check-in-the box (Part I)


I had a hard time wrapping my head around it.  Camping without running water or facilities?  In a remote location in the mountains without other people for miles?  I am no Cheryl Strayed; who chose to walk the Pacific Crest Trail solo for long stretches of time.

Mandatory camping.

I dragged my feet hoping it would go away.  Normally I enjoy travel and sightseeing; especially long road trips.  As Memorial Day nears, each year,  I itch to see the center lines blur on worn highways; headed to places near and far.  I am thankful my family of five endure my excursions, my need to explore.  Most people assume our trips are my husband’s idea.  But it is usually I that chooses the location and works out the logistics.  July 2016 is already booked.

This time it was out-of-my hands.

My father-in-law (FIL) has always had the prospector mentality within, since his early twenties.  When my husband and his sister were young, their family of four went on month long vacations into the wilderness with a trailer purchased in 1974 to pan for gold.  The years flew by as work and life took precedence.  But it has always been my FIL’s desire to live “off grid” and mine for gold.  In retirement he chose to demolish and upgrade their trailer from years past.  Late last fall he arrived at our family business with a deed in-hand.  He was the official owner of a mining claim.

We knew it was coming, the hubs and his sister, as winter turned to spring.  It was my FIL’s desire to camp in the wilderness for a family vacation.  It is back-breaking work and manual labor; to mine for gold. Our nephew took his turn in aiding his grandparents in late spring.   This time it was ours.  We met at our rendezvous point ten hours away from our homes.  And then we followed the trailer as it slowly ascended into the mountains.  The rear tire of the trailer was punctured as the FIL navigated his way down towards the creek.  The guys pushed boulders out of the dirt road’s path and used chainsaws to clear tree branches.  How are they going to get out of here?


Upon arrival the hubs carried away the portable toilet.  My in-laws graciously allowed me access to their trailer bathroom but the boys enjoyed being in the great outdoors; particularly the hubs.  It was a beautiful setting and very remote.   What better place to commune with our natural environment?  I shuddered as I snapped the shot.  The Repel spray with 40% DEET was a prized commodity and the parfum of choice to ward away the mosquitoes.

The idea was to get away.  To unplug.  To do.  N.O.T.H.I.N.G.


It all sounds good, the idea of disappearing into the wilderness and letting nature have its way.   Our sons tried not to look bored and I quickly realized that most of our camping excursions are in national or state parks with many scenic hiking trails and famous landmarks.  Our site consisted of a small creek with lots of trees.  It took five minutes, each way, for our sons to explore the creek banks.   They truly had nothing to do.  The teenagers disappeared into tents, instead; to sleep in the middle of the day.   The FIL and hubs worked  on repairing the punctured tire.  They chopped wood for our fire with chainsaws and axes.  They carried equipment down to the creek bed: winches, chains, shovels, buckets, the Keene dredge, sluice box, motor and various filters.   When Grandma suggested the boys explore the culvert (large drainage pipe) I sent them off with my camera.  They quickly returned and told me to come with them.  With hand-held CBs, off we went to explore the larger pool beyond.


It was as I stood on a rock in the pond beyond the culvert, with a shivering dog, that my mind finally accepted where I was.  The teens explored along the banks and I gazed at the trees overhead.  I could continue to be an observer of my surroundings or I could consciously choose to be a participant in the untamed natural beauty around me.  I watched the clear water turn cloudy with ochre dust; the sounds of mining from upstream mixing gravel and silt.  I needed to embrace it.


My mind cleared as the water clouded; just as it did when I recently participated in a mud run.  I laughed out loud and the boys looked at me questioningly.  Has Mom finally lost her mind?  My bodily-kinesthetic/ADD tendencies make it hard for me to do nothing.  Shivering in the cold water I knew what I was going to do.


I, too, would learn to mine for gold and burn calories during the process.


Eventually all the boys joined their Dad and Grandfather over the next few days.  They shoveled, they dumped and sorted rocks.  They carried buckets and placed shovels full of gravel and sand into the dredge.  It was a lot of physical work and, surprisingly, we weren’t bothered by it.  At the end of our four days I was sad to leave my in-laws; who remain for another week.  We departed from their gold mining site on their 49th wedding anniversary.  The punctured tire was fixed and on the trailer with enough patches to get them back to a town, thirty miles away.

The manual labor in the cold water actually brought warmth to my core.  But most importantly, it brought warmth to a more vital place: the heart.  It was a gift, for the only child with deceased parents, to see the ties that bind continue to strengthen amongst three generations of males.  Would any of my boys or hubs choose to do this on their own?  No. Probably not.

It was a labor of love; the most important lesson of life.  More priceless than the elusive gold.


I place a check-in-the-box.


Human nature


The Shangri-Las’ song, I Can Never Go Home Anymore, was recently discovered last week while playing the Wild movie soundtrack.  Enamored with the book by Cheryl Strayed and the film starring Reese Witherspoon; the soundtrack had been an impulsive purchase which sat in my car console untouched last year.  I found it while rummaging around my vehicle as I left it at the mechanic; preparing for our upcoming annual camping trip with the friend I have known since aged four.   To get my sons in the camping mood I popped the Wild CD in the stereo and imagined myself hiking one of my most favorite trails in the Sierras; in the same mountains Cheryl Strayed chose to walk alone on the Pacific Crest Trail or PCT.  This song is track four on the soundtrack, originally released in 1965.  It is fifty years old.


My sons have been exposed to my varying musical tastes and our household has various genres competing for audio space at the same time: country music, heavy metal, alternative, top 40, rap, classical, jazz, Motown and disco.  But somehow we all discovered this mid-sixties era together in the confines of my car.  Reggae and Bob Marley are next on my list.

