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  • katherine halligan

Anywhere But Here

As the walls closed in over the month of July — despite more midweek beach trips than we’d made in the previous three years combined, despite masked playdates in the park, despite glorious afternoons in friends’ pools, despite everything we’d done to keep our horizons broad and our children entertained — we yearned for freedom and something different. We are gypsies at heart, and so are our children. In recent months, they have begged us to move back to England, to North Carolina, to San Diego, to a city, to a farm. They initiated their own home searches on Zillow, finding new homes that would be better, more interesting, more fun, just…. different. Anywhere but here.

Of course when I say “anywhere but here”, I realise that there are very many places one would not want to be at all, from an ICE detention camp on the US-Mexican border to a certain hospital bed in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Of course I realise that a tongue-in-cheek post about travel is a luxury many can only dream of, especially now. Of course I realise that my privilege affords me the opportunity for a white whine that is perhaps completely out of step with the chaos and sadness of these troubled times. But as I spent a week in bed recovering from the adventure I am about to relay, I wrestled with ways to approach the paradox of my privilege. I have certainly said many times since our current president (I cannot even bear to type his name) came crashing into the Oval Office that I would like to live anywhere but here. If he is not defeated in November, I will mean that more than ever and may even act on it by upping stumps again. But as I have said before, I am not a political journalist; I am just a person who has things to say and who wants to share her reality, however unlike that of the rest of the world it may be. So, with all that in mind, I would like to share some musings on travel, which has been a central, defining part of my life. If you are lucky enough to be able to undertake some of your own, there are definite lessons to be learned; if you are stuck at home in full COVID-avoidance lockdown, you might end up feeling very thankful for your own here and now. I certainly know I am after our summer trip.

During the course of our UK careers, with five weeks’ paid vacation per year plus public holidays (which is a laughably small amount of holiday time compared with the rest of Europe, who alternately mock and pity the workaholic Brits while they enjoy their own seven weeks’ rest; Americans’ two weeks of leisure are so pathetically mere that they don’t even merit comment, as they are but one more symptom of all that the rest of the world quite rightly perceives to be wrong with the US of A), we traveled all over the world. Once they came along, our daughters discovered the world in our arms, averaging roughly ten plane flights per year, so that our ten-year-old has logged 96 flights in her life thus far and our seven-year-old is close behind with 74. Indeed, before the age of three, our older daughter had been on a plane almost as much as she’d ridden in a car, since we didn’t own one in London and our car trips mainly consisted of cab rides… to the airport.

But their frequent flyer accounts have languished lately, miles unused, with only two flights logged since arriving on these shores three years ago. Instead we did that quintessentially American thing, and took to the road, (re)discovering the delights of California. We lived in a tourist destination, so we starting touring it. How lucky we are, we thought this spring, to live here during the pandemic that has Americans trapped within our own COVID-infested borders for the foreseeable future. We have everything on our doorstep: beaches, mountains, deserts, rivers, forests, national parks, state parks, glorious weather. We could skip the cities and focus our attention on exploring nature.

With that in mind, we made the profoundly dubious decision to spend our summer vacation camping. Anyone who knows me well might have questioned the wisdom of this choice. Certainly I should have questioned it, given that on our last camping trip — which was our girls’ first, to a beautifully wild field near the Grand Canyon — I netted around two hours of broken sleep the first night and only marginally more the second night. But I remembered the children’s giddy joy at being free, at running around in wide-open spaces that were new and different, the luminous light at dusk as we set up our tent in a windstorm, the satisfaction of a meal cooked and shared in the open air, the velvety night sky spangled with a million stars. Sleep is overrated anyway, I thought.

So I suppose I should blame my terribly patchy memory and the resulting rose-coloured glasses for agreeing to a second foray into the wilderness. With all the gusto with which I used to choose beautiful boutique hotels, I selected a campsite on a county beach in Santa Barbara which I managed to snag serendipitously in the three minutes before they were all snapped up by more experienced campers, followed by a quirky hipster spot in an apple orchard in the lush, green coastal hills to the west of San Luis Obispo.

