Thursday, August 18, 2011

At home or far away, remember to make room for surprises

Today's column:

This time last year, as we were broiling in hostile August conditions, I pictured myself on the back porch of a charming wooden house on the edge of a quiet lake.
I was seated in a rocker, with a cup of coffee in one hand and a book in the other. My children were exploring nearby woods. We were all wearing jackets. Because this fantasy world was Maine.
I dreamt of Maine for months.
When I started researching how to get to Maine, though, I got nervous. Flying to the state is expensive; flying to Boston and driving north is cheaper, but I was unsure about driving through the city and then far up the coast.
Where else is it cool in August? The Northwest. So my fantasy world shifted to the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State.
I secured a little house on the water. Then I studied the map. We weren’t too far from the mammoth Olympic National Park and its three distinct zones — mountains, temperate rainforests and coastal waters.
In no time, my week of doing nothing but sit on the back porch morphed into a jam-packed week of driving and exploring.
That’s how my vacation planning always goes. I’m no good at relaxing — at home or on faraway soil. I have trouble sitting still if there’s a museum to be walked or a trail to be climbed.
So I promised mountains and rainforests and the Pacific Ocean to my children.
I failed to consider lots of factors: being the only adult on the trip; windy, hilly, narrow roads that make driving stressful for this Texan; my exhaustion from a busy summer; Cooper and Katie’s tempered expectations for adventure.
Before we left Texas, I backpedaled on the ocean. It’s a long drive to the Pacific Coast, and there’d be plenty of opportunities to enjoy inlets and bays farther east.
We did make it to the mountains. We left our little rental house and its beach-for-a-backyard early one morning to get to Hurricane Ridge, which affords a spectacular view of the Olympic Mountains. Turn in any direction and you’re staring at majestic peaks.
You’ll also find snow — even in August. We skidded and tumbled on patches of snow, marveling at our fortune considering the brutal conditions back home.
That same day we discovered Lake Crescent, where we rented a rowboat and a paddleboat. And we discovered waterfalls. And canopies of trees and giant ferns and moss-covered rocks.
By the time we returned to the house that night, I was also reconsidering my rainforest promise.
“I’m not sure that we’ll make to the Hoh,” I apologetically told Cooper and Katie. “We’d have to drive seven hours roundtrip in a day, and I’m not sure about that drive by myself on these roads.”
My children didn’t hesitate to agree. They didn’t want to be captive in the car that long, either. They wanted to play in the backyard, searching for shells and slinging seaweed with sticks and splashing in the bay’s saltwater.
On the morning that we’d planned to drive so far for the rainforest, we slept late. While we were eating breakfast, I spotted something bobbing in the water out back.
It was actually two somethings — a pair of seals playing just a few yards from the water’s edge. I sat on the back porch and Cooper and Katie crept close to the shore, and for an hour we watched those seals bob and dive and swim.
We lazily put on adventuring clothes and shoes and drove two miles away, to explore another stretch of the beach. We interrupted our hike under a bluff. I sat on a rock, doing absolutely nothing while the children dug ravines in the sand and marveled over crab shells.
It was quiet. We had no timetable, no expectations. We were all wearing jackets.
That scene is my new dreamland, my new respite from brutal August. A fresh reminder to temper expectations and to allow room for welcome surprises.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

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