sun turn Crayola red and melt across the horizon. On the beach below our room, a man named Sam had traced his name in sand, big as a Buick. The rolling surf took Sam away, spitting out its own unreadable messages in big foamy sighs.

I thought of all the things that would be taking Liz away -- high school, boys, cars, college -- as we steamed up in the motel's tiny sauna, throwing water on the rocks, sweating, laughing, turning hot pink. Afterward, we dined in -- sliced apples and pears, two kinds of cheese, bakery bread. It was the first of many such one-star culinary evenings on our seven days of wandering.

We were traveling cheap, in time-honored road mode. It cost zero to talk, gawk or walk beaches collecting agates and feathers, chunks of green serpentine and wish stones with a good-luck stripe all the way around. For the cost of a motel room, we had a free night's entertainment: sitting together sketching, having late-night pillow fights, watching old movies on TMC, cuddling while I fiddled with Liz's hair on a lumpy bed or watching my girl, newfound student of ancient ritual and myth, lay out her dragon Tarot cards for a reading.

My signs, she said, were propitious.

Our cut-rate cruising was a pleasant contrast to an expensive Kauai condo vacation five months earlier, when I kept throwing hundred dollar bills at "adventures" -- catamaran trips overcrowded with tourists, ultralight flights that ended before you caught your breath, kayak expeditions on sluggish rivers the color of chocolate milk. We each took pals on that trip, and drifted off into separate friendships, never connecting.

Now, it was just us, the Honda and the low-budget romance of the whatever.

We splurged a little along Highway 101 south. Liz bought her first silk skirt (no sales tax in Oregon). I bought a brass-and-glass "raindrop" made from a recycled light bulb by a weathered Oregon beach bum with wizard-length gray hair. It turned the world upside down.

We also shelled out $20.50 for two adult tickets at the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport. The "youth" category stops at 13. Ka-ching.

The celebrity killer whale Keiko had been the main attraction the last time I had visited the aquarium. The star of "Free Willy" had since been transported to a sea pen in Iceland and his tank transformed into a massive underwater tunnel. We walked on water, literally, surrounded on all sides by a 1.32-million-gallon tank full of bat rays, seven-gill sharks and other denizens of the deep.

I showed Liz my favorite exhibit, the huge, circular tank of ethereal moon jellies, see-through jellyfish that pulse to a primordial beat, feathery tentacles describing the rhythm. It reminded me of the walk my daughter had perfected in the past year, a slick, slow roll on ball-bearing hips. She, too, moved to her own beat now.

After a disappointing stop at the Sea Lion Caves in Florence -- the barking pinnipeds were mere lumps on rocks from the cavern vantage -- we headed toward the California border. I wanted to show Liz the redwoods, but not the Disneyfied version of drive-through "mystery" trees, trunks chain-sawed into Alice-in-Wonderland mushrooms and gift "shoppes" full of wooden drink coasters and tacky plastic Bigfoot feet.

Following a tip from an innkeeper, we pulled off 101 just past the Oregon/California border and steered toward Stout Grove, a favorite of locals inside the 10,000-acre Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park off Highway 199. The road was winding, skinny, bumpy; the views dreamy, with sun filtering down through feathery branches of 1,000-year-old giants. There wasn't a tourist shop in sight.

We hiked the easy Stout Grove Trail, a 30-minute wheelchair accessible path that meanders through dense, old-growth trees. Some soared more than 300 feet high with 20-foot-wide trunks; others were fallen and rotting, with root-balls the size of Mack trucks. If I were a dog, I would have rolled in the rich scent of turned-over earth and redwood perfume. Liz, the worldly one, settled on a bench with a plaque citing Shakespeare. She read the words to me, a sage look in her eyes:

"One touch of nature makes the whole world kin."

It was working for us. I put an arm around her waist. She threw one over my shoulder. We ambled like the oldest of friends through the grove's soft, striped light.

The fog started rolling in on 101, creeping up the cliffs, spilling over onto the highway. We decided to book it inland, toward the rolling scrubby hills, eucalyptus-scented air, and sun and heat of California wine country.

