Away We Go

Well, folks, the big day is almost here. My husband and I fly to Portland, Oregon, today, and on Sunday I will run the Portland Marathon. If – make that when – I get to mile 17, I will cross St. John’s Bridge, a 2,067-foot steel suspension bridge that spans the Willamette River. Here it is.

St. John's Bridge, Portland, Oregon (Source: The Fulton House)

St. John’s Bridge, Portland, Oregon (Source: The Fulton House)

This, meanwhile, is Arrowhead Bridge, the tiny suspension bridge I run across regularly in the small town where I live.

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My daughter on our town’s teeny, tiny Arrowhead Bridge

As you might imagine, this Midwestern girl, who is used to pancake-flat terrain, is more than slightly intimidated by the idea of running St. John’s Bridge – especially at mile 17 of a marathon. I have thought about it constantly during the past 20 weeks of training, worrying that I won’t be able to handle the elevation, wondering if I will be forced to walk it as many marathon participants apparently do. My fear is if I walk at that point, I won’t be able to raise the momentum to start running again.

The other thing I have been obsessing about is the weather. When I signed up for the race last winter, the notoriously cool, crisp Portland temps in October were a huge draw. I knew there was a good chance it would be overcast and even rainy, and that didn’t bother me. I love running in the rain. What I do not love is running in hot, humid weather. When I saw the forecast for Sunday of full sun and a high of 81 degrees, let’s just say I was less than pleased. All I could think about was how hard it would be to maintain my goal race pace in those conditions. I have three goals for my finish time. I won’t list them here because I don’t want to jinx it. Let’s just call them “good,” “great” and “awesome.” After looking at that forecast, even “good” seems out of reach.

Here’s the thing, though, and it’s awfully hard to accept: No matter how much I would like to do so, I cannot predict what will happen during my race. There are so many factors over which I have no control: that damn bridge, the weather, potential injury, etc. All I can do is get myself to the start line as healthy and well-rested as possible and believe in my training. Instead of focusing on a goal time, I am going to concentrate on enjoying the experience (I hear the view from that big ol’ bridge is spectacular). When — not if — I cross the finish line, I will know I did my best. That’s all that matters.

Goin’ Home

“Can’t Find My Way Home” by Blind Faith played in heavy rotation on my Ford Escort’s cassette deck during my twenties, when I lived in Michigan.

Come down off your throne and leave your body alone.
Somebody must change.
You are the reason I’ve been waiting so long.
Somebody holds the key.
But I’m near the end and I just ain’t got the time.
And I’m wasted and I can’t find my way home.

I was a different person back then, sad, lonely, disconnected. Instead of figuring out who I was and what would make me happy, I hid from my true self in a bad relationship, trying to fix someone who did not care enough about himself — or me — to let me. When he finally ended things, I was lost. I realized the person I needed to stop avoiding and fix was me, and I knew I couldn’t do it in Michigan, surrounded and haunted by the memories of my many mistakes. I moved to Chicago in search of the key, to find my way home.

These were my thoughts as I sat drinking a Centennial IPA at Founders Brewery in Grand Rapids, Michigan, two days ago. My husband and I stopped there for lunch on our way back to Chicago from a weekend of camping, hiking and canoeing with friends in Wellston, Michigan. When he left the table to use the restroom, I noticed the Rolling Stones song playing in the background.

Spending too much time away.
I can’t stand another day.
Maybe you think I’ve seen the world.
But I’d rather see my girl.
I’m goin’ home, I’m goin’ home, back home.

I laughed to myself, thinking that “goin’ home” for me used to mean returning to Michigan, but now I couldn’t wait to get back to “my girl” (and boy — i.e., our children) in Chicago. Two years had passed since our last visit to my home state, when we attended my aunt’s memorial. This time, our trip took us nowhere near the Detroit area where I used to live, but the drive Up North was a familiar one. I took it often as a child with my aunt and uncle who raised me and later as a young adult with friends. Driving those roads now, after 20 years have passed, made me remember the figurative journey I took, trying to escape my Michigan self and start a new life.

Change is never a quick, easy trip, even against a new backdrop. Your problems follow you until you acknowledge and resolve them. When I met my future husband a few months after moving to Chicago, I knew immediately that he was a good man, the kind you marry and raise children with. I had never felt more comfortable or at home with anyone in my life, and it terrified me. It took a long time for me to see myself as worthy and let go of my fears of abandonment. But no matter how many conscious or unconscious attempts I made to sabotage our relationship, he kept coming back. It’s almost funny to think about what we considered argument-worthy in the early days, compared with what we have experienced during almost 18 years of marriage. I guess learning to sort out the little problems in the beginning of a relationship helps prepare you to deal with the real ones later.