Forgetting what it was really like to lie on a “comfort” air mattress with searing flashes of pain racing down my sciatic nerve, forgetting what it was really like to hear my husband snore so loudly he rattled the windows of the car to which I banished him on the second night, forgetting what it was really like to freeze in a summer sleeping bag in 45F/ 7C weather, I rashly agreed to this new adventure in nature.

Nature delivered. The beach was breathtaking and remote, so far down an extremely winding road that you had to drive 35 minutes back towards civilisation to pick up one fluctuating bar of cell phone signal. The summer-browned hills curved around a startlingly blue bay, creating an expanse of beach that is among the most beautiful I have seen. The apple orchard smelled divine with ripe fruit, the air so clean that lichens grew on the branches of the 115-year-old trees, as we looked up an almost sheer hillside covered in a thousand shades of green.

And it wasn’t just the nature: we explored beautiful towns and missions by day. Ojai, Solvang, San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara had all mastered the art of socially distanced dining, turning their sidewalks into restaurants and showing the rest of California how to take advantage of our glorious weather. Why would we ever eat indoors again? With everyone in masks — the value of which Orange County has not yet grasped — there was a social contract of caring, compassionate connectedness which made us feel instantly welcome and part of something bigger and better. We dined on delicious food, we shopped in quirky independent establishments, we fed ostriches (of course), we splashed in icy surf, we built sandcastles, we watched meteor showers. In short, it was a perfect vacation.

By day, it was glorious. But by night — oh, by night! — it was sheer hell. Apart from the endless, brilliant stars and the magic of the meteor showers, which were the sole and truly glorious redeeming feature of the hours between sundown and sunup, I wished almost constantly I were anywhere but in that tent.

Most people we know have either chosen to stay put or to rent a house with all its comforts. With 24 hours between guests and rigorous cleaning protocols in place, with fridges and bathrooms that can be easily wiped down on arrival to ward off any remaining viruses lurking on surfaces, these establishments afford sensible travellers all the same daytime pleasures…. and then they go to sleep. In a bed. Without strange neighbours (by which I mean by strangers and weirdos) a mere few feet away.

I, on the other hand, eschewed all of these amenities and comforts, like a deranged person in the desert choosing to use her canteen to water a cactus instead of drinking it herself: somehow, in some roundabout way, I told myself I was helping nature by being part of it (a rather dubious, self-defeating and deeply flawed logic, on closer inspection, because nature most assuredly did not want me in it), despite the enormous personal cost. After braving shared toilets — even armed with our own hand soap, toilet paper, gloves and of course masks, it was an experience that would have challenged the heartiest adventurer, pandemic or no — I had to hope that when my children brushed their teeth, they didn’t spit the paste out the tent flap and into my shoes. I had to try to coax my children to fall asleep surrounded by RVs, illegal campfires and the sounds of millennial surfers blithely ignoring the 10pm quiet time. I had to quell the girls’ fears in this strange place: no, a tsunami couldn’t reach us up here on this hillside (actually, could it? Perhaps she had a point); no, there are no kidnapper aliens on that satellite circling above us (and yes, they do look rather ominous when you think about it). I had to wrestle the fly sheet onto the tent, and then near midnight, the flapping of said fly sheet in the rising winds so deafening none of us could sleep (except my hubby, who was happily snoring away), I had to wrestle it off again. Then, just as I’d sunk into a fitful sleep, my hips hurting like an octogeniaran, I heard those fateful words that every parent dreads: “Mommy, I think I’m going to throw up”.

I quickly shepherd the small, nauseous person into the car, thinking that sitting upright in relative comfort on the back seat I could contain what was coming in a barf bag, whereas in the dark of the tent anything could happen. Of course the other child woke up and was frightened without me, and my erstwhile happily snoring husband, now awake and deeply unhappy about it, was not exactly comforting. At least our neighbours in their steel-walled vehicles (and their beds!) might not have heard their plaintive voices or seen our bobbling flashlights or noticed the car doors opening and closing multiple times, I thought — because fear of bothering or offending your fellow travellers becomes a major wet blanket on everything you do, although it seemed on this trip I was perhaps the only traveller so encumbered by such thoughts.

