I think that last grim call from the principal did it. Our son was suspended. His grades were as volatile as the NASDAQ. Plaintive notes from teachers bleated from his backpack. And it was only October.
The principal was weary of the boy's antics. So were we. We knew that our son was trying hard to plant a flag in the adolescent wasteland. But a seventh-grader with an attitude does not fare well in a zero-tolerance habitat. My husband and I looked at each other helplessly. What are we going to do?
We reviewed our options. Home-school? No, we would drive each other crazy. Different school? No, nothing to prevent an encore. After a moment of silence my husband said, "We could just leave."
It was as if a lock we were struggling with suddenly sprang open. The last piece of our 5,000-piece puzzle slipped neatly into place. Of course. We would leave. We would tough out the rest of the school year, sell all our belongings, buy a trailer and travel until it was time to come back. We would cut away the anchor of possessions and routine and see what really matters. We would pack up our two youngest children and embark on an adventure that might change our perceptions, our relationships and maybe the course of our future.
In the process, our kids might discover a wonderful, enchanting world beyond 'N Sync, the flickering blue screen and "whatever." We might all rediscover one another.
As it turned out, our son's academic woes were just a catalyst to jolt us out of the snug and familiar, a life that could go on cheerfully and uneventfully until time took away our options. Once that niggling seed of adventure was planted, it became increasingly hard to ignore. It grew in our imaginations until it was so enticing and inevitable that uprooting it would have been like tearing out a fingernail.
Call it midlife angst. Call it intimations of mortality. By now our four older children were lurching into adulthood -- we could tuck the next youngest son safely into the college dorm on our way out of town. Time on the road could be a palate cleanser, a chance to figure out, as my husband once said, "what we should do with the time we have left."
We told a few friends of our plan, and to our amazement they believed us. Wait, I thought, what if we change our minds? What if we wake up one morning horrified by our insanity? What if we want to say, "Jinx. Only kidding." But everyone looked at us with round, serious eyes and said, "Wow. I wish I could do that." (You could. Why don't you come with us?) Or, "I'd like to do that, but I'm too afraid." (And you think we're not?) We looked like mature adults firmly in control of our destiny. We felt like small children lost in the mall.
Now all we had to do was sell our house and cottage and a lifetime of accumulated trash and buy whatever mobile abode the four of us could survive in for a few years and many thousand miles. We decided on a truck and "fifth wheel" -- one of those trailers that attach to the truck bed. Soon we were learning about hitches and GAWRs (gross axle weight ratings) and NCC (net carrying capacity).
I had only one minor breakdown through all this. It happened at a massive RV show where we were hemmed in by blond women stuffed like sausages into their jeans and ruddy men with bellies blossoming over their belts. We squeezed around the bellies in bathrooms so tight you had to perform every function standing in one place. We gaped at motor homes so elephantine the driver needs a video camera to see what his rear end is up to. Our kids were bloated with grease and sugar. My husband suggested we leave.
I replied to that suggestion in an exquisitely controlled voice: "We have driven across the entire state to buy a trailer, and we're not even going to make an offer?" I also said some other things, but I forget what. Passersby threw us nervous glances and gave us extra personal space to work things out.
As it turned out, spending money was a lot easier than making it. We bought a 30-foot aluminum fifth wheel with bunk beds at one end and a queen-size loft perched demurely at the other. We also bought a used F-250 Ford Power Stroke with a 7.3-liter diesel engine and dual rear wheels, in which I feel like a small, helpless sparrow in the growling belly of Leviathan.
So far we are $40,000 in the hole and the first blush of excitement has faded. We have stopped gazing at each other in loving awe, smitten by the bold romantic decision to attempt this adventure together. We are heavily into paint and elbow grease to patch up a decade's worth of haphazard homeownership. Our looks have grown distinctly snarly and we are fighting about who is doing the most work and whether the off-white in the kitchen is too yellow.
Last week a real estate agent, walking over the wall-to-wall dirty laundry carpeting my son's bedroom, looked ceilingward and murmured, "We'll have to do something about this clutter." We decided to sell the house ourselves.
The real problem is that we are following a trail of bread crumbs in the middle of the forest. Our noses are caked with drywall dust, and our fingernails are coated with paint. We can't see the road ahead and we're too far in to turn back now. The reality of leaving good friends, half-grown children and our raspberry patch is achingly real; the payoff is not.
But we have a vision (please, God, not a fairy tale) that leads us from crumb to crumb. I want more time and fewer encumbrances. I want to live simply, not just talk about it. I want to nudge around in my soul and discover what has survived a quarter-century of child rearing and almost twice that of living. I want to squint through the fog and make out the dim forms ahead. No plan. No itinerary. No "if it's Tuesday, this must be Memphis."
So this journey is part pilgrimage, part psychic stroll. But, as with all journeys, there is the added bonus of being able to simply look around and say, "Oh, this is what the world is made of." I want to go out and look around. I want to feel the pulse in small towns and empty deserts and lush forests. I want to find out what people dream and hope for and what they fear, because lots of things are scary now.
I also am prepared to sit on porches and around campfires and listen to stories, narratives about maiden aunts, faithful pets and the price of milk. From all that I glean, perhaps I can piece together a story of my own that will reflect the truth of what I see.
We will try to travel lightly (as lightly as is possible in a 30-foot trailer) with eyes and ears open, with spirit and intuition engaged. We will keep in mind what Chief Seattle said: "Take only memories; leave only footprints." Or tread marks, as the case may be.