It was the worst vacation we’ve ever taken. Maybe it was because the expectations were so high. My daughter was leaving for college in a month. Would we ever take a family vacation again? Probably. But these things aren’t certainties as kids move on with their lives. And we’re not getting any younger. My husband’s knees aren’t climbing many more mountains.
So, with the Ford Explorer loaded with pillows and suitcases, walking sticks and water bottles, our dog Scout, and two teenagers who would rather be hanging out with friends, we set off for Page, Arizona, our first stop en route to a family reunion in Moab.
We are barely out of Burbank when my daughter makes a comment that annoys her father and she retreats into her headphones. We’re long past car rides filled with “I-Spy” and License Plate BINGO. I lost control a couple years back when cell phones became attached to my kids’ hands and their neck muscles weakened. My kids can only look down now. That is why we are heading to Lake Powell. You can’t bring cell phones on jet skis.
My adventurous family has traveled to 31 National Parks over the past dozen years, hiking, kayaking, rafting, and zip-lining over and through rocks and trees. I’ve played travel agent and navigator and sure, I’ve gotten us lost a few times and failed to research the actual distance between Yellowstone and Glacier National Park. "It is only [_________] this far!" I declare with my fingers as I share the plan for the next destination. Fourteen hours later, we when arrive at Many Glacier Lodge in pitch-blackness, I’m no one’s favorite family member. But when they see the view in the morning, I win them back.
Scout hangs her head over the back seat between the kids. I take a snapshot in my mind: sixteen year-old boy buried in a Steven King book, seven year-old pitbull/lab mix with happy golden eyes and a giant pink tongue, 18 year-old girl with her eyes closed, head resting on a pillow and ear buds blocking out the sounds of her dad’s country music.
We drive past the rust-colored rocks of Glen Canyon and drop Scout off at the only kennel in Page, checking into our room just in time to catch a stunning sunset over the mountains encircling Lake Powell.
The next day we board jet skis for a four-hour exploration of several canyons that make up the 2000 miles of Lake Powell’s shoreline. My husband and son carry the map in a waterproof pouch and my daughter hangs on to my waist as we race the boys across the glassy water. The first three hours are joyful as we jump off rocks jutting out from steep walls and swim in their shade. After four hours, when we’re supposed to be back at the Wahweap Marina, it becomes clear that we are lost. None of the landmarks we thought we knew are where we thought they should be, and the map is confusing. We’re almost out of gas and a storm is brewing in the East. We head to a smaller marina to refuel and get directions only to discover we’re an hour away from where we started and waves are growing as the wind picks up and the sky turns a threatening gray. We ride fast to beat the storm with arms shaking from the throttle vibration. Lightening cracks on the horizon as my daughter shouts something about the late fees eating into her college fund. Five and a half hours after we launched our four-hour tour, we chug into the dock and I pray the giant bolts of electricity stay out of the mass of black water long enough for us to stumble on jello legs to the truck.
The next morning we pick up Scout and head on to Moab. The kennel owner gives us a bag of bones as a parting gift. “She sure does enjoy a good bone,” the woman comments as she pets our pup goodbye.
Five hours later, we check into our condo, the same complex where we stayed for the reunion ten years ago, but our children don’t remember much of that first trip to Utah. What they do recall are the long drives. We’d driven eleven hours straight to Moab from Los Angeles. The following day we jumped in Jeeps for a nine-hour trek along the famed White Rim Trail. The sites were spectacular, but the ride was dusty, bumpy and brutal. Been there, done that, we decided. No matter what others wanted to do, our family is skipping the jeeps. Maybe we’ll try mountain biking or rafting on the Colorado.
After dinner in town, my mother-in-law asks my daughter and I to join her on a grocery run. When we get back to the condo, a family meeting has taken place. It is decided that most everyone is going on a Jeep tour of the White Rim Trail the following day.
“But Dad!” my daughter hisses, “You promised we wouldn’t do that!”
“Well, you don’t have to go!” her father angrily replies.
“But this isn’t what we discussed,” I whisper, as I see my brother-in-law and the cousins looking at us from behind their fans of poker cards.
“Well, we changed our minds,” declares my husband.
And the trip begins to crumble.
I’ll go. To keep the peace, I’m going to go. But I am angry at the cavalier way the decision is handed down. My daughter is unbudging. She’s been wronged. Promises have been broken.
Sleep doesn’t come easy as it never does when I’m fuming and I know I have to get up early to do something I really don’t want to do. No sooner do I drift off when I hear whispers about Scout. I run to the living room where my dog is convulsing, foam covers her mouth as she whimpers. I hold her as my husband calls the local vet. There isn’t much we can do for a seizure and I wait it out with her for a couple hours, googling possible causes. At dawn, my husband, son and other relatives leave for the White Rim Trail. My daughter and I stay behind to care for our dog. She seems better. But there is a vacancy in her eyes and she walks gingerly.
