Toward the end of our month-long road trip my six-year old son slid open the door of our van. We both exclaimed when we saw our camp spot blanketed in white.
“Oh shit,” I said, worrying about how we’d manage the last mountain pass. I’d planned on eating breakfast on the road and arriving at our next destination, five hours away, by noon.
At the same time my son said, “This is going to be the best day ever! We get to play in the snow.”
One glimpse of the smile that filled his face made me forget my plans. We bundled up, layering every piece of dry clothing for the unanticipated colder temperatures.
We walked along the beach, gaping at the way snow transformed the familiar into something else, casting our world into a magical white hue. My son threw a snowball at me and I tickled him, turning into a session of making snow angels.
Other days of our road trip didn’t turn out so well. There was the time we slid off the road into a muddy bog when we were supposed to be zip lining, races against the fuel tank to the gas station, and contending with the mess that inevitably accumulated in our van minutes after cleaning. Every time I stumbled over another small Lego piece I regretted bringing along a bag full of impossibly small pieces that scattered into every nook.
I didn’t intentionally set off to try out a month of vanlife with my six-year old. I was craving an adventure and given that my son lives with me the majority of the time, the assumption was he comes wherever I go. The days leading up to our trip filled me with equal parts anticipation and dread. Sometimes living with my son in the ease of our home feels difficult, how would we fare for a month without screens or school or other people confined in a small place?
The day I picked up the rental van, I thought I made a big mistake. After a dozen failed attempts, the ignition finally started. Later I found out the key was a copy made off a copy so the angle had to be exactly right before the engine started. My son and I high-fived every time the engine purred and it became an inside joke to count how many tries it would take.
Driving a campervan necessitated my son riding shotgun. “So this is what the front seat is like,” he said. He didn’t ask to watch his Kindle, he was so interested in helping me navigate and observing the scenery.
A month together of watching sunrises and sunsets, finding the trailhead together and skipping rocks, of starting the morning with the same question – what fun thing are we going to do today? – helped me know my son. He told me his secrets and prattled on about the details of school life. During the course of every day life he didn’t want to answer my questions about how school was that day, but for some reason uninterrupted days with nothing to do but talk he shared more. I asked for his input more – where he wanted to camp that night, when he wanted to stop driving for the day, whether he wanted to hike or bike. He learned to transform the van benches into a bed while I cooked dinner.
A month of van life changed our relationship and I glimpsed how our mother – son relationship might one day evolve into friendship. The day we returned the van gratitude filled that I had the opportunity to know who my son was as at six-years old, and he was pretty cool.