Watching my husband walk back to the table, I thought about the Blind Faith song again. During my younger days in Michigan, I didn’t realize I was the one holding the key. I kept searching for it in relationships, jobs and other experiences, always looking for the next best thing. The key, it seems, was inside me the whole time. Marriage and motherhood led me toward happiness, but only I could unlock the door and walk through it to find peace.

The photo below is of my husband and me enjoying a Michigan sunset long ago. I don’t think we were even married yet. It’s the only copy I have, and it’s covered in fingerprints. I think one of our kids ripped it at some point. It hangs on the bulletin board in my office, reminding me how far we have come, together, finding our way home. Cheers to the man who never gave up on me.


The Anti-Social Experiment

But how could I not check in at Abbey Road on Facebook and Instagram a pic of us crossing it?

But how could I not check in at Abbey Road on Facebook and Instagram us crossing it?

On our family’s first trip to Disney World, when Facebook was just a baby and Instagram did not even exist, I saw a father videotaping his children on the Animal Kingdom safari ride. His family was sitting directly in front of mine, and I remember being fascinated by this dad and his video camera. He was so busy trying to preserve the moment that he did not appear to be enjoying it at all. I wondered why he didn’t just snap a quick photograph instead of spending the entire ride behind the camera. Wouldn’t it be better to be a part of the memory by experiencing the event, to be a participant in the adventure rather than just its chronicler?

In my twenties, watching a breathtaking sunset on Lake Michigan, I remember wishing out loud for a camera to capture its beauty. A wise friend said, “I don’t need a camera. My memory of it is better.” I guess he was right because I still remember how that sunset made me feel. A photo would not have done the moment justice.

I wonder what that long lost friend would think about Instagram. I doubt he even has a Facebook account. But I, like that dad at Disney so long ago, sometimes find myself a chronicler of rather than a participant in my life. I spend a lot of time capturing moments on Facebook and Instagram, especially when we travel. I use social media as my scrapbook and photo album, checking in on Facebook to record the names of restaurants, landmarks and historic sites we visit. I write status updates about the day’s itinerary and post photos as we move from place to place to help myself remember the sequence of our journey. But if I press the pause button to capture a moment on Facebook or Instagram, am I enhancing it or diminishing it? Does my obsession with preserving a memory keep me from truly being part of it?

On a recent family ski trip, I decided to find out by taking a break from social media and simply enjoying the moments as they happened. It was our first visit to Colorado, and I wanted to fully embrace its landscape and culture, which are so different from what we know in the Midwest. I took photos here and there, but I didn’t Instagram them. I ate delicious meals, but I didn’t check in at any restaurants on Facebook. Instead, I disconnected from my online persona for a few days and reconnected with my real world self and my family. What I found was that I liked being a participant rather than a chronicler. Posting the photos of our journey on social media could wait until after we were home. I wanted to experience it first.

That social media-free trip inspired me to take a break from my personal Facebook account. I have a page where I promote this blog and share links, and that will remain active. But I am taking some time off from posting on my own page to reassess how I use social media in general. Maybe Twitter is a better forum for my random thoughts. Maybe Instagram is a more appropriate place for my food and travel photos. I am not sure what the right balance is, but I do know that constantly sharing my personal musings, photos and whereabouts with 478 people, many of whom I haven’t spoken to in years or barely know, is beginning to feel off-kilter. Do any of them care what I ate for lunch at Le Fumoir on the way to the Louvre? Do they need to see a photo of my family crossing Abbey Road? Do they know I am just excited about my travels and not bragging about them? That last question in particular has been haunting me lately.

I’m only five days into my Facebook sabbatical. Considering how poorly I did the last time I attempted a social media dryout, my success is not imminent. So far, though, I’m happy to be living in the moment instead of wondering how to hashtag it. I’ll keep you posted on my progress. But don’t expect a status update.

Are you a social media junkie? How do you find a balance between life online and ITRW?


Update: Well, this probably comes as no surprise, but my “anti-social experiment” failed miserably after just 15 days. I did learn some valuable lessons, though. For instance, Facebook makes it pretty difficult for bloggers to get any traction without advertising. I knew this, of course, but it was frustrating to see it play out. When I made updates about new blog posts on my Michigan Left fan page, no one saw them. But more important than that, I missed the people I actually do interact with on Facebook. Working from home, FB is kind of like my water cooler. It’s fun to take a break and socialize. I just need to limit myself more, so I can stay focused. We will see how that goes. Stay tuned.

Over the Hill

Our first day at Copper Mountain, before I tried to ski. At least I look like I might know what I'm doing.

Our first day at Copper Mountain, before I tried to ski. At least I look like I might know what I’m doing.

