When the husband's away, mom and the kids will play
The phone rang. I was staying in a motel in Eastern Washington while on tour with my dance company. My husband, Peter, was home with our two kids.
Molly Stark-Ragsdale dune jumping in Brandon, Oregon, 2002
Skyler Stark-Ragsdale dune jumping Bandon, Oregon, 2002
"Hi Sweetie!" Clearly he wanted something.
"How's the tour going?" he asked, stalling.
"So, Outside magazine just called," he continued tentatively. "They want me to go to Africa, but of course I don't have to," he spit out in a rush. "I just thought I'd float it."
I could hear the yearning in his voice. He'd been invited to accompany a party of four on a first descent of the Lugenda, a hitherto uncharted river in Northern Mozambique. He'd be gone, out of touch, for weeks. They didn't know how many.
In the end, I couldn't say no. Peter's thirst to explore was half the reason I'd married him. But was this what having kids was going to mean for me? That his life would continue to be rounding river bends into hippopotami and mine would be rounding the end of the grocery aisle into peanut butter and bananas?! That's when I came up with the plan. If he could go to Africa, then the kids and I were going to find our own adventure.
I'd always wanted to camp the length of the West Coast, following those two-lane, dune-sweeping, cliff-hanging, beach-combing coastal roads that run from British Columbia to Mexico; though 3,000 miles with two small kids might be ugly. So I decided to rent a vehicle and cut the trip in half; I'd drive 1,500 miles one way to my sister's house outside L.A. and fly home.
June 6: Peter loads kayaks into rugged Land Cruisers in Malawi, I strap child seats into a white Chevrolet at the Budget lot in Olympia. It takes me two more hours—after stops to buy Wee Sing in the Car CDs, snacks, sunscreen, pillows and art supplies—to get on the road.
It's dark before we pull into Beverly Beach State Park on the Oregon coast. I squeeze into a slot between a rock-star-sized bus and an old-fashioned trailer. The kids help me set up the "family" tent that I'd bought so we could all fit into one. Though giant compared to the svelte mountaineering tents we used pre-kids, we're still dwarfed by our RV neighbors. The bus's generator runs all night. Not the adventure I had in mind.
At midmorning the next day, I pull into a gas station. Molly and Skyler scurry into the convenience store. I see the look of surprise and amusement on the cashier's face through the front window. Their faces have been transformed by greasy crayon slashes on Skyler and a moustache and goatee on Molly, explaining the furtive giggles that had emanated from the back seat. Peace always comes at a price, but I had to admit it was kind of funny.
It's dark and we're still driving. Peter and his team would have made camp by then in the bush, tired after a day of unexpected rapids and waterfalls and skirting pods of potentially lethal hippos. We are now faster than the tongue twisters on the CD—"Betty bought a batch of bitter butter...." and out of distractions. Molly is hungry, Skyler is starting to cry and though I think he may need to go to the bathroom, I'm not about to stop.
"Oooeee, oooeee, oooeeeeee." I glance in the side mirror. Sheeesh!
"Ma'am, I clocked you at 85 on an uphill," the officer says gently, as his eyes run over the wreckage of drawing paper, water bottles, snack bags, magic markers, grease crayons, and CD cases, arriving finally at my children's garish faces. He doesn't give me a ticket. Maybe my situation looks like punishment enough.
That night, in the towering redwoods of Elk Prairie in northern California it's dank and chilly. We snap our tent together. Three minutes and 30 seconds. Just like a well-oiled NASCAR team—Skyler on the poles, Molly and I threading the sleeves and snapping the hooks. I have to admit this part is fun. I'd made this a game and Skyler is all about racing the clock.
I fire up the stove, pour out the package of Hamburger Helper, inhale an entire bar of Cadbury's chocolate and collapse on a picnic table bench. Still going strong, Molly and Skyler creep through the bushes, little banshees, spying on neighboring campers. I feel a surge of pleasure at the way they entertain themselves, given a few tools in the car (interactive songs, art supplies, books on tape), or suggestions in the outdoors ("sneak over to the outhouses without anyone seeing you.")
The next day we wind our way up and over fern-draped mountains, dropping down to grassy promontories lashed by spraying waves and gaze at the vast spread of the Pacific. Even Molly and Skyler are awestruck. Stopping in Mendocino, we clamber over rocks to a small island in a cove, scuttling back to shore as the tide comes in. After our cold night in the redwoods, we decide to check into a motel with a hot tub. The three of us soak then climb together into one bed to watch a movie.
Peter and I had fantasized about going on a California wine country tour and the next day I find myself steering the tub through the Anderson Valley. It looks like a two-page spread out of Wine Connoisseur. This was not exactly the romantic getaway I'd envisioned, by myself with two kids and a car full of trash. I look longingly at signs advertising tastings. But of course that would be irresponsible. Well....
Maybe just one?
I pull off. Planting the kids at outdoor picnic tables, I lug our cooler out of the trunk and hastily make salami and cheese sandwiches.
Locking eyes with my kids I say, "Molly, Skyler, I'll be right back, okay? Don't go anywhere. Promise?" then dash into a round, cedar-sided tasting room.
Seven days after our start in Olympia, we pull into my sister's desert condo in Indio, east of L.A. I was exhausted, but so proud. Of myself for continuing to seek adventure under my new circumstances, but mostly of my four-year-old boy and seven-year-old girl. They'd barely whimpered—not at the hours of being belted into a car; not at the late-night camp set ups; not at the cold damp of the redwoods or the sweating heat of the California desert. They'd got along with each other and tolerated me. Though the drive felt massive, it's the jumping off sand dunes, running through red woods, chasing hard-sand beach waves, and tide pooling that has stuck with us.
Before we'd left we'd scheduled a satellite phone date with Peter for June 13. I sit on soft cushions in my sister's pastel living room. His voice sounds intermittent, far away.
"I can see the red eyes of a crocodile," he says. "They come in at night to the edge of the river. Rodney builds a fire to keep them away. But how are Molly and Skyler?" His voice starts to crack. "I miss you all so much," he says after a long pause. I can hear he's trying not to cry. I realized then that while I didn't have the adrenaline rush of waterfalls, I had them. And that was worth more than any elephant crashing through the bush.