Ula was reasonable the first time we told her we wouldn’t take her camping. That was about three years ago.
I’ve learned that the key to being an always-(physically, if not mentally) present mother is knowing where my boundaries are. I’ll cook great food for them. I’ll read to them at night. I’ll spend my mornings homeschooling them. I’ll mold my family’s business to include them. If I don’t want to figure out what can be cooked out over a camp stove; if I don’t want to go to the effort to pack up a bunch of food that grows soggy from melting ice; if I don’t want to go to the effort of reviewing supplies, toting around my drinking and cooking water, making lists and lists and lists, setting up a stupid tent, then driving home with soggy gear and unpacking and washing and sorting out all the smashed leftovers, all while trying to navigate everything that must be done to get the farm through the busy season, that’s my perogative. It takes a solid week to prepare for a camping trip that may or may not get rained out; then another week to clean up after it. I do enough for my kids. They can find someone else to take them camping.
Two years ago she tried again. I ascented to sleeping in the tent in the woods outside the house. I figured that would get it out of her system.
But she had a good time, damnit. And she asked for another trip. We told her “no.” I told her I like my bed, my pillow, and my rest. Her dad told her to listen to her mother.
This past June, she became downright irascible. “This just isn’t fair. Other families take their children camping!”
“Other families get time off in the summer,” I tell her.
“Other parents make sure their kids have this experience! It’s important!”
“That’s why we pay for you to go to sleep away camp.”
“No! That’s not good enough. This is something families should do together!”
“I’ve heard enough!” I shut her down.
A few days later, Bob and I are talking over our income projections. With all the changes on the farm these past two years, every penny has gone into the business. We were planning on taking a family road trip to Cape Breton this October. The numbers on the spreadsheet are telling us otherwise. We wouldn’t be able to afford the vacation rental house.
This is a moment of reckoning for me. My whole life, I feared that my desire to take on Sap Bush Hollow Farm would shackle me forever to this place. Ruth, my surrogate grandmother who lived on the farm up the road, never went farther than Albany. Sanford took one road trip to Florida in his younger days, and recalled every detail as one of the highlights of his life.
Mom and Dad took us on one family vacation while we were growing up. They pulled us out of school, drove us to see Mystic Aquarium and Sturbridge Village, then cancelled the trip early and drove us back home when one of the sheep got sick. Dad was certain things died on the farm any time he left it. Our family never went away together after that. Someone always had to stay home.
Fearing I would lose my freedom to wander and explore the world once I fully stepped in to the family business, I traveled. I took every chance I could get to see whatever I could. By the time I was sixteen I’d been to Europe, Mexico, and I’d ridden my bike to Montreal. In college I traveled down to South America and back and forth to Europe. After college, I moved to Japan. In the year before I met Bob at the age of 22, I circled the circumfrance of the earth twice. I loved new cultures, connecting with people, learning new foods, seeing natural wonders. But the whole time I adventured, there was an invisible chain around my ankle, reminding me that one day it would tie me to home.
It made me push harder to go farther. After Saoirse was born, we took her to Alaska, then spent three months living in Europe. When she was two, we traveled down to Argentina. When Ula was two, we crossed the country on the train with both girls. When she was five, we brought them back to Europe. We spent money on these trips with the fear that if we didn’t, we’d never see these places again.
Then comes this June reckoning, and the reality that Cape Breton isn’t going to happen, only six months after we’d signed the papers creating the LLC. That invisible chain is getting snug.
The difficulty leaving isn’t just about money. We don’t have to worry about feeding the animals, but there are the other ramifications of time away: payroll, bookkeeping, lost sales, cash flow. And rather than feeling okay with it all for having traveled in my younger days, I feel sick to my stomach. It’s time to come home to my verdant cage.
Maybe a week later, something snaps inside me. We are at the farm by 6:30 am to load chickens, then we have a 90 minute drive to Woodstock for a 10am chiropractor appointment.
We get to Woodstock and learn I had the date wrong. Our doctor isn’t even in the state. We load the kids back up in the car, then sit in the empty parking lot. I stare at some scrub grass growing up out of the asphalt.