As I make my way through my forties, I find myself facing a painful fact: I am afraid. I’m not just referring to my lifelong fear of spiders and aversion to clowns. Now I am afraid of lots of things. Things like amusement park rides, fast-moving vehicles, small planes, narrow bridges, coastal highways and mountain roads. Things that never bothered me in my twenties, when I stubbornly embraced my own invincibility, terrify me in middle age, and all I can wonder is: What happened?

It’s not as if I never confronted mortality, made life-changing decisions or experienced pain or loss in my twenties or thirties. The difference at age 46 is that fear, especially of physically dangerous situations, can be paralyzing.

I discovered this last weekend during a ski trip to Colorado with friends. My family had skied once before, several years ago in Wisconsin, but we figured we needed a refresher course to tackle the long, winding runs of Copper Mountain. After a two-hour group lesson, my husband and kids were ready to move on to more difficult green (beginner) runs. I, however, couldn’t get down Roundabout, the easiest green at Copper, without falling. My family took off for the Lumberjack lift, but the instructor sensed my fear and lack of confidence and suggested I stick to Roundabout for a few more runs.

The thought of skiing alone terrified me. What if I fell again? What if I crashed into someone? What if I broke a leg or hit my head? What if I wound up paralyzed and couldn’t take care of my family? A twentysomething would never entertain such crazy thoughts, but for a middle-aged mother they all seemed to be possible, if not likely, outcomes. After standing by the lift for an hour, watching preschoolers zip by and imagining myself rolling down the mountain in a giant snowball like a cartoon character, I gave up and went back to the condo.

The next day, my husband encouraged me to try again. He said he would ski Roundabout with me once or twice before joining our kids and friends. I agreed, knowing that at least I wouldn’t be on my own if something went wrong. I managed to get halfway down the gradually declining slope, but when it steepened slightly toward the end, I veered out of control and fell. I sat there, shaken and crying, unable to get up. I finally took off my skis and made the walk of shame to the bottom of the hill, where my ever-supportive husband waited for me. He gave me a reassuring hug, but I felt like a failure.

As I rode the shuttle bus back to the condo, I wondered what happened to fearless me, the girl who rode in fast cars with bad boys, smoked cigarettes, drank Jägermeister shots and danced all night at punk clubs in inner-city Detroit. Apparently, she had turned into a fearful middle-aged mess.

Frustrated and ashamed of myself, I thought about what our friends who ski would say, especially the ones who were with us on the trip. Would they consider me a coward or a loser? At 26, the peer pressure of the situation would have been enough to force me back on the lift. But at 46, I didn’t care and let myself give in to the fear. Was that really so bad? Wasn’t it worse to do something that scares you because you are afraid of what others will think than not to do it because you know yourself well enough to realize you aren’t ready?

When I got back to the condo, I booked a beginner group lesson for our next ski day. While my husband and children moved on to the blue (intermediate) runs and our friends skied the black (advanced) slopes, I would be on the bunny hill with a group of adults who didn’t know how to put on their skis. And that was exactly where I wanted, and needed, to be.

During my lesson at Green Acres, Copper’s beginner area, I realized that although my fearfulness might slow me down, I didn’t have to let it stop me. I skied at my own pace and found a buddy, Kim. We rode the lift and navigated the bunny hill together, laughing at our missteps (when I fell off the ski lift, for example) and cheering for each other when we made it down the hill without falling. At the end of the half-day lesson, our instructor, an oddball retiree ski bum named Lyle who teased us for sticking out our butts while skiing, said we were both ready to take the Kokomo lift to Roundabout. And he was right.


The view from the top of the bunny hill at Green Acres, Copper Mountain’s beginner area

After lunch, my husband and daughter agreed to forgo the blue runs for a while and head over to Kokomo. I felt nervous about trying to ski Roundabout again, but I knew I could do it. The first part of the run went smoothly. I maintained control, relaxed a little and enjoyed it. When the slope steepened slightly, my confidence waivered as it had the previous time. But instead of deliberately falling and giving up, I kept going. I ended up on my butt again, but I got up and finished the run, which felt like a victory to middle-aged me.

I guess what happened to me over the past 20 years or so is that I learned to be cautious. My safety, my health, my continued existence matter to three important people: my husband and children. I may be more fearful in my forties, but it’s only because I have so much more to lose. Being over the hill doesn’t mean you can’t make it down the hill. It just might take you a little longer to get there.

After I finally skied a green run without freaking out. This one deserves an awkward family photo award, doesn't it?

After I finally skied a green run without freaking out. This one deserves an awkward family photo award, doesn’t it?

The Key to the Lock

I had been seeing her for a few weeks, and today’s session was no different from any of the others. I sat in her Chicago office nervously spewing my life’s stories, some from the present but most from the past, all the while hoping desperately for answers to the questions I was too afraid to ask. Why couldn’t I feel happiness? Why couldn’t I maintain a relationship? What was wrong with me?

