Family Travels Begin

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Dancing in the moonlight… Indescribable joy. An emotion so powerful it overwhelms reality. How did this happen to me? I know, this sort of thing happens to humans all the time on a regular basis all over the world. It has happened throughout history and will happen until the end of time. It is, you might say, the quintessential human experience. But still, I like to think I’m special. Has any father anywhere ever had it so good?

It started with intense anguish of course. All moments of great joy are preceded by tormenting anxiety. That’s just the way the universe is constructed. Joy and anguish… two sides of the same peso… You can’t have one without the other. Before the big moment, there must be the ordeal. In this particular case, the ordeal was intense…

All I want is a scenic spot to park where it is warm enough to camp and a beach within walking distance. We begin the quest in mid February in upstate NY and go south to Pennsylvania. We are hoping to stay the first night in Pittsburgh with friends but we get a late start and little A. has a meltdown in the back of the camper van shortly after sunset. Crying babies on busy highways are super stressful. We end up in a Quality Inn on strip mall road in everywhere America. As a hotel room in a corporate chain it is an adequate prison cell with all the necessary creature comforts. But it definitely doesn’t dazzle with originality. A Bonanza restaurant next door is our only dinner option. Corporate food and a corporate bed. Not surprisingly, I have nightmares and diarrhea. Apparently, my system doesn’t agree with “the system.”

imageThe next morning we awake to blowing snow, record cold temperatures and really hazardous roads. There is a fifty car pile up on a nearby highway and our camper van is not designed for winter travel. Nevertheless, Ms. B. drives like a champion while I keep the little one calm in the back and we manage to make it to Pittsburgh by late afternoon. It’s nice to see our friends there and we have a great time sharing stories. They have prospered in their adopted city but the way they talk about success it sounds like a synonym of stress. As usual, I can’t help but wonder if the economic gains are worth the psychological losses.

The big screen television lurking in the background certainly doesn’t help the situation. Exposing my brain to ongoing continuous propaganda makes me just a little bit insane. I stopped believing in presidential elections in 1992. But I still have to listen to it, hear about it, watch it and have an opinion about it. This country needs an economic revolution, not another figure head to distract us. Enough of the marketing; I can’t take it anymore…

The highlight of our visit to Pittsburgh is our afternoon at the botanical gardens. Lush tropical gardens inside a warm giant maze of a greenhouse with a few Chilhully glass pieces hanging amongst the plants. It is the perfect place for a fun family outing on a freezing cold day. My friends have two small children and along with little A. they charge the experience with the wonder of child discovery. I never paid that much attention to it before, but to see a little kid discover something new is just so fricken incredible. What in the heck does my little girl think about this hot house of plants in the freezing cold world? She kicks her feet and hands inside the carrier like she can’t contain her excitement. The sensation is contagious. I am so excited by the warmth, I just want more and more.

Ms. B. has friends in Winston-Salem, North Carolina so that is our next destination. But it is too far to go in one trip from Pittsburgh with a little one in the back so we will have to stay somewhere en route. I can’t wait until we are far enough South to camp because hotels and motels in the US are a complete rip-off. We end up in a Howard Johnson’s on strip mall road in everywhere America, West Virginia. The only food option is Domino’s pizza. Another corporate bed and more corporate food; Why do I let this happen? Isn’t there some other way? Ugggh!

But alas, this journey is through America and America has become a nightmare. Crowded highways and endless strip malls that all contain the exact same businesses. McDonalds, Applebee’s, Walmart, Target, McDonald’s, Applebee’s, Walmart, Target. Meanwhile, obnoxious arrogant political candidates and unbearably obtuse commentators occupy the airwaves. How, when, why and where did everything go so wrong?

We make it to Winston-Salem and have a pleasant visit with friends. But now little A. is sick with a stuffed up nose. Her illness is not bad but it stops her from sleeping. When baby can’t sleep neither can parents. The only thing more difficult for new parents than a child’s first illness is having to deal with that illness while traveling. I am in a strange house surrounded by people I don’t know well and my baby is screaming in the middle of the night. Can you say stress? Can you say anguish? Ms. B. and I are in the midst of it now.