The vomiting episode I dreaded (and yet secretly longed for, because then we could give up and go home) never transpired and it turned out to be a false alarm; so false indeed, that in the morning the previously queasy child confessed to making it all up so that she could sit in the car with me instead of lying miserably in the tent. Anywhere but here.

We returned to the tent, I calmed everyone back down, then realised I desperately needed to pee, but refused to travel a few hundred yards down the steep hill to the cess pit that was the shared bathroom, and so stubbornly went back to sleep in extreme discomfort (both hip and bladder). Just as I drifted off again, there it came: the unmistakable roll of thunder. As the lightning flashed out at sea, I tried to count the seconds between the flash and the clap, but realised in my exhaustion that I’d forgotten which came first. Indeed, I’d forgotten how to count.

I was awakened around half an hour later by the patter of raindrops on my face. I roused my husband again (at least this time he had a job he knew he could master, wrestling a fly sheet onto a tent in the dark and the rain being infinitely easier than comforting a child who only wants the other, absent parent), and we covered that tent. The rain, of course, abruptly stopped.

Back in the sleeping bag, I realised dawn was coming, and gave up, choosing instead to focus my remaining energies on not wetting my pants, until such a time as the zip (the horrible, whining searing scrape of the zip!) would not awaken my children and turn them into exhausted, hollow-eyed beasts the following day. One of us was enough, and I knew I could manage my own exhaustion with the best pair crutches at any tired parent’s disposal: coffee and wine.

Permanent damage to my plumbing system notwithstanding, I survived that first night. The following three (three!) were marked by various other adventures, including noisy neighbours (one of whom had the temerity to snore even louder than my husband, who’d kindly absented himself to a far corner of the orchard), bug bites, more lightning and rain, nightmares, and a child suffering a panic attack (at least — I thought to myself as I held her shaking body and wondered how to help her start breathing again — we’d been to the ER in San Luis Obispo on a vacation two years previously, so she was probably already in their system; sometimes these small comforts get us through the strangest times).

Shattered, sore, profoundly exhausted in mind and body, I nevertheless managed to remain remarkably cheerful during our daytime adventures. So pleased was I to be sitting in restaurants with people bringing me delicious things to eat and then whisking away the dirty dishes, I uttered hardly a single complaint. My condition on this trip, having spent our first one in a campsite with no running water washing dishes in a tiny scummy cooking pot, was that I would not cook a single thing, not even a s’more. Not only did my children not protest, they actually questioned why people thought they had to eat s’mores on camping trips anyway, as they gaily ordered refills of lemonade, guacamole and ice cream.

My poor husband quietly watched his dreams of camping all over the American West with his wife and children go up in the smoke (for there was actual smoke: although open fires were banned, he liked making his coffee over a Bunsen burner, and managed to burn the pot; the smell still lingers in my nostrils). As he plaintively tried to defend our choices by extolling the beautiful sights we’d seen, our daughters fixed him with withering looks, and told him in no uncertain terms that they looked just as good when you slept in a hotel.

As they whined their way through the four-hour car trip back south, wishing they were anywhere but in the car again, we talked of our next trip. With the possibility of borrowing a friend’s RV and the reopening of schools fraught with an uncertainty that might afford us the opportunity of an autumn escape, we wondered whether actual beds and our own toilet would make our next adventure more successful. Everything — the RV, the schools, the travel — remains to be seen. And that uncertainty, that promise of adventure, is precisely what makes travel so alluring in the first place.

One thing is certain, though. When my husband asked me the other day where I thought he should store our tent, many possible replies came to mind (“up your bottom” was one), but there was really only one answer.

In the bin.

Indeed, anywhere but here.

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