I've read a fair share of mother-daughter travel memoirs and so I think I know how this road trip with Jessica, my youngest daughter, is going to go. In all relationship memoirs, underneath the unfolding of what happened, the story is a study of self-exploratory interplay between author and loved one- as in, what does the creation of an "us" say about me? A mother-daughter memoir, however, is a special kind of relationship study, wherein genetics, the parent/child dynamic and gender alignment make for something altogether unique.
Mother/daughter memoirs written by mothers are very different from those written by daughters. Mothers, of course, endeavor to focus on the daughter, lovingly examining this incomprehensible being that is a woman-child-- how did she turn out like this? Why is she so different from me? Or, OMG, this child is me! How did I manage to pass on to her that habit or mannerism or world view? Ultimately, though, the mother's story ends up being about herself.
When the author is the daughter, inevitably, the examination is about how Mom's ways have created who the daughter has become. Almost always, these mother-daughter memoirs are about how fucked up Mom is. To be fair, the mother-daughter relationship is almost always complicated. And mother-daughter travel memoirs show how these complexities manifest while on the road-- the makings of good drama, always.
Right now, my youngest daughter, Jessica, and I are road tripping from Los Angeles to Houston. This trip is significant for two reasons. Firstly, Jess has just returned to the states from graduate school in the UK. She has been gone for a year. We have a lot of catching up to do. I am anxious to learn how her studies abroad have changed her (plus she has a British boyfriend I have yet to meet or even see a picture of). Secondly, our home-town, Houston, has just experienced the devastation of Tropical Storm Harvey. When I left to meet Jess in Los Angeles for the purpose of helping drive her car back to Houston, I had to postpone the trip for a week and then wrench myself from the efforts to put our family and the city back together. The current condition of our Houston family, neighbors and friends weigh very heavily on our minds. It's difficult not to rush home to the detriment of car and person.
Traveling with your daughter both tests and strengthens your bond, obviously. While travel is considered an expansive act-- branching out from what is familiar and comfortable, and embracing what is new and unknown, in a very real sense, travel can also be an intentional isolation. When you are traversing a foreign land with one other person-- whether it's in the city right next door to your own, or somewhere far and abroad, you are extracting yourself from your familiar settings and your community, except for this one companion. The isolation allows for some mutual concentrated focus on each other. And it creates this shared experience between you that is unique to just you two. If you are traveling by car, on a road trip, this isolation is all the more intense. You are closed in together...for hours...Just. You. Two.
Kimberly Meyer's Books of Wanderings is the ultimate mother/daughter travel memoir. Meyer sets out on a part personal/part academic quest and decides to take her daughter with her. She is reconnecting with her own wanderlust with the very person who embodies why she had to abandon her early travel yearnings in the first place. I do not envy her attempt to reconnect with her 18-year-old daughter, who she endeavors to get to really know before she leaves for college. And as expected, in accomplishing this, Meyer rediscovers pieces of herself. Theirs is an epic journey from Venice to Cyprus, the Holy land, the Sinai desert and Cairo.
My little three-day excursion with Jess across the American Southwest does not come close to Meyer's trip with her daughter. But we do get a serious dose of concentrated face-time. This is both the beauty and the challenge of road trips-- these hours of one-on-one. Jess and I have so much to talk about. It's been a crazy political year here in the U.S. since Jess left. She had to cast her absentee vote for a U.S. president in the midst of Britain's Brexit debacle. This makes her professional timing perfect. What better time and place to attain her master's degree in international relations? We spent hours discussing the state of our own country and the world. While I pumped gas at our first stop into Arizona, Jess was on the phone calling our Texas Senators about the President's new attack on DACA. She was, I imagine, motivated to act just then as we entered into the embattled state of Arizona. We talk about her desire to work on Houston's human trafficking problem. We talk about what we will do when we get home to help people rebuild their hurricane ravaged lives.
