September 21st, 2020
I wake up in a Walmart parking lot near the end of a mountain pass. We spent the whole night previous gently guiding our 32-foot long RV down the mountain, edging perilously close to the edge of several sheer drops. My face pressed to the window, I watched the world pass by. The evening sun sparkled gold over Yellowstone Lake, later turning dusky pink and painting the bony trees that poked their curious fingers up through the barren ground. After the sun set, I ate cheese and crackers, watching downloaded episodes of the Office and nearly breaking my shin tripping over a chair to get some more cheese from the fridge. And now I’m here, in a Walmart parking lot in Cody, Wyoming, my seventh state in as many days. This is the story of my life’s wildest adventure. A twelve (or so) week long road trip, wherein we hop from state to state, doing online school as we drive, seeing the sights, living the life. Supposedly.
That is, until you realize the middle of Wyoming isn’t exactly filled with cell towers. Ok, cool, there are antelope here. Sweet, I might’ve seen a grizzly bear. But all my assignments are three days late. Oh, well. I guess sometimes you have to trade grades for the once in a life time experience that this is.
When you’re trapped with your five-person family in a small space for three months, you’re bound to step on each other’s toes every once in a while. It happens at least ten times a day. Some little thing goes wrong, and someone panics. I missed a Zoom meeting today because...arrggh..nothing was loading! Stupid, beautiful Wyoming. I could’ve shrugged it off, and said, “Oh, well. It’ll be ok.” But, me being me, I freaked out and stomped off to the “back room” separated from the rest of car with only a curtain. This was the only semblance of privacy I could muster in these cramped quarters.
But when you’re stuck with your five-person family in a small space for three months, sometimes you realize how much you love them. I was riding in the passenger seat next to my dad, watching open road and big sky and yellow grass fly by, and we were singing his favorite songs from when he was your age. “The more you suffer, the more it means you really care, right? Yeah!” Self Esteem by the Offspring blared from his phone speaker.
“Hey, Addie, did you know I saw these guys in concert?” he said.
“No, really?” I said, as we drove past four or five antelope.
“They were very good. I must’ve been eighteen...eighteen, or nineteen, and I was really into it. I was going like this.” He pumped his fist in the air and made an “excited” face. “When you’re having fun, it makes you more attractive, y’know?”
I nod, thinking of the five college kids I saw hanging out in front of the Old Faithful cafe the other day. Clad in beanies and flannel, punching each other’s arms and laughing until they cried, they made me want to be them.
“So, I was having fun, and this girl starts creeping up behind me.”
“She’s shooting her shot,” I say.
“She is! But I was shy. Like, suuuuper shy. So as soon as she showed up at my shoulder, the opening notes of Self Esteem started playing and, did I say hi? No. I looked at her, and then did this.” He pumps his fist in the air and makes the same “excited” face.
I dissolve into laughter. “Poor girl. She just wanted to say hi.”
“And you ignored her!” I shout, still laughing.
“And I ignored her.”
It’s ok with me, though, because he met my mom not much later. I wonder if that girl still remembers him, the rude kid who ignored her at the Offspring concert, never knowing he was just, well, shy.
Later, he described to me the many tragedies that befell the members of Metallica, and the way drugs affected the Beatles. (Their music? Got better. Their lives? Got worse). Most of my dad and I’s conversations are sparked by a song. Then, later, I’ll upload those songs to my playlists, and think of him when I listen.
I love hearing stories like this, or just sitting and talking to him, and back at home, I didn’t as much. Being with my family all the time makes me realize that they are amazing, and I have to soak up every second with them.
I would say the most important lesson I have learned due to the COVID-19 pandemic is that you cannot take anything for granted. Someone you love could be gone any minute, and you cannot ever assume that you have forever. The truth is, our lives are limited. Our days are numbered. What number they are, I don’t know, but there is an end. So I have to make these days I do have count.
So I am grateful to be here, in this small space with my four family members (and the dog). I am happy gliding through eight states in nine days, missing Zoom calls and going three days without a shower. Even if this isn’t how I expected my sophomore year to go.
This year was supposed to be the “good times.” Cause being a freshman sucks, being a junior means staying up all night studying, and senior year is the threat of college looming. So this year was “it”. I saw myself huddled in a sweater at football games screaming for the Blue Jays until my throat went raw. I saw myself getting my nails done for Homecoming and spending the night with my friends afterward. I saw waking up at 4am to take a shower before a speech and debate tournament. And drinking apple cider at the pumpkin patch, and auditioning for the school musical, and ordering $1 coffee at the school coffee shop, saying hi to the special needs students who run it. I saw myself doing a million things. And none of them will happen.
Instead, I’m writing this in an RV passing through North Dakota. I woke up in a Walmart parking lot. I saw Old Faithful. This year I will do a million things. None of which I ever envisioned. They’re not your typical high school experience.
None of us are having the typical high school experience. Whether it’s wearing masks, staying home and staring at a computer instead of dragging yourself out of bed to go to school, or missing out on much-loved sports practices or theatre productions, high school is not going the way we had hoped. And dangit, but do I miss going to concerts, packed shoulder to shoulder with a wall of people, fist pumping, excited face… but that’s another story. Maybe some of us have even lost someone to the pandemic, and to you, I am deeply sorry, because this shouldn’t have happened. It shouldn’t have happened, but it did, and all of our lives have changed in radical ways. The past six months have been world-changing for everybody. We’re still figuring out how to cope.
My family’s way of coping, I guess, is to pack up all our worldly belongings (almost) and hit the road for three months. So we can be together no matter what happens. So we remember what it’s like to be a family. So we know that family is what matters the most in the whole wide world. Today, as I write this staring at windmills against the North Dakota blue sky, as I remember Wyoming’s yellow canyons and South Dakota sunrises and Idaho hot tubs, I am grateful for one thing, and family, that’s you. I love you to the ends of the earth. Or maybe, from Missouri to Idaho to Maine and back. That’s a bit more realistic.