I think I found the way to have a perfect vacation, quite by accident. Leave your husband at home and take two spunky 14-year-olds somewhere where you can’t get a cell phone signal. Then the most remarkable things will happen.
First, let’s put the accidental tourist in perspective. I consider myself to be a typical working mother. Not the magazine-type who changes the bed sheets every Saturday whether they need it or not, buys sympathy cards in a six-pack at Target (hey, six people might die this year!), makes five family-friendly entrees and freezes them on Sundays, and programs her kids’ sports schedules and dates for sex with her husband twice a month into her BlackBerry. Beep! OK, honey, let’s get crazy. No, wait, I made a mistake, that’s Cindy’s diving clinic. You’re next Tuesday at 11 p.m.
Me, I might walk the walk but after hours I’m a little more unkempt. I change my bed sheets when even my beagles won’t deign to sleep on them, and I never think about what’s for dinner (my son is constantly begging me to go food shopping — mom, we have no food! — so demanding). I believe a little mold in the shower builds up your immune system, and that you should never return your library books on time because the library needs the money from fines. I don’t feel guilty that I don’t volunteer for any type of committee (no good deed goes unpunished) and I don’t floss every night.
My vacations, too, tend to be a little unkempt. While other families I know were charging trips to Europe on their credit cards or planning to build schools in sub-Saharan Africa coupled with spa treatments at night (a vacation with a conscience!), I said hallelujah when my friends offered me their house in Maine for a week all to ourselves (we had visited for the first time on Memorial Day weekend and I yearned to go back). The only catch — my husband couldn’t come due to work commitments. Fortunately, I don’t require my whole family to come on the family vacation (we’re going to Disney World, it will be fun!). In fact, I thought of it as a vacation from being married. Why not? It’s so millennial.
I left the beagles with my husband and piled my son, Mackenzie, and his best friend, Lexi, into the car and drove for eight hours to the bottom of one of those long fingers tapping the ocean off the southern coast of Maine. Lexi is the proverbial girl next door (who really does in fact live next door), and like Mackenzie, is an only child. (Only children, you see, are so easy to pawn off on others and in general they are quite well-mannered and pleasant to be around.) They have been friends since age four and operate rather like twins. We stopped halfway at Food & Books, where the walls are lined with books, much of them library cast-offs — you’re allowed to take three for free. Mackenzie picked “America’s Top Jobs for People Without a College Degree.”
We eventually rumbled through the sleepy little town of Brunswick, home of Bowdoin College, where Main Street is spelled Maine Street, with a town green and a gazebo, where summer college students play Frisbee in their bare feet. Where little shops with funny names like Gelato Fiasco and the Great Impasta give way to stately New England homes with columns on the front porches, one or two of which have been turned into fabulous antique stores, and where children ride their bikes downtown, God forbid, unaccompanied by adults.
But we went even further. Down Route 24, over the little bridge and the inconspicuous sign that announces you’ve crossed onto Great Island. Left on Cundy’s Harbor Road, past a graveyard where the headstones lean this way and that, past Moody’s Seafood, where lobsters start at $2.99, and then right on a tiny country road, finally turning in at the driveway (not a driveway at all, just battened down grass).
This house is my idea of nirvana. An 1830 white clapboard farmhouse set on 40 acres of woods beside a cove that has been in the family for four generations — a family of Harvard grads and private school teachers, bibliophiles and Francophiles — evidence of which hits you as you push open the front door, swollen against the summer heat, and inhale that musty, quiet, library smell that old houses have, especially a house like this one, where the walls are lined with books and much of the furniture is antique, in this case from Brittany. Toss in a working fireplace, a wide enclosed sun porch, a real pantry, and a creaking steep staircase leading to the upstairs bedrooms hidden under the sloping eaves (where I happily spent one rainy afternoon curled up with the 1899 Harvard yearbook and a Life magazine from 1963).
I claimed the big bedroom downstairs (a king-sized bed all to myself! No snorers allowed!), Mackenzie the sunporch, and Lexi one of the upstairs bedrooms.
To get to the cove, you walk to the far end of the lawn, where you find the start of a path, worn smooth by decades of little bare feet and sandaled feet and sneakered feet, winding around gnarled tree roots, a dark but inviting palace floor in a kingdom of pines.
Each twist and turn in the path reveals a new view, astonishing both for its simplicity and its complexity: a burst of fresh green moss kindly serves as a blanket for an old dead tree that’s fallen on its own; a scrap of white birch bark becomes a portico over the entrance to a tiny creature’s home; a descending track of tree roots paved in between by packed pine needles serves as a natural staircase to a stream. Five large flat stones form a safe bridge across.
A few more twists and turns, past pine trees that have scented this forest for centuries, stood firm against hundreds of nor’easters, and held millions upon millions of snowflakes, and you have arrived at the cove, first high on a hill. Down below the water licks the salty rocks like a mother cat absently licking her kittens and the thick seaweed languishes upon the shore like a recalcitrant child who refuses to budge. At low tide mussels as big as a baby’s fist fight for your attention, teasing, “Pick me! Pick me!” Mackenzie and Lexi spent the better part of the week there, often taking the canoe out of the boathouse and paddling about the cove. Sometimes they just lay on the dock or the rocks and read.
I found my own peaceful occupations. First thing every morning before the kids got up I would slip outside and take a walk. Out on this road less taken the sun can barely penetrate the canopy of pine boughs that cross and recross overhead like sentries, shifting expertly to protect the teeming life that makes its home among the branches, inside the bark, and down among the tangled roots. You can hear a thousand different animal sounds, scurries and calls, rustles and caws. Up a long hill and just over its crest the bay spreads out on both sides, dotted with lobster boats and errant seagulls determined to find breakfast among the whitecaps.
