We recently took a car camping trip with the ultimate destination being Joan’s family reunion in Utah. All of her sisters were converging in Salt Lake City and we were going to be part of the festivities. But from the time we first started planning the trip there was an edge of conflict. How many days were we going to go for? Were we going to visit other people along the way or on the way back? Were we going to plan our itinerary or wait and see what happened along the road?
Both Joan and I came to this vacation (as we have to numerous others) with our own expectations, history of past travel, and assumptions about the “right” way to travel. Six weeks before the trip, I was eager to take Eli down to the AAA office to order a TripTik, a series of bound maps that would outline our route and give him an opportunity to learn map-reading skills, as I had when I was his age. Joan was finishing up her school year and focusing on the tasks in front of her. She wasn’t interested in planning the route of a trip that was almost two months away. And being locked into a set plan? That was anathema to her. So I let go of the TripTik and waited to see what would happen.

Weeks later, with the trip upon us, it was time to pack. Again, our inevitable differences reared their heads. Joan likes to travel light, to feel unfettered, to enjoy the adventure of making do. I like to feel prepared for every contingency. I restock the first aid kit, bring Tylenol and homeopathic pills in case the kids get sick, take extra groundcloths, bring too many clothes (to be prepared for every possible weather), and fill the car with all kinds of things Joan finds unnecessary and cumbersome. I love being at a campsite, having wet towels and being able to reach in the car and pull out a rope and clothespins. I like having the right footwear, a well-stocked kitchen on the road, more than four forks, and a garlic press. For Joan, all of this stuff I insist on schlepping along feels claustrophobic. She wants to feel free and spontaneous. She says all the extra stuff I bring makes us too comfortable, encourages us to carry our habitual patterns with us, and keeps us locked in the familiar. In doing so, we miss exploring something new. If we get caught in a downpour and don’t have raincoats, she wants us to improvise a shelter. If we’re stuck somewhere without the exact snack the kids like, maybe they’ll learn to eat something new. Traveling light leads to being resourceful, she says, and don’t we want our kids to be resourceful? And I do see her point. But that doesn’t stop me from bringing the extra flashlight, the spare batteries and cushy pads to use in the tent.

Then there was the question of our environment in the car. All the way to Salt Lake City, we struggled over the volume of the radio. I wanted it louder; she wanted in quieter. At her volume, I had to strain to hear. At mine, she felt assaulted. I had brought two volumes of Harry Potter on tape, wanting to keep the kids happy in the car, and while the kids and I were engrossed in tales of Voldemort, Harry, Ron, and Hermione, Joan felt left out and alienated. She enjoyed listening for awhile, but hour after hour? The noise kept her awake and she missed enjoying the quiet night air. She complained, but I was too engrossed in the Dark Lord to give much credence to her protest.

We had wonderful times, too–a spontaneous river raft trip on the Sevier River in central Utah, a hike upriver at Zion National Park where we used giant walking sticks and watched the red canyon walls rise up on towering either side. We explored a giant cave and hiked at dusk, all things would never have happened if we’d been locked into a preset plan. The reunion with her family was a relaxed success. Then we went camping again, and finally headed home.

A few days after we got back, we sat down to talk about the trip and the conflicts we’d had. When we got down to it, it because clear that we each had a whole set of ideas about how vacations “should” be, and that without checking them out with each other, we’d assumed they’d be best for our family. Then we started talking about our childhood experiences. I described a summer-long camping trip we took across the country when I was ten, the places and people we visited. I talked about playing word games and singing songs we made up in the car. Joan talked about long night drives in the desert, then stepping out of the car and standing still in the vast, cool quiet of a star-filled sky. I imagined the majesty of that stark desert night and wondered if we, too, might have stepped into that world if we hadn’t been absorbed in a Quidditch match at Hogwarts.

“Sometimes, Vicky,” she said, “You have this idea about how things were done in your family, and you think they’re right for this family. But you don’t stop to think about me or the kids or who all of us are together. You just want them to have this experience you had thirty-five years ago, and maybe it doesn’t fit who we are or what we need today,”

That gave me something to think about. A vacation isn’t just a trip to a destination; it’s a journey back in time. It’s trying to create for our kids something we had long ago or that we wished we’d had. But it is also a chance to discover a new way to be together when we step out of our everyday roles, routines and constraints.

Joan’s words really made me stop and think. And they helped me realize that I’d happily trade two of those cushy foam pads for just one glimpse at Joan’s night sky and a deep breath of clear desert air.

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