I suppose that what I really wanted to say that day at my daughter’s school is that we never reach a point at which our lives lie before us a a clearly marked open road, never have and never should expect a map to the years ahead, never do close those circles that seem, at thirteen and fourteen and nineteen, so urgently in need of closing.
‘Pacific Distances’ in Sentimental Journeys by Joan Didion
I‘ve only been to the States once before: in the spring of 1992, we stayed with English friends who were spending a couple of years in Connecticut. I was thirteen. I went to school with my friend Jane (who was by then Jayne) and stood for the Pledge of Allegiance, and marvelled at the unregulated opportunities to eat fries and donuts and drink thick milkshakes that the lunch hall provided.
But when we arrived in LA in the late afternoon, it seemed that I knew the tropes — the palm trees, the golden light, the impossible clarity and size of that blue, blue sky, the huge signs: donuts, real-hair hair extensions, drive-thru smog test, coin-op laundromat — as though I had been there all my life. This, I guess, is the power of film, of TV, of landscape as dreamscape, the background to so many narratives in so many genres.
San Diego. The SoCal beach culture. Sand so hot that it’s impossible to walk on. The power of those Pacific waves. And then, we headed for the hills. The windy roads into Sequoia National Park. Small towns: motels bunched along a turn in the road, mountains always on the horizon. Three Rivers, Oakhurst, Bridgeport. Startled by a deer in the empty parking lot of a road-side mall as I run towards the setting sun. Yosemite: the valley like a strange paradise. T says that it’s Enid Blyton’s Valley of Adventure.
Through the Tioga Pass. The children swimming in Tenaya Lake in the late afternoon. Watching the sun setting over the eastern Sierras from a natural hot spring. Four pools of different temperature so all five of us are happy in the water. The mosquito bites blistering for days afterwards. Bodie, a gold-rush ghost town. The fascination of peeking through the windows: old mattresses covered in thick dust, sewing machines, ranges, children’s cribs. Peeling wallpaper, a small glass bowl of buttons.
A rhythm of motel life: tacos & beans for supper with apple pie for desert. Some nights a pizza. Kids awake at 10pm, at 11. All tumbling to sleep together. Would I recommend spending the first four weeks of married life sharing a motel room with your kids? Probably not. But I love it just the same. It’s like camping, but indoors. But of course it’s nothing like camping, because someone else straightens the room, picks up the dirty towels, re-makes the beds with apple-pie sheets. At first those someone elses were Spanish speaking, mainly young, now they’re older women, tattooed, cheerful even when watching a child puke all over the steps outside the room, keen to ask where our accents are from.
Tahoe and an AirBnB cabin in the woods that the Pip-Pop is easily convinced belongs to the three bears. When are the bears coming home? he asks each night as we tuck him into bed. Don’t worry, not tonight. They’re still on holiday. The smell of pine and the piercing blue of the lake. The water clear, icy. Reading Joan Didion on the shore, and The Grapes of Wrath which is taking me the longest time to get through (though I’m enjoying it more than I’d ever imagined). Thinking of those summer days in Vermont described in Crossing to Safety — the rhythm of work and companionship Stegner describes.
And there’s no denying that travelling with kids keeps it authentic. Sitting here in a motel room in the middle of a glorious day watching over the kid with a stomach bug while the others visit Gold Country. Trying not to remember how the last bug took a fortnight to take us down one-by-one. How I shared an ice-cream with her. How both her brothers drank from her water bottle. A trip to the medical centre in Yosemite when the littlest one cut himself deeply just over his eye on the metal arm of a bench. Try to pretend that this too is all good. Notice that parenting is parenting wherever you are.
Thinking always that the days are going too fast. This is half-way.
I joined Instagram in an attempt to only annoy myself with my endless snaps from the passenger seat of the car, though I’m many days behind in posting. You can find me here if you’re interested.