Each year we swim like salmon against a current of temporal obligations and fight to return to the calm, sun sequined rivers of our west coast youth. We always arrive conflicted — barraged by the need to see family and old friends but at the same time – wanting to immerse our family in this massive, self-obsessed amusement park called California.
I am always nervous returning to Los Angeles as every email I receive from my father suggests that his once Golden State has declined into cesspool dystopia where rampant illegal immigration, corrupt public officials, profligate public spending and fewer public restrooms has made it unfit for working people, the elderly and those with prostate issues.
My west coast past and east coast present are two distinct worlds and I worry when they collide. The stories of my youthful mischief have been well hidden like state secrets that must incubate in silence for at least seventy-five years. There is always a risk of coming west that we will encounter a long-lost acquaintance who will proceed to tell one of my children, “your father, oh, he was a wild thing!” This opens a Pandora’s Box of interrogation that I increasingly find hard to navigate.
As my Digital Age children get older, the logistics of our time together are further complicated by their own predictable canyons of self-absorption and technology. They are like single bar cellular calls that often drop unbeknowst to the speaker. One can spend minutes talking unaware that the other party is no longer on the line.
“I’m sorry, Dad, I lost you after you said, ‘can you please’…” is followed by the always irritating”I’m sorry, I don’t speak Spanish” expression.
The family road trip has radically morphed since the days of “shut up or I’ll give you something to complain about” automobile travel. In the 1970’s, we were a predictable part of a summer land rush of urban and suburban families, enthusiastically driving to the same vacation destination and establishing ourselves for a week like hives of yellow jackets. We would normally infest some sad, rental beach house or motel and find things to do. “I’m bored” was always met with, “go outside and don’t come back until dinnertime.”
And we would find things to do – some legal and some illegal. But, we would invariably return to our home base for food, medical attention, zinc oxide or with the feral dog we had just found and wanted to keep.
Comfortable mini-SUVs have replaced the Fleetwood wagon and its rigid Russian cattle car seating arrangements. A Grand Bazaar of roadside fast food chains has supplanted warm Shasta sodas and bleeding Wonder Bread PBJs that we greedily devoured at highway picnic areas. If we were to ever actually frequent a rest stop today, my kids would assume that we were merely stopping to dump a dead body.
“I want a Jamba Juice, Dad.”
“We’re in the middle of the California desert, buddy. There’s nothing here but sand and horizon line highway.”
“Well, actually, I just Yelped Jamba Juice and there is one in Victorville. It’s only five miles off the freeway on a frontage road and it’s near an In and Out Burger.” Cheers erupt from the trio of digital back seat ninja drivers. We are suddenly eating double-double cheese burgers under a neon high desert sign.
Everything has changed. In restaurants and fast food joints, the American meal has kept pace with our soaring national debt with portions eclipsing the size of Central American banana republics. To combat the disease of over-sized portions, we assign a “designated scavenger” at each meal. The scavenger does not order any food but can sample from any and all plates.
Since she is the smallest and least selfish, my spouse often assumes this role believing that food tastes better when it comes off other people’s plates. As a child of Brits who survived the London blitz, she is genetically predisposed to be a scavenger. We estimate ordering for four instead of five saves between 15-20% on meals, impedes inevitable holiday weight gain and modestly improves the mileage on our fossil fuel guzzling, Sherman Tank of an SUV.
The once almighty 20th century automobile pilgrimage replete with its sibling battles, rites of passage car sickness and endless boredom has been tenderized by satellite radio, personal entertainment systems, instant messaging and ubiquitous Wi-Fi coverage. My children have been reduced to digital cocoons. No one listens or looks as my wife and I happily describe the rugged beauty and history of California’s eastern Sierra and Owens Valley.
While we might be together on vacation, it is a rare harmonic convergence when we are all emotionally present. The digital age has broken the nuclear family into pieces – we are isolated microbytes of data symbiotically sharing a common ecosystem called a house. Each day the modern family must compete with alternative communities — enemy cells of friends via Live Chat, a conveyor belt of Instagram photographs and a mindless, sewage pipe of text messages.
We arrive at our mountain destination and a late dinner at a crowded restaurant. The entire establishment is also suffering from digital-cocooning with three out of four patrons slumped at the altar of their glowing hand-held devices and smart phones. I assume everyone is texting or making power point presentations to one another. There is one loud table. It is a group of five men and women who are actually talking and joking. People leer at them with distain. It seems so rude that they should be making noise in this quiet car of digital dining. Sadly, the digital pollution drift has invaded the last place where table manners, grammar, syntax and personal mythology is passed on – the family dinner table.
I conjure up the countenance of my T-Rex father and growl at the children mandating that I am capable of extinguishing them if they do not extinguish their devices. You would have thought I had asked them to French kiss a cannibal. I suggest a trivia game where we might stimulate our minds. My son protests, “How can we play trivia if we can’t look up the answers on Google Chrome?”
“Name five famous people whose surnames are a color?”
Feeling clever, I eagerly await their answers. I could see the encouraging signs of nascent collaboration.
“Pink.” My daughter says shrugging. “Can we use our phones now?”
“No, damn it!” I hissed. ” I want four more”. You would think I had asked them to explain the Fibonacci Sequence.
“Who was the coach of the Boston Celtics? Who played football for Syracuse and the Browns? Who starred in Nacho Libre and School of Rock?”
“Okay, here’s a hint. What about the names with “Red”, “Brown”, or “Black”
“Oh I know.” yelled one of the boys. “Red Brown.”
“Who is that?” I queried.
“I don’t know, wasn’t he like a football coach? I should get two points for that!”