Someone suggests that maybe one of those kennel bones splintered? Who chose that kennel anyway? The guilt overtakes me. Did I cause our sweet pup to nearly die?
After several family meals, smaller group hikes and many games of cards, we leave Moab for Scenic Route 24/12 and my daughter is still mad at her father. We’re all scared about Scout, whose 70 pounds of dead weight must be lifted in and out of the truck. She pants in her bed surrounded by luggage. The kids can no longer complain about her sticking her head between them over the back seat and drooling on their shoulders.
I make a map mistake that costs us an hour of driving. My husband and I argue. My daughter chimes in. They argue. He goes silent. My son stays out of it. We arrive at Capitol Reef, stopping only for peach and cherry pie at the historic Gifford House. The pies are made with fruit from the National Park Service orchards, but they’re hard to swallow with the anxious lump growing in my throat.
We zip through Grand Staircase-Escalante and skip a planned hike in Dixie National Forest en route to our destination, Bear Paw Lake View Resort, the only place in the Bryce Canyon area that would take dogs and wasn’t booked six months in advance.
The sun is nearly setting and we miss the turn for a highly recommended BBQ place. We’re starving and coming into the last town before the final hour-long leg to Panquitch. We finally find a restaurant that will let us have our dog on their patio, and as we all get out of the car, my husband and daughter have another snippy exchange. Our family is brittle. Tears are welling in my daughter’s eyes as we sit down to eat. My husband is angry. My son aims his chair away toward the dusty street and rubs the top of the dog’s head. I sneak off to the bathroom where I lean against the door and sobbing with frustration. I clean my face before returning to the table, hiding behind sunglasses at dusk. We eat in silence, but when we get to the truck, my husband confronts our daughter for her behavior and we end up being THAT family, the ones yelling at each other in a parking lot. The ones I’ve walked by thinking, “Thank god we’re not like that!” But on this day, we are. On this day I am crying outside a diner attached to an outdoor adventure supply shop in Henrieville, Utah and I’m thinking of ending my marriage. I’m thinking of running away from it all. Hopping on the next Coca Cola truck bound for Salt Lake City.
My son has wandered off with the dog during the argument. He comes back as we’re hugging it out. Trying to move on. I pull the family together around the description of the Lakeside cabin where we will spend the last two days of our trip. “The peace and solitude of our full-service resort offer a tranquility unsurpassed in this area. Wildlife is abundant with deer, bald eagles and elk passing through. Each cabin faces the lake and is surrounded with towering firs, pines, beautiful blue spruce and artfully-colored aspen.”
But when we get to Panquitch, the directions are unclear. The front desk tells us we are still a half hour away. There are no streetlights or other vehicles. The only light is from our truck and the full moon reflecting on the water. After we check in and back our truck up to our cabin, named TAK IT EZE (Take it Easy), we notice that the front window is broken. One third of the pane had once been duct taped but has now fallen out of the frame. We open the creaking door to a musty smell and find another broken window in the bathroom and an exposed water heater across from the toilet. The floor in the hall puddles with a half inch of dark moldy water when we step on it. There’s a sign in the bathroom saying: "Only use towels on your body. If you need rags, ask for them at the front desk." The double beds are divided with a plywood “wall” creating what they call a two bedroom cabin. One bed slopes so badly that my husband chooses to sleep in the truck so I can rest at a diagonal. The ceiling light over the kids' bed is hanging with frayed wires.
The absurdity of the place becomes a joke that binds us. With the office closed and no place to stay within several hours drive we vow to find a way to make this horror movie set work and I promise that in the morning, if we make it to morning, we will get out of our second night’s stay and put an end to the trip from hell. We hang out on the picnic table watching shooting starts in the big Utah skies while my son plays guitar and we sing wildly off key. The next morning we consider taking a boat out on the lake, but the boats are much like the cabin, with foam coming out of the cushions and empty beer cans flooding the hulls. The beach is covered in rocks and trash, so we set the map app for Burbank and head toward home.
Eight hours later, after countless laughs about my failure as a travel agent, we are home. The next day we take our dog to the vet. It’s not splintered bones, it’s lymphoma. She might have six months. My husband is against spending money on a pet with an incurable disease. My daughter is ready to spend her college savings to give her dog a chance. Scout tries to rally. She runs around the pool like her puppy self, but then lays down for hours panting. On day five, she falls over by the back door. The next morning our family comes together at the Animal Hospital and says goodbye to our girl. The last photos we have of her is on the dock at the Bear Paw Resort, her long pink tongue hanging out of her smiling mouth. Even on the worst vacation, she was just happy to be with family.