The briny, salty air knocks you awake with its ancient power, bathing your nostrils with its tangy, wet mist. Suddenly you’re breathing as deeply as you can so as not to miss one molecule of its organic scent. The end of the road simply slopes down to the water’s edge, an old dockyard to your right with towers of forgotten lobster traps now past their prime and covered in thick, climbing weeds. As you walk back, you can see more details you may have missed: purple columbine climbing over a garden fence, spilling like a bridal veil over the other side; nature’s abstract sculptures of dry fallen limbs in stark poses; and baby pine trees nestling against their grandfathers’ trunks, bravely trying to grow up.
The only snag I encountered while steeped in this pristine natural setting was letting go of my lustful obsession with my new cell phone. Not the phone part, but the texting part. I have resisted texting up to this point but just a few weeks ago surrendered. With Mackenzie entering high school in the fall I knew if I had any hopes of communicating with him I would have to enter the world of OMG, LOL, and TTYL.
The first afternoon, I found myself lying on the chaise longue on the lawn, supposedly relaxing. But what I really wanted to do was play with my slide-out keyboard and see if I could get a signal under the cherry tree. I found that if I held the phone exactly at my belly button and didn’t breathe when I hit the send button it worked. I felt a little like an addict. When the phone said, “Message sent,” I felt just a little rush, a little bit high. This can’t be healthy, said my mother-y voice. This can’t be good. You’re going to end up like the cretins who text in the movie theater and at the ballet or those Facebook addicts who post their every move — “I just ordered a pizza!” and their friends post back “Yummy!”
Right before I went on vacation I read an article in Oprah magazine about getting rest. It has nothing to do with sleep, the magazine promised. It said turn off your cell phone and laptop. So, here I am in this magnificent place, all peaceful and green, and on day one, I become pathologically concerned about whether I have a cell phone signal. It seems suddenly very important to be able to communicate — to connect, perchance to text! — even though I came up to Maine with the express directive to disconnect. But those cute black keys, so tiny and shiny, called to me like sirens, “Love me! Use me! Reach out and touch someone!”
I wondered absently if we are defined by how many people are on our speed-dial and who are we if we cannot connect with them? Must resist, said my inner Virgo. So for the remainder of the week, I committed to only checking my messages once in the morning and once at night; the rest of the time my phone was off. And suddenly, free of technology, I really began, as the yogis would say, to be in the present moment.
Down at Watson’s General Store on the wharf, we picked lobsters out of the trap that Mr. Watson himself (a salty old soul with a pitch-perfect down east accent), his faithful dog trailing behind him, hauled up out of the water. We took them home and screamed as we snatched the rubber bands off their claws, danced around the kitchen with them to Linkin Park’s “New Divide” cranked up on the iPod dock in the living room, then bravely plunged them into boiling water.
At night we would ride into town, past roads with Beatrix Potter-like names — Snow Country Lane and Sweet Williams Way — to get our fix of molasses peppermint and stracciatella at Gelato Fiasco, the kids hanging practically by their knees out the car windows, singing at the top of their lungs. For some reason this didn’t bother me, you know, that whole falling out of the car thing. Didn’t give it a thought. One night, possessed by the urge to read a text message that had just come in (you see, I didn’t lick the habit entirely), I pulled over by the graveyard. Mackenzie, still hanging out the window, saw a flashlight beam among the headstones and heard kids’ voices. Hey, what are you doing, he called out. He was answered only by maniacal giggles emanating from the shifting shadows. We drove off, yelling “Graveyard stalkers!”
We came home to a night sky so black, so devoid of light pollution, that we turned off all the lights in the house and lay on our backs on the wet grass, staring up in silence and awe at thousands of stars illuminated by two great swaths of the Milky Way, accompanied by a sotto voce chorale of crickets, owls, and a loon or two.
Another night, also in the pitch black, we tore open two giant packages of glow sticks we had brought, left over from Mackenzie’s last party. We set them all alight, and had a Star Wars battle on the lawn, where all you could see was dozens of these little neon bars, glowing pink, purple, green, orange, yellow, and blue against the night sky, falling like shooting stars on the lawn. If other grown-ups had been there, we no doubt would have been sipping Chardonnay and discussing the merits of Sotomayor’s appointment. I would much rather hurl a glow stick and watch its phosphorescent flare arc towards my son, landing with a satisfying thwack against his butt.
One afternoon we drove by a clearly confused painted turtle on the side of the road. A few miles later, I announced, let’s go save that turtle. Lexi yelled out the window, “We have no agenda!” as I turned the car around. The turtle, having survived between the wheels of several more cars, was now three-quarters of the way across the road. The kids leapt out and carried him to safety by the stream on the other side of the road, but not before taking its picture with Mackenzie’s cell phone. No need to travel to sub-Saharan Africa to prove our good stewardship to the earth.
It was awfully hard to leave. For the first time in such a long time I felt as if I had truly disconnected from my day-to-day life. I hate to say it but Oprah was entirely right: if you don’t turn off your cell phone, you are not really resting, especially on vacation. You are not resting your “monkey mind” (yogi for the ballistics inside our head) if your Blackberry Curve, Samsung Gravity, or iPhone is on red alert in your pocket.
Turning off your phone may seem a little scary at first, but if you can do it, it’s like putting your mind on vacation any time you want to. And you might find, as I did, that sometimes it’s a lot more fun to talk to lobsters and turtles.