The wheel is turning, and you can’t slow down, You can’t let go, and you can’t hold on, You can’t go back, and you can’t stand still, If the thunder don’t get you then the lightning will…
~ Robert Hunter, The Wheel
It was a glimmer and a dream that began a tradition lasting ten summers: We are going to spend a month traveling in Europe. As our son’s kindergarten year came to a close, we realized that for the first time he would have the summer off of school. The opportunity was there to either sign him up for lots of camps and let others spend the summer with him, or to free up time in our work schedules and spend it together as a family. We opted for the latter, and every year since we’ve taken a long family trip.
That first trip set the path and made memories that we still recall and celebrate. Hostels in London and Oxford, a labyrinth and mini-golf in Bath, friends and the Tivoli in Copenhagen, and Norway in a nutshell. And each subsequent summer we planned and enjoyed yet another long getaway. After Europe it was a month-long road trip around Colorado, exploring our home state while not once driving on an interstate. We spent three and a half weeks on four Hawaiian Islands, drove up most of the East and West Coasts, explored Alaska, immersed in Israel/Palestine with a side trip to Petra in Jordan. Indeed, my identity as a father, and ours as a family, have been shaped and closely associated with these different, lengthy trips.
As this year’s tenth anniversary trip approached, our son (now approaching age 16) let it be known that after this summer he did not envision traveling for long stretches with us. Rather, he prefers the prospect of staying in town, hanging with friends, having a job. Even as I recognize that this is totally age-appropriate, when we left last month for our three-plus weeks in Iceland, Toronto, and Montreal, I was saddled with frequent, bittersweet thoughts of how this may well be the last time, at least for some time, that we spend this type of time together as a family. We certainly enjoyed our many adventures this summer; they were urban and natural and musical and cultural, and they will make for many memories, especially if this trip was indeed our last.
And as the trip drew to a close, I was reflecting on coming home this time, to the scorching dog days of summer that await us every year, and it occurs to me that there’s a symmetry to our first trip and this perhaps final time we return home from a glorious if indulgent getaway, and reintegrate back into “normal” everyday life.
You see it was in the summer between kindergarten and first grade, after arriving home from that maiden family voyage, that I could no longer avoid teaching my son to ride a bicycle. He was one of those kids who developed cognitively ahead of physically. You know the ones I mean: On the playground he stuck to the safer environs of the lower jungle-gym, rather than exploring (and sometimes tumbling from) the upper rungs. This was never a big issue, but it did delay his graduating from training wheels until a bit later than some of his peers. With parental guidance, and the help of a YouTube video, our son did learn to ride a bicycle, and this accomplishment was something of an epilogue to the other adventures of earlier that summer, sort of “Hey Dad, remember when we rode the London Eye, and then you taught me to ride my bike!”
And now, a decade hence, it’s time to teach him to drive. We definitely made some memories earlier in the summer; in fact, this tenth annual trip was the first in which our son had significant input on the planning. It was his request to visit Canada, solely because his favorite band is from Toronto. And when this indie music outfit announced they would emerge from hiatus to play one night only at a festival they were hosting, we altered our travel plans to ensure our son could attend. While that music festival may well have been the zenith of the journey for our son, he was a pleasant travel companion throughout the ensuing exploration, and we as parents were careful to give him plenty of space for the duration.
Back home now, the daily monsoonal cloudbursts have given way to infernal afternoons of 90 degrees and more. I recall these same temperatures a decade ago as I ran along side my six year-old in empty asphalt parking lots, encouraging him to keep pedaling, celebrating as his balance improved and he rolled a bit farther at each pass. Now I sit beside my son in a car, our places reversed from what they’ve always been. He’s in the driver’s seat now, and I am a passenger, and I’m doing my best to take it slow, as I encourage him to do the same behind the wheel.
It’s been a good run, these ten years of long summer trips. And I know that each was special in its time, and formative in the fond memories and deep relationships that persist. With the sweet sadness that comes in rites of passage, I celebrate my son’s next milestone, aiding and assisting as I can, and recalling the words of a sage friend and father of two boys who reminds me that my son “… is a great kid with great parents. His journey is his and you are a character within. You can create your own identity but at this point his is up to him.”
Fatherhood has come full circle yet again for me. The wheels are turning, and try as I might, I can’t slow them down.