The Joys of the 'Worst Vacation Ever' - OZY | A Modern Media Company

The Joys of the 'Worst Vacation Ever'

The Joys of the 'Worst Vacation Ever'

By Julia Scheeres


Because, c’mon, Little House on the Prairie vs. The Popularity Papers …

By Julia Scheeres

Julia Scheeres is the best-selling author of the memoir Jesus Land and A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Jonestown.

Somewhere around 7,000 feet, my 9-year-old yanked off her backpack and slammed it into a manzanita bush. Her 7-year-old sister sank onto a log and gave me a withering look. “Worst vacation ever,” she grumbled.

I totally got it. For the last hour, we’d been trudging up a dusty trail in the Sierra Nevada in 90-degree heat, batting away mosquitoes and tiny black flies. Their legs were short. The jellybeans bag was empty. And the only enticement my husband and I could offer was the idea of swimming a pristine alpine lake — which was still a few hours away.

By rote, I pulled out my phone to search for enticing photos of said lake. But I’d forgotten that there was no cellphone reception in the mountains, despite the fact that getting “out of range” was the whole point of our trip. 

My fears about the influence of the internet on my kids came to a head when my older daughter, Tessa, texted me a photo of herself on a playdate wearing a strapless cocktail dress and caked-on mascara. “Post this on Facebook and YouTube!” she demanded. JonBenét Ramsey came to mind. I shuddered. My daughter, a product of our selfie-absorbed culture, was eager for “views” and “shares.” The approval of strangers meant more to her than the opinion of her own mother.

This saddened me. I wanted to hit the pause button, to draw out the liminal time between young girl and teenager a bit longer. I also wanted to reinforce our bond, which had grown fraught since she entered tweenhood. Instead of cuddling on the couch, she vamped in front of a mirror. She answered questions about her day with monosyllables and eye rolls. I decided to act on the urge every mother feels when she senses her daughter slipping away: I decided to cloister her. For this year’s summer vacation, instead of the theme parks, beachside hotels or mani-pedis with grandma, I booked a cabin in California’s Eldorado National Forest. The best feature? No cellphone service. Meaning: no texting, and no creepy selfies. We’d be forced to do old-fashioned things like play cards and, um, talk.

The remoteness appealed to me for another reason. I wanted my daughters to experience a central force of my girlhood: nature. Near the house I grew up in, on the edge of a woods in Indiana, my brothers and I spent long days building forts and hunting for salamanders. Nature wasn’t just a play space; it was also a refuge when household tensions were high. My favorite novels as a kid were My Side of the Mountain and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books — all featuring child survivalists and homesteaders. As an adult, I tested my own mettle in the wild and became an avid backpacker. Nothing gives you perspective like standing above a tree line, ripping into a strip of jerky with your canines.

“Tell me anything.” It would be a kind of confessional; she could tell me anything and I wouldn’t get mad. 

Tessa’s preferred novels had titles like The Popularity Papers and Glitter Girls. I’d also failed at instilling a love of nature in my younger daughter, Davia. I signed her up for Girl Scouts, assuming she’d learn bush craft, as Boy Scouts do. Instead, she learned paper crafts. In a word, I worried that my daughters were becoming too, well, “girlie.”

The cabin, built on the banks of the Upper Truckee River, was tucked among quaking aspens and lodgepole pines. I did a quick sweep with a cobweb brush. Tessa walked in and frowned at the tiny CRT TV.

“Mom, can I have your phone?” It was her default request whenever she suffered a quiet moment.

“Sorry, we’re out of range,” I replied.

She looked stricken. “What am I supposed to do here?”

“Why don’t you go outside and play?”

I pointed to a pile of branches. “Try making a fort,” I suggested.

We negotiated a schedule: We’d alternate days lazing at Tahoe’s beaches with days of hiking up mountains. Here’s the beauty of hiking with people you love: You get to know each other very well. As we trudged through idyllic meadows and up boulder-strewn switchbacks, we played 20 Questions and designed our dream homes. Then I suggested another game: “Tell me anything.” It would be a kind of confessional; Tessa could tell me anything and I wouldn’t get mad. Suddenly my evasive daughter began to talk: about her insecurities, troubles at school, the ways I frustrated her. Things she’d never had the space to talk about before.

The first hike was the hardest. But gradually, the girls learned to push the limits of their endurance and then push a little more. Nature provided the entertainment: run-ins with black bears, predatory leeches and mountain garter snakes. We had snowball fights, grazed on wild currants, scrambled up scree slopes to claim private views of wild splendor.

On our last day, we hiked to a snow-rimmed lake at 9,400 feet that lay in the shadow of twin peaks called “The Sisters.” It was late in the afternoon and breezy, too chilly for a dip. But Tessa insisted. She’d donned her swimsuit for an alpine swim on each hike, and she wasn’t stopping now. As she jumped into the 60-degree water, I videotaped her on my phone. She swam a few yards, shrieking from the cold. Then she did something I’d never seen her do before: She stood in the waist-high water and flexed her biceps, congratulating herself on her feat.

Afterward, as I wrapped a towel around her, I waited for her to ask me to post the clip online. But she didn’t. She was too busy having an epic adventure to think about it.

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