Thank Jesus and Allah we brought the bouncy ball for emergencies. Usually, Ms. B. can nurse the little one into sleep or calmness when she is upset. But with a clogged nose, the baby can’t breathe while nursing so it only makes her more upset. Some months ago, we discovered that I could also calm the crying baby by holding her in a pillow in my arms and bouncing up and down on an exercise ball. In a moment of brilliant foresight, we brought the deflated ball with us in the van. The morning after the dreadful night, I pull out the ball and pump it up. For the rest of the day, it works perfectly. When the baby needs a nap, I bounce her to sleep. When it’s time for bed, I bounce her to sleep. But then, she wakes up crying at 10 pm and I try the ball again. This time it pops. Holy shit. It sounds like a shotgun blast and I collapse to the floor. The baby is not hurt but now she is very awake and very upset. Tears and snot and cries and screams. I try doing squats in imitation of the bouncy ball motion with the baby in my arms while Ms. B runs out to the nearest big box store to find a replacement bouncy ball. I almost have a heart attack after two hundred squats but she does indeed go to sleep. Oh the fun of traveling with an infant.

The next stop is Colombia, South Carolina because we have friends there as well. We did not intend to arrive there on the day of the Republican primaries but that is the way it works out. I, of course, blame the interstate traffic jam we encounter on the Republicans and when little A. has a complete meltdown in the middle of it, it seems somehow symbolic. Yes, my dear, I’m sorry. They kind of make me want to cry and scream like a baby as well. But the crying fit goes on and on, the traffic doesn’t move and it takes us forever to arrive. I really think I might lose my mind.

Thankfully, Colombia is an oasis of peace in our harrowing journey. The baby is still sick but our friends’ home is comfortable and they are very relaxed people with laid back attitudes. It almost starts to feel like we are on vacation. We visit the zoo that is next door to their house. I don’t generally like zoos because animals shouldn’t be caged. But I want to understand America so I visit American tourist attractions. The rather luxurious animal prison cells somehow remind me of the corporate hotel rooms we’ve been staying in. “It’s a cage Sully; a cage with golden bars but a cage nonetheless.” It’s also kind of fun to see little A’s reaction to all the strange new creatures she has never seen before. Look honey, those are called Republicans. I actually see a man with a Donald Trump button walking around the zoo. Isn ‘t he embarrassed to wear that in public? I can’t help but wonder what the apes and monkeys think of such an animal.

After South Carolina we continue south into Georgia. We stay in Savannah at the Thunderbird Motel. Finally, a local hotel with charm, character and class. Why can’t we stay at such cool places all the time? Because most of the damn country is now controlled by boring, efficient corporations. The economy is rigged to screw the little guy. So we are stuck with “quality”, “comfort” ,”a red roof,” and “hojo’s” instead of “the thunderbird,” “the crazy cacti” or “gator Gary’s watering hole.” Meanwhile, little A.’s nose is still plugged and she screams and cries like we are torturing her whenever we use the infant air bulb to suck the snot out. I’m sorry my dear. We have to do it. I promise you will feel better when it’s over.

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Ms. B.’s sister, Auntie L., meets us at the Thunderbird and we caravan from there down to Saint Augustine, Florida. This leg of the journey is not as difficult as others but the little one still makes clear her disapproval of the car seat. She doesn’t sleep much and she cries with some frequency. Finally, I realize that I can imitate the movement of the bouncy ball if I prop my knee under the car seat and tap my foot rhythmically up and down. Somewhat miraculously, it calms her down. That’s right, there’s a whole learning curve with this daddy traveling thing and I’m starting to get the hang of it.

We reach Anastasia state park in the late afternoon. As we park our vehicles and set up our tents, I can feel the smile budding open somewhere deep inside. It’s warm enough to sleep outside. There is a beach within walking distance. I’m gonna stick my feet in the ocean today. The campsites here are a little close together though. The foliage is thick for some privacy but it still seems like a packed full forest. If I listen, I can hear the conversations around me. I hope we aren’t surrounded by rowdy ruffians raising hell. And I hope they have quiet hours. We also still need provisions for dinner. Someone will have to go into town. But shouldn’t we go to the beach for sunset first?

