An Empty Nest Mom Takes A Road Trip To The Fountain Of Youth

by Melissa T. Shultz
Originally Published: 

Sometimes you just have to get in the car and go—even if you’ve forgotten how to be spontaneous.

When my kids were born, I spoke about the future as if it were light years away. Now that my sons are 22 and 20—one just graduated from college, the other’s a junior who no longer needs the full back-to-school parental handholding—I’m measuring time in smaller increments, trying new things and adjusting slowly to this stage of parenting.

Recently, while it seemed as if every other parent was plowing through school-supply checklists, my husband and I made last-minute plans to travel to Santa Fe, a place we’d been talking about visiting for years. We carved out four and a half days to drive there from Dallas, to play and to return. The reason for the trip was not only to break our hum-drum routine, but to mark my tenth anniversary as a breast cancer survivor and celebrate my birthday (the two dates are one and the same).

As we left the city, and the traffic finally waned, the view from the passenger window shifted from unremarkable to downright beautiful. I was immersed in the changing scenery and the rhythm of the highway—thinking about nothing and everything all at once. We drove for hours through a flat Western landscape until our agreed-upon resting point in Clovis, New Mexico, where we crossed from Central Time to Pacific. When I saw the clock on my phone erase an hour, I wanted to do it again, repeatedly—go over the time line, then back again, so I could watch my phone make the switch. It was as if I held the power to slow, then speed up, then slow my own aging process.

After a night in a Clovis hotel, we were back on the road the next morning. I sat in the passenger seat taking photos, distributing snacks and singing along to CDs—everything from the long version of The Temptations’ “Papa Was A Rolling Stone” to a medley of songs from the ’70s and ’80s by Cat Stevens, Stevie Wonder and Linda Ronstadt. At several points, colorful trains carrying automobiles and coal and other things sped alongside us, blowing their horns loudly at the crossings. One time, Cat Stevens began singing “Peace Train” right on cue.

Image courtesy Melissa T. Shultz

During the drive, we often went for long periods of time without saying a word. There was no need to. The sky said it all. Our first afternoon in Santa Fe—my birthday—was a blur, mostly because we had a touch of what the locals told us was altitude sickness. Still, we walked everywhere, and other than a run-in with a chili pepper I wish I’d never met, it was about as different and memorable an experience as I could wish for.

Nightfall found us in a busy, popular restaurant, sitting at a small table in the bar area, waiting to be seated for dinner. I was drinking barely-steeped hot tea, my drug of choice to keep the elevation malaise at bay, when I noticed a young mom attempting to juggle her baby and her meal. Soon she handed him off to her husband, then he did the same with her, and they repeated the process. After 15 minutes or so, very little of their dinner had actually been consumed, and I wondered if I should offer to hold the baby or if they’d write me off as a crazy woman in an orange paisley wrap. When the dad began to blow raspberries on his son’s belly, the baby went from squirming to squealing with joy, and I looked over to find my husband wearing his nostalgia face—the one that parents of big kids get when parents of little kids do something they used to love to do.

There was a short series of baby dramas: the little boy’s bottle dropped to the ground, he spit up on his shirt, then he had a tiny meltdown—most of it remedied by parental kisses. Soon his weary parents took turns walking him around, the baby now shirtless and looking doughy and delicious. That’s when the dad turned to me and asked where we were from. “Dallas,” I said, “and you?” “Colorado,” he answered. After a minute of polite conversation he blurted out, “I’m sorry.” “For what?” I asked. “For all the commotion,” he said. “We didn’t mean to cause so much commotion.” I wanted to reach out and hug them both.

I remember that feeling when my kids were little, as if everyone was judging me and my children. “You’re doing a great job,” I said. “There’s really no need to apologize.” The mom looked somewhat relieved and went on to explain how they had vowed to keep their life as normal as possible after having the baby, but now, at 6 months old, that was proving harder than they realized. Funny how that happens, I thought. When a child enters our lives we’re certain they’ll inhabit our world, and by the time they’re sitting up, we’re living in theirs. Then they leave home and we find ourselves in some altogether new place, in need of a map.

Image courtesy Melissa T. Shultz

The next day, as we walked past galleries and shops, we noticed someone who looked a lot like the dad from the eve before walking quickly, alone and seemingly on a mission. A few blocks up, sitting outside on a restaurant porch, was the mom with the baby—the sweet, doughy baby. She was totally immersed in the moment, looking at him the way I once looked at my kids, as if I couldn’t believe how lucky I was. The sense of joy, of newness and of the endless possibilities that lie ahead. It was written all over her face. Of course, we stopped to say hello.

There were many more walks and meals, a drive in the rain to the flea market and to see cloud-covered vistas and brief but pleasant conversations with total strangers. On the drive back home to Texas—this time straight through—we relished the quiet again. Later, we listened (somewhat) to a book on tape, and I continually snapped images along the way. Occasionally, we both laughed aloud at the storytelling, usually at the same time and in the same places. Funny how that happens after knowing someone for 27 years. When it was my turn to drive, all I could think about were the photos I was missing—the light was perfect. My husband soon resumed his role as chief driver, and I got back to taking pictures.

Image courtesy Melissa T. Shultz

There were stretches of landscape so vast, the earth seemed to touch the sky—where the clouds were so white and billowy and inviting that I had the urge to step out of the car and into them, just to roll around for a while. How long have I been missing this? Why didn’t anyone tell me?

For me, it’s been a decade-by-decade project, this growing-up thing. Age, I’ve discovered, is not always an indicator of knowledge. And contrary to what the higher numbers suggest, the process of aging provides multiple opportunities to stay young. The caveat is, they all require a willingness to see things in a new light, to roll with the transition from one stage of life and parenting to the next. Because it turns out that time doesn’t stand still. But if we’re not careful, we do.

Our road trip helped me discover the kid in me again. I played with time zones, raced trains, sang along to tunes from my adolescence and was awed by the beauty of nature. Not a bad four and a half days, all in all. And thanks to Cat Stevens and his song “Oh Very Young,” I found a new reason to be spontaneous. Or maybe it was always the reason, and I just never fully understood:

You’re only dancing on this earth for a short while.

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