As I navigated the dizzying tangle of road between the coast and Napa Valley, we listened to a book on tape, Nelson Algren's "A Walk on the Wild Side," a grimly poetic portrayal of the whores and hustlers of the French Quarter in 1930s New Orleans. It wasn't PG, not even PG-13. But neither was my 14-year-old.

Liz and I were following the downward skid of Algren's protagonist, a preacher's son turned New Orleans bum, when we saw a lone hitchhiker standing on the side of the road. He was maybe 26, unshaven, dusty, empty-eyed, holding a four-foot sign. It read: "Anywhere but here."

We laughed, deep into the dark humor of the book, the sign, the lonely twisted road, the screwy moment and our ability to share it. The post-PG-13 years were suddenly taking on a new luster.

We hit wine country in Mendocino County. While I couldn't imagine anything more pleasurable than crawling from winery to winery, sampling the vintners' vintage reds and select bubbly, Liz couldn't imagine anything more excruciating. I bargained for three wineries. The payback was two days at the Outrageous Waters water-slide park on Clear Lake, in central California.

The sky was unblinking blue, the temperatures in the nineties as we threw our bodies down tubes that tumbled and curled and spit us into a chlorinated pool full of screaming kids. We sputtered and giggled, climbed and flew. Liz dared me to try the extreme slide, a 185-foot structure shaped like the world's highest spiked heel. I took her up on it. If she could transform into an adult before my eyes, I could become a child before hers.

It only hurt a little.

We were now four days out. It was time to head home. I wasn't ready. So often at home, I found myself on the other side of a door marked "private." Here, fancy-loose and foot-free in the CR-V, the door had been flung open. We shared secrets, hugged good night, said "Love ya, Liz" and "Love ya, too, Mom."

It was that easy intimacy of the road, the breezy buddy bond that forms over the slap of rubber on pavement. We were our own Thelma and Louise, two against the world.

Before leaving California, we did the obligatory Olive Pit stop in Corning, Calif., stocking up on tasty little nicoise olives. We then booked it up I-5 to Eugene, Ore., the tree-hugging capital of the free world, home to the hippest hippie Saturday Market in the Northwest and ground zero for a famed road-tripper and Merry Prankster named Ken Kesey, who late last year went to his grave in a psychedelic coffin. His way-high highway credo: "You're either on the bus or off the bus."

Our last stop was Bumbershoot, a sprawling four-day arts party in Seattle that draws local, national and international stars of pop, bop, rock, hip-hop, slam poetry, absurdist theater, deconstructionist dance, extreme trapeze, experimental art, folk, comedy and buffoonery to the Seattle Center every Labor Day weekend.

Liz wanted to see MxPx, a Northwest bubble-gum punk "rawk" band. We stood next to the mosh pit, watching adolescent bodies fly toward the stage, afloat on a sea of hands, as the band thrashed out lyrics that would make Peter Pan crow:

"Responsibility," sang lead singer Mike Herrera. "What's that?"

Unfortunately, I knew the answer. In days, I'd be buried again in daily detritus. Deadlines would loom, phone messages would need answering, the planning book -- blanked out for seven blessed days -- would fill with appointments. Liz would be back in school, deep into bonds with peers. Eyes would roll. "Mom" would turn into "Mahhm." The door marked "private" would close again.

I knew I would soon find myself wishing I were "anywhere but here," longing for the rhythm of the road and its easy intimacies.

It was late night when we finally pulled into our driveway at home. Before we could open the car doors and break the spell, I turned to my road companion and asked her what she'd enjoyed about the trip. She gave me that slow, serene smile. "I liked it all, Mom," she said. "It was all good."

I nodded, my heart full. I felt as if I'd found a new friend on this journey, an asphalt buddy, a near-woman, a road-tripper with thousands of unmapped miles ahead of her.

And what a place to find her -- somewhere out there, on the road to nowhere.

For information on Oregon coast attractions and accommodations, contact the Oregon Coast Visitors Association, 888-628-2101, www.visittheoregoncoast.com.

M.L. Lyke last wrote for Travel about a blues camp in Washington state.

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