I shake my head and to my wife’s chagrin regress into off-color jokes and potty humor as a lowest common denominator way of keeping our conversation afloat.
It is indeed harder each year to be an analog parent in a digital world that so empowers the individual. The road trip holiday continues to meet stiffer headwinds as our young adults become addicted to the instant gratification and entertainment of digital media. The notion of down time is tantamount to prison time with the definition of “fun” having morphed into the need for 24/7 distraction.
Our learned behavior of working as a team arose out of our Bataan Death March childhood vacations and our common circumstances — the tedium of long car rides, carsickness, the inconvenience of being torn from the moorings of friends and roadside Bates motels with creepy proprietors, toxic, chlorinated pools and no televisions.
Each summer, we were forced to hang out as a family and amuse one another. We were unplugged and managed by unfiltered, orthodox parents who reminded us that they brought us into the world and that they could take us out of it. They told us to eat all our food because children were starving in China. We now are concerned our kids are eating too much and that China is no longer starving.
For the twentieth century vacation, each kid saved money for the annual road trip to places like the Grand Canyon so we might buy a magical vial of Painted Desert sand or a sinister scorpion encased inside a paper weight. It now seems we are constantly looking for a store that sells iPhone power cords. Travel was about seeing new places and punching holes in the walls of our suburban cocoons. The new millennium road trip has evolved where each person is a self-contained cosset. As we move along the blue highways of our country, it seems we are not lost in America but lost in a conceited cyberspace.
“Are we there yet” has been replaced by “where the hell are we and will they have Wi-Fi?” We are becoming part of a new slang and don’t yet understand its meaning. We are middle-aged pragmatists who have seen too much lashed to the mast with young immortals who believe that bad things only happen to other people. We will forever disagree on whether tomorrow is guaranteed. We have evolved as a modern family unit and it will fall to sociologists and our descendents to determine whether we have regressed or progressed as responsible stewards of our tribes.
We now actively seek vacation destinations that lack cell service – remote locales and pristine back roads where our digital progeny are forced to notice the tumbling streams, alpine lakes and rock strewn paths lined with purple lupine and blood-red Indian paintbrush. On today’s hike, my daughter adroitly spots an almost invisible mother deer and her spotted fawn navigating a steep brown hillside of talus. At home, she can barely discern stop signs. We watch and stand quietly at a forty-five degree angle before the fauna melts into a stand of pines at the timber line.We stop for lunch and break out books or just meditate absorbing the grandeur of this glacial basin reflected in mirror of an emerald-green alpine lake.
I am convinced that our biology requires us to be upright and outdoors. We are not constructed to sit behind desks with compressed vertebrae and atrophied abdominal muscles. Evolution has not yet come to a firm conclusion but our activities would eventually turn us into human thumbs with massive derrieres and no peripheral vision. While it is has already happened to the stars of the reality show, “Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo”, we must resist the sedentary siren’s call. Our hike will take all day, cover eight miles and two thousand feet of elevation gained and lost.
I help set up fishing rods and devour a half sandwich which after three hours in my pack appears to have been the seat cushion for a circus fat lady. I chase it down with water that I have just filtered from a stream.
“Hey, I got a fish!” my son yells. I rush over to extract the treble hook lure from the oversized mouth of a spotted golden and red bellied brook trout. At this altitude and in this harsh climate, the fish cannot get enough nourishment. Yet, they adapt and thrive because they are wild — often healthier than their corpulent brethren raised on Power Bait hand-outs in the captivity of a state run hatchery.
As the sun retreats below a 14,000 peak, we estimate that we have two hours of light left to navigate the four miles of switchbacks down to the parking area at the base of Bishop Creek where we initiated our day. We are unplugged – a simpler sweeter kind of music. These moments are gentle notes from a six string guitar. We joke and gently deride each other’s shortcomings – limitations magnified by proximity, the day’s physical challenges and the absence of creature comforts.
I begin to retell the stories of our mythology – tales of my family and these sacred places — times that shaped this part of America like the winds and glaciers that dominate the landscape. I am trailing the group and yelling ahead to them, talking to no one in particular. I am proud of my ability to wrench them out their routines and put them in touch with their more durable alter egos.
I notice someone has a single white strand of wire surreptitiously falling between his hair and his backward facing baseball cap. My son seems to be moving, but not to the rhythm of a story of how ignominious Convict Lake got its name. He is clearly advancing to the cadenced percussion of a band called Phoenix. More earplugs appear and my wife and I are once again alone – travelling with our digital cocoons. She smiles.
“It was nice while it lasted.”
Like everything in nature, unplugged passages soon fade. They are momentary — a fish rising in the early morning light leaving only green sequined circles of water. They are a night canopy of stars, unpolluted by the distant light of cities and material obligations. The sky is an unexplained ocean where satellites move like distant cargo ships and meteors course past the corner of your eye with sudden streaks of light. Only the earth and sky are permanent. I recognize that my children’s cocoons are temporary. They exist for a short time in this insular chrysalis that forms and protects them until a butterfly can emerge and fly away. For a moment, I can see them through the gossamer threads – moving, jostling, evolving and changing.
A blue jay scolds me as I take one last look on the valley below. My legs hurt and my body is reminding me of my mortality. Yet, I have made it once again to this special place, the high palisades of my youth — mountains that required my full attention and commanded respect. They underscore my insignificance but reinforce the notion that I am part of something divine.
My son stops and takes a picture of the valley and the deeply shadowed, late afternoon peaks. He stops and peers at his photograph. He smiles. The memory memorialized, it will soon be distributed to five hundred followers who will participate on an endless digital social comment thread.
“Dude, where are you? That place looks wicked.”
It is. It’s really cool.