We put little A. in the stroller and all of us head toward the ocean. It takes about twenty minutes walking on a camp road to get there. There’s almost no cars and the forest is nice so it’s not a bad walk. We arrive before sunset but don’t see it. The beach faces east so it’s good for sunrise rather than sunset. It’s also a little cool and very windy. Nevertheless, it is still a completely awesome beach with no ugly modern developments anywhere in sight. Only white sand and blue waves as far as the eye can see. I can envision myself spending many happy days here. But not right now. The strong wind is hard on the baby and we are all tired out from the busy day. We stay long enough to dip our toes in the water. Little A. touches her first ocean, we breathe some fresh sea air, snap a few photos and turn around and head back.

The walk back in the descending darkness turns out to be rather amazing. The little one is very unhappy in the stroller. She cries and cries and she won’t fall asleep like we are hoping. We try rocking the stroller and going at different speeds but nothing works. She wants to be held. Finally, I pick her up and cradle her in my arms and that calms her down. In a matter of moments, she falls sound a sleep. She’s rather heavy after a while and it’s a long walk in the darkness but I would never complain or stop to put her down. Indeed, it is an experience I will never forget. Ms. B. and her sister are behind me with flashlights as I carry my sleeping daughter in my arms on a dark road through a campground in Florida. The scene is so perfect it is like from a dream. That’s right, this is fatherhood. This is what it’s all about.

Back at the campsite, the baby transfers smoothly from my arms to the bed in the camper van. She is out cold. Probably won’t wake up for a long time. Ms. B and her sister want to go into town for provisions. They will take Auntie L.’s car and leave me to watch the baby. “No worries,” I say. “She won’t wake up and if she does I can handle it. Go ahead. Have fun. Take your time. Go to the bars if you want. Me and the babe will be just fine.”

They are probably only gone for ten minutes before the baby wakes up crying and screaming. Oh shit, what the hell. Sounds like she had a nightmare or something. I go into the van and lie down next to her and try to calm her down. But she just keeps screaming and crying and bawling like the world is ending. I lay her on a pillow and cradle her and the pillow in my arms. I take her outside the van and do squats to imitate the motion of the bouncy ball. But it doesn’t work. She cries louder and louder. Oh no. I start thinking about the neighboring campsites. I am so embarrassed. I hate to bother people. Whatever are they hearing? I have done over a hundred squats, I’m sweating hard and breathing like I’m going to have a heart attack. The baby cries like she is being tortured. I’m half expecting a heroic fellow camper to come save the baby from a perceived attack. Whatever can I do? I give up on squats and just start walking back and forth whispering and shushing and whispering some more. “Please, sweetheart. You have to calm down. We have neighbors. We don’t want to disturb them. Please Sweetheart. Shhh. Shhh shhh shhh.” It doesn’t work. She cries and she screams and she cries more as I anxiously pace back and forth in the darkness…

Somewhere in the midst of this torment, I add a bouncy ball step to my pacing. Instead of whispering, I start to hum. A few more bouncy ball steps and then I add a twirl. Before I even realize what is happening, I am dancing and the baby is no longer crying. That’s right Daddy, you got this. I hum the tune quietly because I don’t want the neighbor’s to hear and I move slowly but I do dance. The man has got some moves and the moves work. The baby stays quiet in my arms. I can hear the sound of her breathing. I can’t tell if she is sleeping because of the darkness but she is definitely calm and peaceful. I’ll just keeping dancing to make sure. Oh what a glorious experience. My heart is gushing like a waterfall. It’s possible there are tears in my eyes. All of a sudden I notice the full moon rising. When it shines bright through the trees, I can see the baby girl’s closed eyes. She is sleeping like an angel with a smile on her face. She looks quite healthy now and she breathes through her nose. It feels like a kind of miracle. Reality shatters and I can perceive the infinite. There is a word they use to describe moments like this but it goes on for longer than a moment. Dance, dance, dance. As long as I keep dancing, the moment keeps going on.

How good is this life?

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