Monday, April 7, 2014

Spring Break

We are on vacation. Usually we start with simple plans that become distended and unwieldy with nearby opportunities and potential adventures. This time, though, I refused. I declared unscheduled hours not gaps to be filled, but breathing spaces. No add-ons. No supplemental adventures. My husband pounded at my resolve, wheedling with promises of family memories to be made. I stood firm. No racing against an agenda of reservations and schedules. Therefore this year’s journey isn’t an epic story to be told with rueful laughter, but a series of small moments.

I read aloud, alternating between a young adult dystopia and a children’s fantasy about mermaids. For once there are no distractions — we are driving, only driving. I lose track of time and distance. I pause. The children prompt me: more, please. At home they are pulled away by friends and electronics, obligations and activities. Here, now, I have them in their entirety. Though my voice is raw I continue, silently delighted in their attention.

The dog and I walk the perimeter of my parent’s town. There are more birds here than at home. More wildlife. The leash protects hidden deer from the jubilation of a city dog. Bird song rises, pulling crocuses and tulips from the freshening earth. Their gaiety is contagious. It snowed in the night. Normally staid trees — elms, cottonwoods — are dressed in icy finery, dollops of snow on their branches mimicking the coming floral frippery of plums and cherries.

On the final run I abandon my husband to the role of instructor, arcing around the Ski Patrol’s mop-up crew and reveling in a moment’s freedom. After a day of snowplowing and slow, wide turns, it is a relief to head straight down. I’ve stopped fighting my skis. My turns are light and quick and I feel as if I am floating. Only the sound of metal edges scraping across thin patches of snow belies the sensation. I crest and pause, waiting for my son, arching to glimpse the bright jackets of my husband and daughter. I see nothing. The sky has grayed with an impending storm and I cannot distinguish the peak from the clouds. Leftover leaves clatter across the snow. The people have all gone. Columns of aspens rise like smoke, waving in the rising wind. Branches creak without rhythm. Our family is the last down the mountain, which rises massive and icily indifferent. The wind blows. I close my eyes to listen, as if sight hampers my hearing. I come to wonder if there has been an accident and begin to imagine digging the toes of my stiff boots into the snow, carving five hundred steps upward in search of a broken child. Red flashes between the trunks and “They’re coming” breezes back to me from a ski patroller rushing to an end-of-season party. Again I am alone. I dismiss the vestige of responsibility that holds me in place and fling myself down the mountain, catching up to the wind and passing it, flying down, flying alone, flying through the rushing air until I run out of mountain.

The sky darkens red an hour early. Mud drips from dust-sodden clouds, leaving random red-brown circles on sidewalks, roofs, windows. Three years ago the wind picked up sheets of Mongolian soil and dropped them halfway across North America. I walk to the car, draw a line across the window with my finger, and bring it to my mouth, imagining I can taste the colorful geometry of the Gobi desert.

Our supper guests have gone. My mother and I step easily around each other, putting away leftovers, wiping counters. Chores done, I sit at the kitchen counter with my book as my mother sits in an armchair with her crocheting. The dishwasher groans and swishes quietly. Voices drift down from upstairs where my family is working on a puzzle. I turn a page with a papery whisper. Mom counts stitches under her breath. We do not need words to take comfort in each other.

The splashing of fountains and the water slide are so loud I cannot hear their made-up rules. The ball is tossed and thrown with joyous desperation between watery attacks on opponents. I rush between my husband and children, leaping to grasp the beach ball and falling laughing into the water. They wade toward me until I pop up and toss the ball away. My son shakes water from his hair and throws it back — over his sister’s head — right into his father’s arms. We grin and he throws the ball again.

The hike is up and up and up. We walk along a fin of rock six feet wide which falls to sand and scrub below. Sheer walls rise just out of reach to left and right, black varnish pocked with red where weather has taken bites. Farther and higher and we are above the walls, perched atop our slice of sandstone hundreds of feet above the brown gray valley where golden sun pours across the floor, mirroring the clouds above. Rain falls in intermittent curtains, parting and closing to obscure the La Sal range rising at some incalculable distance. Storms dance all around us as we scramble toward the arch at the end of our path. Dry balls of snow fall. Wind paints my arms with cold. Ravens hop and caw, opening their wings like sails in corvid mockery of the earth-bound. When we find the arch my family is underwhelmed. I answer my son’s gripes by saying that the important part was the journey, not the destination. For once the aphorism is not a cliche.

I am layered to inflexibility to fight the chill. Supper is an exercise in creative cookery since one of the stove burners doesn’t work. I slowly remember the rhythm of camp cooking, warming hot dogs in the macaroni water, heating broccoli on the lid. We huddle companionably around the table to eat and savor the last hour of daylight with card games. Somehow, without walls, our family is more intimate. Despite the cold I linger, urging another round, until it is too dark.

I wake, nose icy, huddled in my sleeping bag. I hear cars on a distant highway and gaze at the tent roof, unsure if it is time to wake. Both children have drawn close in their sleep. My son, who treasures his lone bed at home, has his back to mine. I am curled around my daughter, who has snuggled into the curve of my belly. Their warmth soothes me. I close my eyes and wake much later to the dawn.

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