“What do we do now?” Bob asks.
It’s so strange. Having shackles should at least mean I always know where to go, what to do next. But in spite of them, I feel totally lost. So many years living free has that effect, I suppose.
I look at the kids buckling up in the back of the car. I look over at Bob. The day has suddenly been cleared. The invisible chain cuts into my ankle. My sense of being lost transmogrifies into a sense of annoyance.
“We go camping,” I say.
“When?” Saoirse and Ula shout from the back of the car. They remind me of chicken-pick up schedules. In my head I was also review the farmers market schedule and cafe food prep schedule. The chain yanks. I yank back. And I remember Parkinson’s law:
Work expands so as to fill up the time available for its completion.
“When?” Bob repeats their question.
We drive home, stopping at a grocery store long enough to pick up S’mores supplies. Along the way, we get organized. Bob, a former registered Maine Guide, gives the girls their gear lists. I mentally inventory the leftovers in our fridge that could serve as camp food. We choose our destination: a pond in the state land a mile up the road from our house. It’s the perfect location: no cell service, and we can walk home if we need anything. We text everyone that we’re going to the next county over, just so they won’t try to find us. We come home, load the car and the dogs, and find ourselves setting up the tent two hours later.
For three nights, we check out. We explore swimming holes, toast marshmallows, hike, and nap in the sun.
And as I walk the same dirt roads we’ve been walking for years, I feel the links on the chain began to give away.
We paid nothing for our vacation, and came home restored and full of joy, thrilled that we’d managed an escape, happy to be back in our soft fluffy beds before the sky opened up with rain.
A few weeks later, we took off again. Then we did it again. And again. We took off on camping trips four times over the summer. Each time, a few more links in my chain fell off. And each time, the work of the farm was easier to return to. Each time we came back with new ideas on how to do things better, how to accomplish our work more efficiently, new things to try.
Something then shifted inside Bob and me. We came to interpret the definition of “camping” more broadly, realizing the freedom it gave us to talk without phone calls and text interruptions. We now find ourselves fitting our own version of camping into every day. We’ve turned our morning hikes into mini camping trips, dressing for the weather and bringing along a thermos of coffee and a pair of binoculars. While the kids sleep in and get ready to start their school day, we’re watching ducks and listening to the calls of the warblers on their fall migrations. In the evenings, we take the girls and dogs “out for drinks,” packing up kayaks or just a small picnic supper and finding water holes, pond edges, or babbling brooks in need of exploration. We’re unplugged and out of reach for part of almost every day. The chain is gone.
And now is the time for our October vacation. These coming weeks are when we take our annual holiday. This was when we were supposed to be finishing up the market, closing the cafe and driving up to Cape Breton. We aren’t. We’re shutting down the cafe after this weekend and taking time off to work at renovating the vacation rental instead. With our free weekends we’re taking Saoirse to a coffee conference in New York City, visiting my brother on Cape Cod, and hitting a Rennaissance fair. In between, while we work on the rental, I think we’ll keep up this new version of camping — going out for coffee in the woods, going out for drinks along the streams, or taking days here and there to investigate what lies beyond the many trailheads we’ve always wanted explore, but never got around to.
Circumstances this year mean we can’t take a big trip. But our little adventures throughout the summer have taught us how we can juggle the farm and our wanderlust in the future. Every year I learn something new from our vacation, and this, I feel, has been this year’s lesson: The invisible chain was a figment of my imagination.
Better still, I am as enthralled by what we’re finding here in the Catskill mountains as what we saw in the Moab desert last year. Maybe next year we’ll use our October time off to journey up to Cape Breton. But I’m pretty certain we won’t be bothering with the vacation rental. We’ll just bring a tent. Ula will approve.
This will be my final blog post for October, while our family takes time off. The cafe will be open Saturday, October 7 (we’re serving chicken pot pie, so don’t miss it!), then it will be closed for the remainder of the month. Mom and Dad will open it each Saturday morning, 9-12, for anyone who needs to stop by to purchase farm products (or just say hello). But they won’t be serving food. The blog and the cafe will resume in November. Thanks for an amazing season!