The lake is a sliver of blue glass that has fallen among the mountains. It is the color of the sky. The mountains surrounding it are snowcapped and furred with green. Everything is called "fir" here, although I have learned to distinguish among cedar, droopy-topped hemlock, Douglas and spruce. Our trailer is tucked among the trees, and they are majestic even though most of these Vancouver Island forests were logged off a generation ago. Snow Creek roars through our tiny campground in a blast of mist after its nearly vertical tumble down the mountain. We draw our drinking water from the creek, and it tastes like melted snow.
We are camped for a few days when Julia, 11, looks out the trailer door and sighs, "I'm tired of natural beauty."
We have been on the road for well over a year now -- long enough to get used to the luxury of time and the absence of obligation; long enough to blunt the crisp edge of memory: Who gave us the razor clams and fresh asparagus? What did the cactus wrens sound like? How did the desert at Catavina smell last spring? Long enough, even, to grow weary of the road.
True, we are good at the mechanics of travel. We can thread our rig through the eye of a needle due to my husband's superb reversing ability. We usually "dry camp" now, which means we ferret out remote and beautiful places that may offer a water spigot but few other amenities. When even that is lacking, the four of us can last for better than a week on our solar panel and 50-gallon water tank.
But even though we have mastered the logistics of our nomadic life, we still struggle with its soul. Soul, I think, is the well from which curiosity, awe and delight are drawn, and it doesn't matter whether I am traveling or not. Soul is what breathes life into the dry bones of experience. Soul is what makes me wonder why this Texas town has a hankering for Alsatian sausage, and why it celebrates St. Louis Day with such enthusiasm every August. Soul is what drives me to identify birds and collect shells; it is what impels me to stand outside on moonless nights like an idiot with my mouth open and my face to an infinity of stars. Without soul, I, too, would look around at Eden and yawn.
Yet, I understand why Julia is tired of natural beauty. It's hard to absorb such constant change, experience and information over such a long time. In each new place we learn new history and geology, flora and fauna. We learn about tides and constellations; we visit the forgotten ruins of ancient peoples. We learn that the gray whale calf that we saw from a tourist boat in Mexico may be harpooned (or, more accurately, shot with an elephant gun) if it approaches the hunting boats of the Makah Native Americans in Washington state.
Sometimes, it is all too much, and the soul becomes weary.
But when does weariness signify more than a need for a good night's sleep? When does a journey that began without a plan or itinerary reach its end? How do we distinguish between a passing case of the blues, a touch of indigestion and a deep urge to go home that should be attended to?
Our trip was never meant to become a way of life. We envisioned it as a radical break from everything familiar in order to return to familiar things with new eyes. We also thought it would be fun to poke about our corner of the globe with our youngest kids. "A year," we said. "Maybe two."
Our first-year anniversary loomed with the weight of decision making. Do we continue traveling or go home? How long? When?
I bobbed and drifted like a cork on a sea of conflicting wishes, resolutions and needs. One naggy little voice wanted to plant rhubarb and tomatoes. "Are you nuts?" barked another voice, indignant and judgmental. "Look around you: the sea, the mountains, the desert. You want to give all this up for a vegetable garden? You want to go back to billable hours and a mortgage?" My first voice whined and pleaded: "Well, how about flush toilets and hot showers?"
More strident were the voices of our children. Julia and Stephen, 14, miss their friends and kinfolk. They want to "hang out" and go to movies like normal kids. "That means getting up early every day for school," we pointed out. "That means homework and report cards and jobs." They tell us they miss school, too.
The voices of my older children, the ones I left behind, are the most difficult for me. They were bewildered when we sold the homestead and left. I could hear their hurt and sometimes their anger when I would call from hundred of miles away. For my part, I have not stopped missing them. I want to celebrate my son's 20th birthday, my eldest daughter's wedding and another daughter's graduation from college. I want a home to shelter them occasionally from the storms of young adulthood. So, despite the freedom of the road, despite the sea and mountains and desert, my roots have won. It is time for me to go home.
We will return to Michigan late in the spring, when the snow has melted and the hills adorn themselves like a bride in apple and cherry blossoms. When "For sale" signs sprout with the daffodils on front lawns.
The conflicting tugs continue. I am sad to end what has been so rich and fruitful. I want to experience these last weeks fully, not with an eye cast to the future. Yet, I can feel the northward pull. I remind myself that an important lesson of the road is to be where you are with all your senses and all your soul. I wander, nonetheless.
But today I am in Texas -- heart and soul. Leaves drift from the pecan trees, and the Medina River runs a swift and bloated clay-green after days of rain. Tomorrow we will head south toward the Gulf Coast, and the possibility of sand dunes, warm seas, shells to collect and birds to watch. This is as far as I will allow myself to imagine -- with anticipation, but not assumptions. All I can expect is that the road will bring surprises. And I have learned to expect them to be good.