In a moment of insanity, we have promised our daughter travel money for that last heedless summer between high school and college. She had long yearned to visit Moscow’s onion domes, the Great Wall of China, the ruins of Pompeii—any exotic land that would deliver her from the dull safety of her suburban upbringing. Fortunately, her friends, not sharing her passion for foreign misadventures, talked her into a cross-country road trip instead. Shortly after tossing their mortarboards in the air and shutting the door on childhood, they plan to traverse the United States in the faithful minivan that has toted them from soccer practice to guitar lessons to unauthorized parties. God only knows where it will take them now.
“But she barely knows how to unscrew the gas cap!” I lament to my husband. “She can’t read a map to save her life!”
My husband glances up from his book chronicling the glory days of South Pole expeditions. I know that look—a silent indictment of me for coddling our daughter into helpless dependency since infancy.
“At least everyone will speak English,” he mutters before returning to the armchair adventures he must content himself with now that he’s a responsible family man. “She’ll be fine.”
I have to believe this, or at least pretend. It’s not as if I lack practice in swallowing my fears and surrendering gracefully to my daughter’s naïve forays into the dangerous world. First it was solid food, then kindergarten and sleepovers, those gateways to truly hair-raising risks like dating and driving. What’s a mother to do? If I suck it up and feign enthusiasm for this latest cockeyed scheme, perhaps I’ll be allowed to chauffeur them from coast to coast, or at least tie myself discreetly to the luggage rack like some kind of living Saint Christopher’s medal.
So I gamely flash my membership card at the AAA counter, and come away with camping guides and maps of every region of this too-vast country. At least it’s not Russia, I remind myself. At least she’ll hear “Your money or your life” in her native tongue before being knocked unconscious into the gutter.
When she sees the maps, my daughter temporarily abandons the sullen monotone she has perfected for in-home use. A radiant, full-face smile I dimly remember from grade school appears, and I congratulate myself for cracking the code that makes teenagers indecipherable to their mothers. Pressing my luck, I am about to propose that we chop vegetables together for a rare family dinner when she sweetly informs me that she and her traveling companions must plan their trip down at Coffee Roasters right this minute. She promises to be home in time for dinner. Just as sweetly, she calls an hour later as I am setting the table to apologize for not joining us after all—she and her friends have ordered a bite to eat and are just now starting to pore over the maps.
How can I puncture her bubble when she returns, elated with dreams of the open road?
“We’re going to drive up to Vancouver, then go to Chicago and New York and then pick up Zoe in Rhode Island,” she gushes. “Then we’ll go to Nashville, Memphis, Birmingham, and New Orleans, and come back through Texas. We want to avoid Nebraska. Do you think $500 will be enough?”
“Not unless you’re planning on prostituting yourself at truck stops for gas money,” I think to myself. Wisely deciding to remain silent on creative fundraising schemes, but still miffed about dinner, I content myself with criticizing their proposed route. “Why go all the way up to Canada and then so far south? Do you have any idea how hot Texas will be?” Certainly they’d be better off traveling from one national park to the next, recreating the perfect family camping trip my husband and I regret never taking when the kids were little. And besides, perhaps they could finally get their Junior Ranger badges!
The truth is I envy her confident oblivion. I miss the days of traveling on nothing but optimism and a whim. When I was her age, my friends and I spent hours planning a European bike trip. With the map spread out across the kitchen table, my friend Harry traced downward through Spain from north to south, exclaiming, “Look, it’s all downhill! We can coast!”
We never did bike through Europe. But even if we had, the actual trip could not have surpassed the magic of planning it, unimpeded by reality, confident we could go wherever we wanted. Back then, all roads led to endless possibilities arrived at by effortless coasting.
I wonder if my daughter and her friends will actually pack up the car and find their way cross country and back, successfully avoiding Nebraska. I hope they make it, if only to prove that I have not smothered her with my neurotic hovering. But even if this journey unfolds only on the tabletops at Coffee Roasters, I know she has already left.
Watching her go, I feel a surge of empathy for my mother, who stoically endured what all parents must face sooner or later. She may have been spared the particular nightmare of bicycle wrecks on foreign mountainsides. But a few years later my mother still had to drive me to the Greyhound bus station and wave goodbye when I moved 3,000 miles away, armed with little money and fewer prospects. She must have been as heartsick as I am now, but back then I felt only the thrill of the limitless horizon before me.
Now the open road scares me, not just for my daughter’s travels, but for my own. I wish I could muster up that confident oblivion again as I reluctantly embark on the final leg of this eighteen-year road trip. Where is the AAA counter dispensing maps and advice for navigating the unfamiliar territory of the empty nest?