“What IS this weird stuff?” asked the youngest as a Simon & Garfunkel song, El Condor Pasa (If I could), vibrated through my speakers; reminiscent of a hippy/ folksy tune.  Then the Shangri-Las’ song played and we all laughed hysterically.  “They call this music?” came the cracking voice of my middle son; which caused us to giggle once again.  I gazed at him through my rearview mirror and replied this was the sixties version of rap.

I’ve been going through the decades and recently, to commemorate summer, Good Vibrations and Surfin’ Safari by the Beach Boys could be heard through my car speakers.  The eldest stoically sat in the front seat, listening and taking it all in.  We thought he had been asleep.  On our four hour trek north we played this CD for the hubs.  We still stifled a few laughs but then began to really listen to the words.  The minor chords and melancholy lyrics have begun to resonate with all of us and the boys asked me to play it again. The youngest looked a bit teary and I resisted the urge to tell him to add this song to my obituary playlist.  I did tell the middle son.  Are you serious, Mom?

Why am I waxing long about this song?  I wondered this myself and realized the time spent with my longtime childhood girlfriend gave me a different perspective about motherhood, success and human nature.  I can never go home anymore either and she knows where I come from; she’s from the same place.  We caught up on various topics but it was only when I sat in my home, four hundred miles away, that the words I wished I had said to her finally came.

You’re a great Mom and don’t you ever forget it.

We struggle through motherhood, seeking and wanting to belong and hoping for opportunities to prove that we, indeed are, good mothers.  The affirmation rarely comes.  Whether we stay-at-home, volunteer or work we never feel adequate.  It’s hard for my fellow, moms to acknowledge a compliment on how they look; let alone that they, are good moms.  It’s easy to tear things down; harder to build them up.  It’s human nature.


We sat around the campfire; my girlfriend’s family of four with my family of five.  Her husband had just asked my older sons what they wanted to do after high school.  The eldest shared his answer of aeronautical engineering, the middle son is still unsure.  Out-of-the blue my girlfriend shared how I always knew what I had wanted to be from a very young age.  She always remembers the memories I do not and I was curious what I had said way back when; aged thirteen like my middle son.  A doctor.  She shared her own dreams and had considered becoming a nun but really had wanted to find a career that allowed her to travel.

I let the conversation flow around me as I reflected on the paths our lives took.  I had followed my career path to its destination.  Medical school.  I crossed all my t’s and dotted all of my i’s and when I finally arrived, I realized after the first year I didn’t really want to be there.  Things had fallen into place for me too easily.  My father had always wanted me to become a doctor or a lawyer.  He was a small businessman.  I grinned at the irony that now, I too, am like him.  The PSATs, SATs, ACTs, GREs & MCATs have no bearing in what I currently do in my life.

My girlfriend shared her experiences aloud; my sons intently listening.  She chose Spanish and comparative literature as majors, opting for the fifth year since she had not been ready to leave college.  She had transferred after junior college and I, too, remembered the phone conversations we had decades ago.  Things did not come easily for her but she continued to work hard to find her way.  She now works for the capital city of our state in economic development; just returning from travel to China.  She travels extensively and is successful in what she does.

When you have to work for what you want, you appreciate it much more than if it is handed to you.

While walking with my girlfriend, so like my childhood friend, I realized she and I have been having this same running conversation for the past few months.  She is also well-traveled and successful in her career; the similarities striking.    Both of these girlfriends, like myself, search for opportunities to grow.  But what we are seeking, none of us know.

And so it goes with motherhood.  It is not natural; nor easy.  My tiger mom tendencies resurfaced when the report cards arrived in the mail yesterday.   For all the mental preparation I still fail miserably at caging this beast within; stalking silently away to the kitchen to let my son digest his grades.  It was then that the campfire discussion came to mind; the perspective very slowly returning.  In this past year I have stopped seeking greener pastures, comparing the haves and have nots.  I have arrived at a place of acceptance where I find joys in the place I currently reside.  I absorbed the bitter pill of disappointment and failures, in life and in people; which allowed me to step away and consider the person I was and the person I am.   This mental work has made me appreciate how far I’ve come.  I walk the path of authenticity now.


The smell of smoke from crackling wood, the tall trees, the waxing moon in Nature, with my girlfriend I have known for almost four decades, brought me peace.   She was the affirmation I had needed.  She talked of mommy cliques, changing careers and balancing motherhood, marriage, volunteer opportunities and a full-time job.  She felt like a bad mother amongst the other parents who knew every child’s name in her son’s classroom and had countless hours volunteering.   She talked of clusters of moms at the gym; a social circle that she could never experience.   In the few days we spent together I diligently answered her questions; slowly processing her words but not having the opportunity to share the words I wished I had said above.

There is no check-in-the-box list of what makes a great mom.  One does not have to fundraise for multiple school drives, sit on PTA/booster boards,  applaud on the sidelines of every game, be home to bake cookies when kids arrive home from school, make lots of money or buy everything our child(ren) wants.


Spending a large quantity of time or money with your child does not equate quality time.

It takes twenty minutes to read a book, an hour to help with homework, five minutes to actively listen to a child’s opinion or explain why we can’t buy an item due to cost.   Done consistently these small investments, with lots of love and paired with the ability to let go and hand over responsibility, have the potential for big returns; namely…a child who respects his parents and accepts their failings.  The child eventually learns to navigate through life on his own; drawing on his past experience and upbringing (both good and bad).

I continue to place one foot in front of the other, striding to the beat of my own music and drum.  I walk the great outdoors, enjoying my fellow humans and Mother Nature. Motherhood certainly isn’t natural and it’s up and down.  It’s human nature.