My withdrawal from all things family began swiftly and without warning the summer I turned 13. My parents knew it was happening the moment I decided I’d rather stay with my best friend than go on our beloved trip to the beach. In the ensuing years they trusted that I’d eventually be back and they gave me a long leash; boy, did I take it out all the way. By the time I graduated from high school, I’d returned. Beach trips with the family once again appealed to me.
It was a quick five years of rebellious retreat for me, but I bet it was a painful stretch for my parents. Today, at 44 with a son on the cusp of being a teenager, I’m beginning to understand how they felt.
Nathan just turned 13, and my daughter, Maddie, recently turned 11. Just last year, Nathan reached for my hand while waiting in line at an amusement park. Two years ago, I was still tucking him in at night, listening to him whisper, “Don’t go; stay forever.” Now he rarely takes my hand, and though he still accepts a goodnight hug, it’s brief. Before long, his door will be closed, and I will be cautiously knocking, asking if we can talk.
With that in mind, an idea was born: Before my children became teens, I would embark on a two-week, who-knows-where, father-and-child road trip adventure. If nothing else, this excursion would guarantee “quantity time” at such a crucial stage of their development.
The adventure was to be loosely planned, on purpose. Our trip would consist of hotel stays, campground tenting, and crashing at far-off family and friends’ houses. When I discussed the idea with Nathan, his excitement was tempered: “How long are we going to be in the car each day?” “Are we just going to do nature stuff?” I promised we’d eat good food, visit sports stadiums and go kayaking. This seemed to please him, although he was still wary.
Departure day arrived, and Nathan said a cursory goodbye to his sister, hugged his mother and jumped in the front seat. I think he still expected me to announce that this was all a big prank. After three hours in the car, we crossed from our home state of Pennsylvania into Ohio, and he knew this was for real. Our plan for Day 1 was to stop in Sandusky, Ohio, about halfway to Chicago — our first big destination. By that point, Nathan was excited and asked, “Do you think we can make it to Indiana tonight?” I smiled, and we did. Our first night offered a relaxing stay in the tiny town of Shipshewana. We swam and ate bad pizza and acceptable ice cream. We both slept heavily and were well-rested for our short drive to Chicago.
I’m a nervous driver in the city, and Nathan sensed this. He was suddenly more alert and helped me with the directions. He asked how people knew where to go before GPS technology. I explained the use of maps and the art of asking directions at gas stations, and he couldn’t fathom such inconveniences.
Long hours in the car allowed me to initiate conversation. I realized there were topics brewing in the back of my mind — ones we may have briefly touched on at home but now had the time and space to explore. I shared my own regrets about quitting baseball in high school and how I let fear get in the way of overcoming challenges. He didn’t say much, but he was listening. He told me he couldn’t imagine quitting soccer, but that he is sometimes scared of getting hurt. I was thankful for these small revelations.
Our most adventurous day came in Cave City, Ky. I fought my own fear of small spaces as we descended 250 feet underground in the breathtaking caverns of Mammoth Cave. As we listened to the ranger explain the history of the cave, I watched Nathan’s eyes grow wide, and in them I recognized the same wonder I saw when he was a toddler reaching for a firefly in July. Our trip provided many moments like this, moments when I had the opportunity to more closely observe him. When we travel as a family, there are so many stressors: Keeping each child happy, refereeing fights, maintaining schedules. With all of that removed, Nathan and I were able to focus on each other and the moment we were experiencing together.
Later that afternoon, we kayaked seven miles down the Green River. This was the most serene and eerie experience of our trip. We were truly isolated; every lap of water against the boat, rustle of leaves from the shore or bird call from above grabbed our attention. We took turns steering, splashed each other, and talked about how far away we felt from work and school. He asked questions he never asked at home: “Did you do this when you were a kid?” “Have you ever paddled this far before?” “Can we do this again?”
After eating some of our favorite food in Nashville, we headed west to Asheville, N.C. There we stayed in a tiny house, hiked to the top of Chimney Rock and walked the streets downtown. More conversation ensued, as Nathan became interested in Asheville’s focus on local products, and he was still working out his feelings about city life. “I’m still not a city guy,” he said, “but this isn’t as overwhelming as Chicago.”
By this point in our trip, we were getting tired. We thought we’d spend our last three days relaxing in Rehoboth Beach, Del., but after two nights there, we were ready to be home. Nathan couldn’t hold back his smile as he called his sister to tell her we were on our way a day early. He had her on speaker, and I heard her sobbing. “Maddie, why are you crying?” he asked.
“I guess I didn’t realize how much I missed you,” she said.
“Stop it,” said Nathan. “You’re going to make me cry.”
Absence, it turned out, really did make their sibling hearts grow fonder. I was stunned.
I’m still reflecting on all we experienced in those two weeks together. I know in time it will settle and the experiences will become memories whose edges soften.
I’m so thankful for the adventure. Being one on one for so long with no schedules or distractions gave us the space and time that brought out questions that otherwise would never have been asked.
Nathan doesn’t brag about the trip like it was the greatest vacation. But something did shift in our relationship. Each of us occasionally brings up a tenting failure in Indiana, a roller coaster in Virginia or that turtle shimmying across the road in North Carolina, and we smile, laugh or shake our heads. These are a few of the many moments that at the time seemed rather simple, maybe even forgettable. But how often we are mistaken. Something tells me these little imprints will age well, and in time they will illuminate a colorful patchwork quilt of memories. What an enduring gift for both of us.
I can’t wait for the next trip; it will be a father-daughter adventure for the ages. Maddie, get ready.
David Rockower is an English teacher and magazine columnist based in central Pennsylvania.
You might also be interested in: