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From the Back Seat

Guest Post from Robin Lynn Pratt:

KT Tunstall sings through my earbuds as I watch the desert roll by from the back seat of our station wagon….Suddenly I see, this is what I want to be…Her ‘20-something’ lyrics are most likely about discovering her own emerging identity, but they hit home for me right now as I realize this is where I want to be right now. The back seat, with no view of the future to worry over. Just where we are right now – my husband driving, our two teenage sons listening to their favorite tunes, and me welcoming a change of perspective. I take in patches of burned grass, hazy mountains, high summer clouds, drifting… and the train, clickety, clack, just like KT’s tambourine.

Reflected in the passenger window ahead of me, I can see our 15-year-old, Mason, as he fills in the numbers of a Sudoku puzzle; I see the fleeting images beyond of fence posts, and sage brush. We are on a family road trip in early August, bound for Northern California to visit family. When my father asked what we’d like to do on our visit, we came up with: go to the beach, see some tide pools, and redwoods, all of which seem so distant as we travel west across Utah’s desert.

I share the back seat with our 13-year-old son, Miles. With his summer buzz cut and reflective sunglasses, he watches the desert sail by. He was listening to a movie soundtrack a while ago – at least that’s what he wrote to me. The easiest way to communicate during our long ‘plugged-in’ ride is with our ‘car blog’, a folded stack of notebook paper and a pen. I started it this way:

    Me—Who are you listening to? What are you thinking about?

    Miles—Listening to the Exorcist theme. Wondering where pineapples grow…

Wow—such a random thought, but that’s the sort of thing I was curious about. Both our sons have such quiet streaks now, and I’m always wondering what they’re thinking. I’m not sure where to go with the pineapple thought, so I look out across the salt flats. We are traveling faster than the Union Pacific train alongside, pulling its colorful string of cars. I am drawn to the strobe of the white dashed line, and the mirage of water beyond Mason’s shoulder in front of me.

Images of earlier family road trips surface and I realize how much simpler our trips have become. We drive right past McDonald’s now, and many of the rest stops, because their teen minds understand that every stop we make delays our arrival that much more. They are satisfied with the granola bars and beef jerky we have packed; and instead of ‘are we there yet?’ they ask to see the map. They have grown up so much that I can’t help thinking each family trip may be our last. Next summer will probably offer first jobs, and definitely more freedom to plan their own time with friends.

Our pad of paper makes another round:

    Me—Good question about pineapples…Where is Google when we need it? If we can look up answers so easily, do you think our imaginations will become dull?

    Mason—Huh…no, it’ll just make us think more creatively, and come up with questions with much harder to find answers.

My music changes to an old Restless Heart song: …white lines and city limit signs…My husband drives on, steadily. We fell in love listening to this album, covering many miles together, shelling pine nuts, drinking coffee, following the dotted line between Utah and California. Years later, we danced with our sons in the living room to this music. I wonder if he’s thinking of these times, too.

Mason’s wrist is ringed with ‘bracelets’, made by his girlfriend from the little plastic liners inside soda bottle caps. If you stretch them too quickly, they break, but with patience, they’re just big enough to slip on. For this trip he packed envelopes, paper and stamps to send her notes along our path. In the meantime, I see him text messaging, often. They are so connected for being so many miles apart. They are only 15.

My husband and I began with a long distance romance, mostly letters, some phone calls, and we drove across the West to be together. We were in our twenties, had been to college, had traveled. Our oldest son is now entering an age where he will be making many of his own choices. I’ll need to get used to the ‘back seat’ more and more.

Miles is not so interested in girls yet, unless they share his love for horror movies. He loves playing computer games and riding his unicycle, which he has brought along on this trip. It takes up minimal packing space and gives him something to do when we park at rest stops along this long corridor of sand and salt and sage. I ask him:

    Me—What do you think people who live out here do for fun? For work?

    Miles—Haven’t you seen ‘The Hills Have Eyes’? They eat people and steal their stuff.

    Me—LOL [laugh out loud]

Our youngest has his own brand of humor, for sure. And I’m glad to see he can express it in writing. He has made his own horror movie website, in which he writes reviews of movies he has seen, complete with monster types, powers, weaknesses, and (gruesomely, I think) body count. He may need to grow into a new hobby before girls are very interested in him…

As we cross into different terrain, I am very aware of the scent of the landscape. I want to see if anyone else notices:

    Me—I’m thinking of how the smells change. All I can smell right now is sage. Do you notice smells?

    Miles—Nope.

Dead end. Apparently our communication has reached its end for now. Both boys seem to want to be left alone in their thoughts. And as we exit the wild and enter the cityscape, my husband is missing his longtime navigator, so we raid our food stash at the next stop, switch places, and are back on the road for the final leg of today’s journey to California.

Being back in the front seat brings the pressure of choosing the right highway, the right off-ramp… making decisions that will affect all of us for the evening. But after my break in the back, I am happy to look forward again. I envision our oldest behind the wheel next year; our youngest with a girlfriend; my husband and I on a trip by ourselves again, someday. And by the time we’ve found a hotel with a swimming pool, I am glad to step back again as our sons take the lead and carry the heaviest cargo to our room.

—Robin

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