The Minivan Diaries
We’d gotten as far as Wyoming when Adrian asked what a cowboy was. We were at a gas station to refuel the Honda Odyssey minivan we’d crammed with medicine, homeschooling materials, and clothes for every climate before pushing off from L.A. Inside the station’s minimart I pointed to a man standing by the beer cooler and wearing Wranglers, boots, and a battered Stetson.
“Howdy,” said the cowboy, his face a little round and a little red. He looked like a skinny Garth Brooks.
“Are you a real cowboy?” Adrian asked, suspicious.
“That’s right, little man,” he replied in a husky drawl. “And what do you wanna be when you grow up?”
“Um-um-um,” Adrian stammered, batting his long black eyelashes. I prayed for him to say cowboy, or race car driver, or garbageman. Anything remotely studly. “I wanna be…” he continued in his high, sweet baby voice, “a MOMMY !” Then he clapped his hands as if he’d nailed his solo in the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus. The cowboy laughed and walked off with his 12-pack of Coors. “That’s right, little dude!” I whispered to Adrian, aware of how his future surged with possibility. “You can be anything you want.”
Two days later at an isolated campground in Montana, Griff and Adrian were also introduced to God and the Devil by a group of Mormon kids who offered toasted marshmallows along with holy salvation. As storm clouds blackened the sky, Griffin came running back from their campsite.
“Is there really a guy who lives inside the earth and does evil things to people?” he asked. “His name is Statin.”
“Well,” I began, buying time to answer, “some people think there is. And his name is Satan, not Statin.”
“Yeah, him,” Griff said, and then, “What is God, Mommy?”
I hesitated. I have struggled with this question before, mostly at the time of my father’s sudden, early death and my own sudden, early divorce.
“If you take all the love I feel for you and Adrian and Daddy,” I answered, “and roll it into one big rainbow-colored ball, that’s what I think God is.”
Griffin thought for a minute, trying to connect the spiritual dots.
“But Mommy,” he asked finally, “is the ball a boy or a girl?”
“That’s up to you, baby,” I laughed. It occurred to me that this journey—this impulsive, poorly planned, open-ended choice—could lead anywhere we wanted. A lifestyle with less fear, stress, judgment, and needless acquisition—weeds that grow all too easily in the garden of L.A.—sounded pretty good, and if I could ditch my designer worries about wrinkles and weight along the way, that would be a bonus.
We kept rolling through places we knew only from books: Glacier National Park, Yellowstone, the Badlands, Mount Rushmore, and Lake Michigan, where we stayed with a friend I’d met while working at WLS-TV in Chicago. “I have not seen you so relaxed in years,” said Barb at the end of our two days together. Barb does not mince words—and rarely softens them. “You didn’t pace or pick up the phone. You focused on conversations. It was wonderful.”
This compliment felt more like a slap. Had I really been so clueless and self-involved? Had I really paced? The more I consulted my inner Magic 8 Ball, the more the answer was “yes, definitely,” and I didn’t like the girlfriend I had been.
But on star-strewn nights, watching the campfire dance with the shadows, I felt the giddy joy of a kid who had just mustered enough courage to leap off the high dive. The freedom that came from controlling my own destiny outweighed the anxiety that my new skill might result in a belly flop. Our consistent forward momentum quieted any fear.
With the darkness whirring and breathing around us, Ethan and I used our iPhone’s Star Walk app to pick out constellations overhead. This nascent life had the robust feel of a post-Modern Family meets Little House on the Prairie, and our old one in L.A.—where we never bothered to search for stars—flickered only faintly, like the dying fire.
The Start of Civilization
Rising in the shape of a crescent moon out of a sapphire Aegean Sea, the Greek island of Chios is the reputed birthplace of the poet Homer. We flew to Chios from Boston to wander the medieval villages and monasteries that cling to scrubby mountainsides. The insulated beauty of pebbly beaches and lonely hills, where donkeys are still a mode of transportation, filled us with a sense of well-being.
In a high, shallow valley the 11th-century monastery Nea Moni lies nestled among gnarled olive trees. Only one monk was living there now, and only one winding road led in, its tired asphalt covered with dry pine needles that glinted bronze in the morning sun. We drove carefully, passing sky blue beekeeping boxes tucked next to tiny white shrines marking the spots where drivers had left the curvy road and this earth.
I was reading aloud from our guidebook about a display case at the monastery that holds the bleached bones of deceased monks when the car skidded to a stop. An older man wearing a white fishing hat was standing in the road waving frantically, and two bicycles were spilled against the rocky hillside. A woman lay motionless in the dirt, her short, spiky hair covered in blood.
In broken English the man said he was from the Czech Republic, repeating “doctor” and “please” over and over with a desperate smile, as if he were sorry to be bothering us. Grabbing one of our beach towels, the Costco price tag still dangling from a corner, I knelt next to the woman and slid the towel gently under her head.
Staring at her face, a hole the size of a penny drilled deep into her forehead and her teeth demolished, I found that the world’s vast expanse had contracted down to one small stretch of mountain road. Over the years I had reported hundreds of tragedies far worse than this to my morning audience, reading the grisly details off a teleprompter from the safety of a climate-controlled studio. But this was raw and real.
A breeze stirred the scent of salt and pine, and a black butterfly, its wings brushed with yellow stripes, perched on the woman’s left arm. One aquamarine eye fixed on me, unblinking, while the other quickly swelled shut, bruises forming around it. In a voice I use to calm my children, I spoke reassuring lies. “You’re going to be fine, honey,” I whispered, holding this stranger’s tanned, wiry hand in mine. “Help is coming.”
After an hour, the ambulance we had called finally arrived, and two tough-looking locals in jeans and T-shirts loaded the woman brusquely into the back as if she were already dead. I put my arms around Ethan, sobbing, and when I raised my face, his own was wet with tears.
“Mom!” Griffin pleaded when I climbed back into the car. “Wipe the blood off your hand.”
The seriousness of the decision to drag my family around the world pressed hard against my heart. Gone were the layers of protection we’d had in Los Angeles: the luxuries of Grandma and Grandpa living nearby, of speaking a common language, of knowing the nearest hospital was two miles from our house. Even though driving through the Sepulveda Pass can be just as dangerous as the road to Nea Moni, it was clear we were much more vulnerable away from home.
When we arrived at the monastery, I lit a candle at the altar of Mary Magdalene and asked this kindred mom to keep us safe.