Leaving Birmingham, I drive west toward Route 66. A road trip like this had been my dream for years. I’d always imagined Joni Mitchell serenading me from the car stereo, driving until I ran out of money and had to stop and waitress for a while, flirting with long-distance truck drivers. In my mind, I’d save some money, live on the cheap, and then take up the road again.
On this trip, however, the car stereo twangs with Hank Williams’s “I’m a Ramblin’ Man.” It gives voice to the surge of freedom I’m finally beginning to feel, with the warmth of the sun on my arm out the window and the bright blue sky ahead. I can hardly believe that I’m really doing this thing I’ve yearned to do for so long. Yes, I agree with Hank, I am a restless woman.
“Mommy?” my son’s voice echoes from the back seat, snapping me back to reality.
“How much longer?”
This is not quite the solo freedom ride I’d envisioned when I was 26. My companion for this “westward ho” is my 8-year-old son, Mason. I’m 42, and instead of no plan other than packing good music to play, the freedom ride has had to be recast to include juice boxes, apples, and granola bars to assuage little-boy hunger attacks between stops.
“How much longer until what, Mason?” I study him in the rearview mirror. His piercing, nearly black eyes reflect back to me.
“Till we see Daddy.”
How much longer? It’ll seem an eternity to him. For me, however, the two weeks before we meet Sonny at the Grand Canyon won’t seem long enough, given the cold, discomforting distance that’s been creeping in between us over the last few years.
“Well, it’ll be a while. First, we’re going to the Buffalo National River. That‘ll be fun, huh?”
“Yeah,” Mason concedes.
Thirty-two hours into the trip, I drive into Arkansas, into the forested hills of the Ozarks. The narrow roads slither through mountain vistas as we make our way toward Bald Knob and the riverbank where we’ll set up our tent. Camping is an activity Sonny introduced me to when we were dating, and I’ve never done it without him. Despite uncertainty percolating in my chest, I’m determined to make this journey in the same way we’d always traveled as a family: without spending money on plush hotel rooms.
“Do you even know how you’ll pay for everything you need?” Sonny had asked tersely before Mason and I left.
The answer was death money. In three short years, I’d buried all my relatives: first my mother, followed shortly thereafter by my father. Then my maternal grandmother, who’d helped raise me, died just months before this trip. I had a bit of money left from my small inheritance. Mostly, though, their deaths left me with a different perspective on life. Now, it seemed, there was no more doing something tomorrow. Tomorrows, at some time, at some point, cease to arrive.
“Hey, look! Is that the Animal River?” Mason is excited, jerking me into the present.
“The Buffalo National River. Yep. I think it is. Let’s get out and say hello to the river.”
We exit the car at the beachhead, only to be greeted by a woman’s frantic screams.
“Help!” she pleads. “I must’ve dropped my keys in the river!”
Desperate, she’s banging on the window of her rusted Chevy Impala, as if breaking the glass might somehow help her drive it.
Her display of sheer helplessness unnerves me, bringing me back to the incredulous questioning of my friends as I described my plans for this trip: “You’re gonna do what? Drive and camp? Just you and Mason? Alone?”
“Yep!” My responses never revealed my own apprehension. In actuality, I wondered if I could do it without Sonny’s help, especially at this point in my life, when I’m out of shape and full of aches and pains. The truth is, I’ve not been feeling free, fine, or capable for a while, and the life I’m driving away from, at least temporarily, includes a struggling therapy practice and a marriage in distress.
“Do you have a cell phone?” the keyless woman asks me breathlessly.
“Yes, but I don’t get reception here. We’re going up the road to Wild Bill Outfitters to rent some tubes to float the river. Want me to ask them to come down here and give you a hand?”
“Oh, yes please!” the woman says.
Later, we return with large, inflated rafting tubes tied onto the already stuffed car, along with a newly purchased floating key chain for my keys, but the woman and her problems have disappeared, probably with the help of a speedy and resourceful Wild Bill.
