Shifting Gears

‘I’m bored.’

For two days, this phrase leaks from my son’s nearly teenaged mouth more times than in all his previous twelve and 7/8’s years combined. I list all he can do sprawled across the backseat as we motor from Los Angeles to Zion National Park, Utah – via a stop in Las Vegas where I also hear, ‘I’m bored’ in the hotel room as we recharge car-cramped bodies – and I think, “Is this it? Is this the arrival of the trying teen years that has been promised since my son’s birth?”

I nudged us towards nature for our last adventure of summer, eager for my son to see different scenery, a different lifestyle, to consider worlds away from freeways and media saturation, with both of us untethered to the computer. But as he grumbles past stunning scenery of towering red cliffs and vast open landscapes that he dismisses as “just boring desert,” pining to be back in the commercial chaos of Vegas where money leaked from my pockets, my disappointment and annoyance build, and I fantasize about shipping him home and venturing onward alone. After all, this is my vacation, too.

“We live pretty unplugged,” a new acquaintance tells me as we sit in her Springdale, Utah home beside our mutual friend, a home designed with views of red sandstone and rock from every room, kids free to roam the entwined small town life, the entrance to Zion National Park just a hop up the road. And I think how opposite I live, how completely ‘plugged’ in I am, how every ill seems to sneak into my ear canal and whisper its woe. How I listen and feel powerless and wonder how the human species can be so cruel.

And suddenly being unplugged sounds so nice even though in the past I thought such a life seemed irresponsible and selfish. But in this setting it appears calm and reasonable and a fine way to achieve sanity.

I said to my son, “Imagine living here,” when we arrived in Springdale and drove down the quiet main road dotted with an occasional home, a few hotels, and small shops and diners. Looking out the window he responded, “It seems like people only live this way in the movies,” and he sneered with disinterest.

I first came to Springdale and Zion in 1992 to visit a couple I’d met on the 1988 Soviet-American Peace Walk through the Ukraine, the walk that introduced me to my son’s father. Returning fourteen years later, a son in tow and greeting my now married friends and their two sons, we couldn’t help but compare lives.

“What a luxury to be able to pick you friends,” my friend tells me. “Here you’re given who there is and you learn to like each other.”

“Kind of like an arranged marriage,” I say, but she doesn’t hear me because some neighbor kid charges through the room looking for the peers hanging out somewhere.

And within one day of arriving, my son runs with these kids and I no longer hear ‘bored.’ Instead my son confesses that he’s a little jealous because all the kids in this town know each other so well, know each other’s siblings and parents and homes.

Within one day.

Before my son’s turnaround, before he asks to stay an extra day despite my offer to return to Vegas early, I was ready to call this our last roadtrip together forever, battered by his teenage lack of enthusiasm. At my peak of anger and frustration, weary from shouldering all the responsibility for the trip and my son’s complaining entitlement, I suddenly wanted a stern dad to appear in the car beside me telling my son to quit moaning and be appreciative, spewing some 50’s slogan that kept kids in their place.

And when my son grew uncomfortable and disinterested on our first hike as we waded upriver nestled by high rock walls, protecting us from sun and civilization, I imagined myself as that stern father not yielding to the child’s request to turn back but forcing him to keep moving as the adult desired and in order to make a man of the son.

But I’m not that stern man, and I can’t enjoy myself if my company is miserable. So I agree to turn around. And when I do, my son asks if I’m sad and I say, “A little because I was really enjoying it.”

And despite my fantasy that I’d earned the right to bypass the tough teen years with all my parental preventative medicine of open discussion and interests shared, I realize that I’m just like every parent who has greeted thirteen. There is no free pass.

But then there’s the teenage turnaround.

Day three. We venture up a trail, and faced with a cliff and a narrow path and a metal chain to grab for security, I must decide whether or not to go to the end. I must decide whether thirteen is when I trust my son’s feet and judgment to steady him along the trail. I must shift from protective parent to trusting parent.

We go on.

And after we make it to the end and look out on the view, we start back, and my son says to me, “Usually you say you’re proud of me, but this time I’m proud of you.” And I imagine he thinks I was scared and that I’d been brave, but what he doesn’t understand is that any fear I’d had had been for him.

When we meet my friend and her kids a couple hours later, she tells me someone died in the park that day. A twenty-nine-year-old woman went off the top of Angel’s Landing and fell 1200 feet as she and her husband prepared to take a celebratory photo near the edge.

“People come here thinking it’s Disneyland,” my friend tells me sadly.

And I think of my son’s feet on the trail and how I trusted him and how hard that was. And I think of how difficult the trip has been, all the transitions, all the near fights, the harsh words I swallowed and the harsh words that spilled out. I think of how angry I’d been with my son for acting his age rather than meeting me at my own.

On our last day I push my son to go a bit further than he wants. It’s hot, but an easy climb. No drop offs. Nothing too steep. Just sun and red dust and the promise of an emerald pool at the end.

We arrive at the top, hot and sweaty. And as we make our final descent in Zion, my son thanks me for bringing him. I don’t clarify whether he means on this particular hike or the trip in general. It doesn’t really matter.

Finally I see that this vacation wasn’t about fun and escape. My son and I tested each other and learned how much change lies ahead for both of us. Ultimately we both found a way to shift gears, but without pushing each other, we never could have done it.

Next week I welcome thirteen with my son. I’ll be sure to wear my seat belt.


Trouble said...

My daughter will be 13 in September. I understand completely. We hiked those trails with her, including emerald pools, when she was 2 and she rode in a backpack on my back. Zion is one of my favorite places in the world. Thanks for bringing it back and making it so vivid again.

Anonymous said...

I love this; it's poignant, vivid, and authentic. I don't have kids, but you gave me a glimpse into what it must be like to watch your child become a teenager. And you brought me back to those beautiful places I visited in Utah many years ago.

Willie Baronet said...

You are a good mom and a good writer. Lucky son you have.

Emily said...

Oh thirteen! Who wants to live it and who wants to be around it? But you capture these moments with such honesty and understanding. Good luck on your journey together.