“Did you know that some people charge two, even three dollars for a cup of coffee? Coffee!” the cashier scoffs as my husband hands her $1.25 for the gas station blend that’s been sitting on the warmer since dawn. It’s pushing 1 o’clock, and we are the only patrons in this forgotten town.
“I can’t believe it,” my husband responds, “but I know someone who would.” He points out the store window toward our SUV where I am perched in the front seat. “That woman right there,” he says.
He relays this story to me after he’s returned to the car, and I laugh but it isn’t that funny. There was a time when I would have echoed this woman’s sentiments, nodded in unison that yes, indeed, this was ridiculous, wasteful. Three dollars for a coffee?! But something has changed, and I am different from this woman and her stoplight town now. I am on the other side of some invisible fence. I am the woman who buys the three dollar coffee. And let’s be real. It’s more like six.
I watch the old man outside the laundromat/hotel/gas station/grocery as our fuel pumps slowly. Glug, glug. The dollars roll. My husband scrolls through email now that his phone has found service once again. And so it begins. A headache closes in, squeezing my brain, and I have nothing to ail it except a Styrofoam cup of stale Folgers.
Our goal on this trip was to slow down, like way down. Life has been spinning so quickly. Circles and circles and circles of routines, obligations and six dollar coffee stops. Baseball and football and soccer and foster care visits and check-ins and paperwork and guilt, so much guilt, and second grade and kindergarten and a preschooler off and running soon. New clothes, new boxes arriving on our doorstep weekly as we prepare for another school year, four boys needing something more formal than pajamas to get them through the day.
I’ve been in the same sweatshirt for 72 hours, and it molds to my body like a sweaty, smoky hug. I haven’t worn mascara in a week, and my unpolished skin likes the feel of fresh air and freckles from the sun. Wrinkles be damned. I smile and laugh and wear my thoughts on my face which is now broken into fine lines and familiar cracks that maybe, for once, I am a little less conscious of. Who’s to care how I look? How I’ve aged? Who’s to criticize my make-up less face, say I’ve let myself go? The trees? The loons with their elegant necks? They are not concerned with me, so neither am I.
But I know this carefree, slow-paced freedom is coming to an end. We pull back onto the highway and head south toward Wisconsin, away from the rocky lakeshore and sleepy towns of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. We drive faster and faster to keep up with passing cars, and the country roads turn to highways turn to express lanes shooting us past Green Bay and Milwaukee. Traffic thickens, billboards and sparkling buildings dominate the landscape. My mood darkens.
I miss the quiet. I want to turn our little family around and head back to the woods, shelter them with giant hemlocks and mountains of driftwood dredged up on sandy shores. I am growing tired of our life in the fray, and I want to run away, stay away this time for good.
We drive through Milwaukee and a white-collar man in a silver Range Rover catches my eye. His hair is as shiny as the car he’s driving, and I despise him. The wealth of the city feels shameful. My stomach turns and headache intensifies.
“Would it be possible to move away from it all?” I wonder. Could we extract ourselves from the life we’ve built and retreat into the wilderness, live along the rhythmic crashing of the waves and distant cry of the loon? God love those nonjudgmental loons.
Could we give it all up? I ask myself again and again, but this is not a new thought. This long-fought pull has shaken free again from somewhere deep. I shove it down each time we venture into a new and wild space.
I am enamored with Montana. It’s evergreens and tumbling rivers remind me of home while the open sky shoots us off on a different trajectory than where I thought we were headed. It feels limitless here. It feels like a place where someone could be free.
From the moment we crossed the state line, I started to picture a life in this wilderness. There is little distraction. No flashing lights or giant billboards to tell you what you’re missing. As we drive along the Yellowstone on our way to Bozeman, I realize this is what we are missing, the basics of existence where trees meet rock meet water and the mountains looming remind you how small you are. There is nothing to remind me of this at home, only lies that tell me I need to take up more space.
And I am so tired of these lies. Our closets are filled with stuff we don’t need. This might be what we need – to figure out who we are without all the trimmings.
Pretty soon, I’m searching properties. Two bed, two bath with bubbling brook. Four bed, three bath with wrap-around porch and mountain views. It’s all out of reach unless we sell outright and move. And looking out the car window, I think we could do it. I see us here. Maybe it’s time for a change.
“We are a very long ways from home, Mama. We are like one hundred and sixty-five minutes,” my middle man says, but it’s so much farther than that. We are 90,000 minutes and entire lives away from home, but sometimes, on the road with babies strapped into well-worn car seats and just the right song on the radio, our home becomes that weighted down vehicle. Our home becomes fluid. It is simply wherever we are, so maybe it could be here, too.
Montana, Alberta, Nova Scotia, Wyoming – all of these wild places begged me to stay. And now the most northern reaches of Michigan. The abandoned mines and shipwrecked harbors, the ghosts of entire populations haunting the tiny towns that dared survive. These ghosts called out in the night, kept me from sleep, are keeping me from sleep still.
And these ghosts, they all offer the same thing, whisper out the same fantastical dream. “Come,” they say. “Escape.” Run away from the cycle of see, envy, buy, discard, repeat. Busy, busy, busy. Hurry, hurry, hurry. Go, go, go, go, go.
What if there was nowhere better to be? Nothing better to do? What then? Would we finally be free to meet the very purist versions of ourselves, sipping drip coffee from second hand mugs? Mascara-less, phone-less, lives lived outside in the sunshine and storms, floating on rolling waves while our children build driftwood forts and bonfires in the sand.
It is a blindingly beautiful dream now that we’ve returned to our house, and I sit in this chain breakfast shop, sipping a six dollar latte and regretting the two donuts I just inhaled. I will be in a bathing suit this weekend with swarms of people and bodies big and small, old and young, soft and strong, eyes that remind me I didn’t need those donuts that I love. I’d rather be swimming in Superior, just me and the sky and my little family nestled in the sand. And, of course, the loons. The loons don’t care that I ate the donuts.
But we are so far away from that dream already, as we schedule out the remaining weeks of summer, surround ourselves with people, and prepare for the coming school year. We have sports practices and games to rush to, work travel to keep us states and days apart, more and more people to meet and bring into our already busy lives, stretching the seams, fearing the inevitable break, hoping we can stay stitched together until it all slows down again when winter arrives and we are blanketed in snow.
Then somewhere in that snow, in the very middle of winter when our house feels more prison than sanctuary, I will sit under the weight of that winter and open my laptop to plan our next adventure, one that will take us to new reaches of wilderness, places that pull us toward something we can’t quite create for ourselves. We will head north, I know, and take in new landscapes, new shorelines and forests where phones get no service, and mascara is pointless, where coffee costs $1.25 and no one notices we’ve worn the same sweatshirt for three days. We will head to a place where little boys can wander free and barefoot-dirty, bicker over who leads the next hike as we walk into the wild in search of home.
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