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The Road Trip

The Road Trip
The autumn when my daughter Alison was 19, she and one of her best friends decided to drive from our home in Anchorage, Alaska to visit friends and relatives in Seattle, Washington and Portland, Oregon. Since she was no longer a minor, Alison didn’t have to get our permission to go; but out of respect, she asked for our blessing.

No small undertaking, the mileage for this trip would be somewhere in the neighborhood of 2500 miles, many of those on the infamous ALCAN (Alaska-Canada) Highway—notorious for endless miles of unpaved, washboard roads with very few rest stops and services.

My husband and I gave this trip some serious thought before giving it our reluctant stamp of approval. Alison loves road trips, but because she’d been chronically ill during the preceding four years, she’d missed out on a lot of traveling opportunities. We knew she’d stay home if we asked her to, but it occurred to us that this might be sort of a gift—a consolation prize for everything she’d been through. Maybe this was something she really needed to do—possibly even a catalyst for the next step of her recovery.

The friend she’d be traveling with was a young man who’d been a friend of hers for years. The son of an Alaska State Trooper, Matt was kind, respectful and smart. He’d spent a lot of time with our family and we had great trust in him. He had driven their proposed route before without incident and was excited about driving it again.

We asked a million questions—about the condition of Matt’s vehicle, how many hours of driving they planned to do each day, where they’d sleep (they’d be camping—not what we wanted to hear!), and so on. While we weren’t thrilled about it and we (not so secretly) hoped they’d decide not to go, we said okay—with the caveat that Alison would check in with us at least once a day, preferably after they stopped driving each night.

And away they went.

All was well the first two days, but then it was as if they’d dropped off the face of the earth. There were no calls from them, and our calls to their cell phones went straight to voice mail. After writhing with fear for a day and a half, I called Matt’s mother, who answered the phone cheerfully and seemed surprised to learn that I was worried. I wanted to scream at her, “What’s the matter with you?! Why are you not upset?! Don’t you realize our kids are lost in the wilderness?!”

I vividly remember kneeling on the floor in our family room with my body stretched over an ottoman, sobbing—feeling like I was going to throw up. The fear that I was experiencing was so powerful—like being caught in the ocean’s undertow. Those were two of the longest and worst days of my life. I kept thinking, “I’ll never see my daughter again. They’ll never find her body. We’ll never know what happened to her.”

Seriously? “They’ll never find her body?”

Where would a gruesome thought like this come from?

Oh. 

I knew.

I’d been binge-watching a show called Without a Trace. In every episode someone met with foul play, which almost always began with their being abducted. Bad things happened to these people. Detectives usually found them and returned them to safety, but not before they’d suffered irreparable harm.

For months I’d been feeling strangely uncomfortable about watching it. It was almost as if I could hear a voice telling me I shouldn't be watching it. It wasn’t a sleazy show—so what was the problem? I rationalized away the feelings and kept watching anyway. But now, wracked by terror, I saw my mistake. I’d been set up. Fear had dangled a hook in front of me and I took the bait. (Apparently Matt’s mother didn’t watch Without a Trace—she was probably relaxing at home watching reruns of Touched by an Angel and America’s Funniest Home Videos.)

It occurred to me that my conscience had been trying to protect me. It knows me. And it knows that I am not a person who can watch fear-based shows without paying consequences—in this case, huge consequences.

I once heard someone say, “If you want something to grow, feed it; if you want it to die, starve it.”  Foolishly, I had fed fear; and when it got big and strong, it turned on me.

Apparently, there is a long stretch of the ALCAN Highway where there is no cell phone reception. And because this trip took place after tourist season, the roadside restaurants and motels were closed for winter, with their payphones locked up inside. The handful of gas stations that remained open had no phone service. When Alison was finally able to get through to us, she apologized profusely—knowing how worried we must have been—and she called us on schedule, without fail, during the rest of the trip.

My daughter made memories on that road trip that will last forever. And she learned some important things—about life, about the world, and about herself. That road trip changed her. And it changed me, too. I don't watch Without a Trace (or shows like it) any more. I no longer believe that good parenting and worrying have to go hand-in-hand. And now, when that still, small voice of wisdom begins to whisper, I’m all ears.
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