About a half-day into the trip we agree to listen to Trevor Noah's book, Born a Crime, on audiotape. And as it turns out, Born a Crime is a mother/son memoir. Noah writes about his early years. He weaves various stories about his unique and dangerous childhood and adolescence--extraordinary. But this book is really about his mother. The traveling that Noah does with his mother is far more existential, however. Together they traverse, Black mother and mixed child, across South Africa's transition from Apartheid to post-Apartheid, with all of the oppressive risks and challenges that come with that journey. And boy is this memoir a trip! Jess enjoys the story as much as I do. She has been in love with Trevor Noah ever since he burst onto the American comedy scene long before he took over The Daily Show. But we keep stopping the tape to talk. I am supposed to be sleeping and the tape is supposed to be keeping Jess company as she drives. But I cannot sleep. There is so much to talk about.
When my children were little, I would take special one-on-one excursions with each of them. I had forgotten that I had done this. In an earlier conversation, Jess reminds me and asks me why I felt this was important, and was there an incident or a concern that precipitated these efforts. I say no. I just thought each of my five children deserved some Mom time of their own, especially the younger half, who spent so much time at their older siblings' activities as the tag-a-long toddlers. So, as we are driving through the California dessert, I think about those times that she and I spent together. I remember that she liked to go to Color Me Mine, the ceramic painting place. And she loved the zoo. I ask her if she remembers some of the excursions. "Oh, yes, I remember a lot of them," she says, "we went to the dollar store." It's funny, as a parent, how you never know what will be significant in the mind of a child and what will not.
We make our way to Sedona, Arizona. We'd made a loose plan to spend each full day of the three-day trip driving to wonderful places on the way home. At each location we planned to do three things, stay over and then head out early the next morning. Perhaps our first stop should not have been Sedona. Sedona is our kind of place. It's is breathtakingly beautiful, it is spiritual and we have never been. You can't do Sedona in a day. Our three things: Oak Creek Canyon, Amitabha Stupa and Tlaquepaque Arts and Crafts Market. We discover to our chagrin that this is monsoon season for the region. We learn that if heavy rain is in the forecast, we must be very conscious of flash flooding, especially in the Oak Creek Canyon gorge. Just as we pull into Sedona, the rain clouds appear and it starts to rain. I am usually adventurous and overly committed to my travel itinerary, but I was not willing to have just survived the Tropical Storm Harvey's massive flood in Houston just to suffer a flash flood in Sedona. So, we skip Oak Creek Canyon and go to Amitabha Stupa. We wait out the brief downpour in the parking lot and traverse up the hill to the sacred shrines of the Stupa. This is a special place-- peaceful, well-trodden. The shrines, a collection of large and small Buddhas and beautiful prayer wheels look especially radiant after the fresh baptism of rain. My first time at a Stupa, I learned that they are sacred Buddhist architecture designed to promote spiritual deepening, healing, prosperity and peace. They are welcoming of every person, regardless of religious tradition, for meditation and prayer. You are encouraged to pray for yourself, your loved ones and for the end of suffering in the world. We are so happy to be here in this moment. We feel that this is exactly where we need to be. We have much and many to pray for- prayers of supplication, but mostly gratitude.
Then we proceed to the arts and crafts market for a little shopping...Then we eat not-the-greatest Mexican food. As we eat our not-the-greatest Mexican food, we watch, out of the large restaurant windows, the full moon slowly crest the mountain range, clearing the clouds and dropping its silver blanket over Sedona's massive rock formations. We hurriedly pay for dinner and leave the restaurant to find the best place to capture the moment.
The moon, the moon-- we have a special affection for the moon, we Carroll women. Ending the night under the full Sedona moon is the perfect end to a lovely day.
The next morning is clear, sunny and cool. We have a hard time saying goodbye to Sedona. We stop every five minutes to take pictures. It's like the Turn-Out Tour--we pull over at every scenic exit, because as the desert transitions into forest, there are exceptional vistas in every direction. This makes us late in our schedule for Santa Fe. But we don't mind. We are inspired.