It’s a warm, sunny afternoon, and the Buffalo River is crystal clear, rippling over sandstone and limestone gravel. The water is mostly swift flowing, with pockets of placid pool areas abutting sections of the beach. Plopping down my rafting tube on the beach, I settle myself, leaning up against the warm rubber tube to do some recreational reading.
“Looks like we have this place pretty much to ourselves,” I say to Mason. All I plan to do is stretch myself out and sun like a beached whale, but Mason has other ideas.
“Mom, come in!” he calls from the nearby shallow area of the river where he’s wading.
“Not now, Mason. I’m gonna hang out here on the beach. I’ll watch you.” Peeking up every once in a while from my People magazine, I move as little as possible to avoid joint pain. Mason amuses himself by jumping up from the waist-high water into the middle of his floating tube like a shiny seal. He sinks himself down through the tube hole. He swims around like a fish. And then, he’s had enough of playing alone.
“Mom, puh-leeze come in!” he begs.
I am just too old for this, I think, watching as Mason begins to swim toward the swift river water. “No, Mason. Just stay where you are. The water is too fast out there.”
“Please! Please, Mom.” Realizing that there’d be no more relaxing at this point, I give in. Annoyed, I slowly lift my creaky body, walk to the river’s edge, and put one toe in. Shivering, I withdraw, saying, “The water’s cold. I don’t want to get wet.”
Mason gets out of the water and grabs my arm with both hands, pulling me toward the river. “No, Mom, you have to! C’mon, it’ll be fun!”
Finally, I drag my tube into water only up to my calves and sit in the center of it, making sure that nothing other than my feet and rear end get wet. “Okay, let’s go,” I say.
Surprisingly, the ride down the river is smooth and gentle. We float down a lazy stretch of it several times, until Mason becomes restless. “Mom, I want to get out of the tube. This floating is boring.”
“Alright,” I agree sleepily.
Mason slips out of his tube, but the water is deeper and the current stronger than it looks from the surface. As the river yanks his tube away I watch, paralyzed with fear, as my only child is sucked under the water. Suddenly, his head bursts up, water spewing from his nose. He looks at me, terrified, before again being grabbed from beneath by the merciless undercurrent.
“Mason!” I scream, and once again his head pops through the surface. Breaking free of my inertia, I scramble off my own tube into the water, finding myself also dragged along by the current and unable to stand. While I struggle to hold onto my tube and swim to him, he continues to be pulled farther and farther away. Then, again, he goes under. Panicked, I wonder how much longer he can fight the river before he’s lost to it. But he resurfaces.
“Catch this!” I scream, shooting my tube to him. But it’s caught by swirling water, where it whirls uselessly in place.
“Maa-maa!” Mason cries in distress. Without the tubes, we’re helpless. Suddenly, in a flash, I remember an instruction from a whitewater-rafting course Sonny and I took decades agos: always put your feet up in front of you. That’s it!
“Mason, Put your feet up! Listen to me! Get your toes where you can see them. Put them above the water,” I yell, and I do the same. And then, miraculously, the whirlwind ride stops. Mason stops struggling and slows ahead of me.
He looks around and grins, “Whee!!! This is fun!” We’re drifting easily now, directing our travel with our arms, steering ourselves to a nearby placid pool. We stand together and laugh, hugging.
At the end of the day, I set our camp, cook our dinner, and map out the next leg of our journey. Tired but relaxed, I plop down in my camp chair. Mason eases into my lap and I wrap my arms around him. We sway together, head against head, as I hum a familiar tune from good ol’ Hank Williams: “Let me travel this land from the mountains to the sea, ’cause that’s the life I believe he meant for me.” The sun melts behind the imposing limestone cliffs over the river, leaving a trace of rosy sky in its place. I smile, satisfied, warmed by our glorious campfire—that I built.
Illustration © Adam Niklewicz