As usual, she nodded occasionally, took random notes and said nothing. There were no comforting words. No supportive smiles. Does she think I’m crazy? Should I keep talking? How is this helping me?

Fifteen minutes into the session, I knew I couldn’t tolerate her stoic expression anymore. I couldn’t bear to regurgitate another story from my string of failed romances or my troubled relationship with my father and stepmother. If she wasn’t going to offer a diagnosis, I would have to ask for one. I wanted a label, something to which I could attach the pain, the fear, the emptiness. If I gave it a name, perhaps it would finally go away.

So I did it. I asked her the question I was most afraid to ask. I asked her what was wrong with me.

And she gave me the label I thought I wanted to hear: post-traumatic stress disorder.

But how could that be? I was a 26-year-old magazine editor. I had never served in the military or held a dangerous job. I had never been the victim or witness of a violent crime. How could I have PTSD?

She explained that children who lose a parent at a young age often experience PTSD symptoms, even into adulthood. My mother had died when I was a toddler. I had no memory of her death or any effect it might have had on me. But there it was: the reason I couldn’t visualize my own future, the reason I felt perpetually detached from others, the reason happiness seemed constantly out of reach, the reason change terrified me.

I had lived with my mother’s death all my life, yet I had no idea, until that moment, how much it had haunted me.

* * *

Several friends back home had told me about the “Love Lock” bridge in Paris, where couples attach locks to symbolize their undying love, and I had hoped to visit it during our family’s trip there earlier this month. But when you cram London, Paris and Amsterdam into a seven-day visit, some things just don’t make the cut on your itinerary. When we stumbled upon the bridge during our walk to Notre Dame, I was thrilled at the chance to squeeze it into our adventure.

Our visit to the bridge was unplanned, so we had to buy a lock and borrow a marker from a street vendor. I wrote our last name and the year on it, while my husband and children searched for a vacant spot on the lock-laden bridge. Apparently there is a lot of undying love in the City of Light. When we finally settled on a location and affixed the lock, I was overwhelmed with emotion. This trip had been both an ending and a beginning for us. Summer was over and my oldest child was about to start high school. I had spent much of the past few months struggling with my own fears about the changes in his life and ours. I had been worrying so much about all the bad things that could happen that I hadn’t been able to see the good.

As we stood there on that bridge in Paris — my husband of almost 18 years, my 14-year-old son, my 12-year-old daughter and 45-year-old me — I imagined my kids returning to it as adults. I saw them married with children of their own. I pictured my husband and me coming back as silver-haired grandparents. I knew we would be holding hands, and I knew we would still be in love.

On that bridge with my family, I saw the future for the first time in my life. And it was happy.


Love Lock Bridge, Paris, 2013

These Boots Are Made for Walking


I bought my first pair of cowboy boots in the seventh grade. It was 1980, the year “Urban Cowboy” was released, and western boots were a must for any budding fashionista. I saved for weeks to buy those boots, hoarding my allowance and babysitting, which I hated, to earn extra cash. My stepmother said I had champagne taste and a beer budget. Being only 12, I didn’t understand what that meant. All I knew was that the fawn-colored pigskin suede boots with white leather flowers cost $75, and I had to have them.

Thirty some years later, I still remember how proud I was when I plucked those boots off the shelf at the Scott Colburn western store in Livonia, Michigan, and handed my money to the cashier. They were a symbol of my individuality and confidence, and I wore the hell out of them. I wore them with leg warmers and prairie skirts; I tucked my jeans into them. I wore them till they needed new soles and were beyond out of style. And then one day I packed them away on a closet shelf and forgot them.

The Southern road trip my family took last week made me remember those long-lost boots and the strong, self-assured girl who wore them. After a lengthy monologue in which I ruminated over situations I cannot control, my husband set me straight in the lobby bar of the Peabody Hotel. “It’s a big world,” he said. “If you don’t like who’s in that corner of it, move to a different one.” What we don’t want to hear is often what needs to be said most. He was right: It was time to dust off my self-confidence and stop being a victim.

As we wandered down Broadway in Nashville a few afternoons later, I found myself as drawn to the western stores as the honky-tonks. I tried on boot after boot, but the perfect pair eluded me. The next day, an hour before we left town, I headed back to the first store we had visited to try on the boots I liked most. The fit wasn’t right, and the toes were too square. Disappointed, I looked for a larger size and noticed a pair I hadn’t seen the day before. They were exactly what I wanted: black, distressed leather with low heels and sharply pointed toes. They fit perfectly.

I wore my new boots out of the store and on the drive home from Nashville, and I have been wearing them ever since — to a party, to the grocery store, even in the carpool line at school. When I look down at them, I feel a wave of pleasure and pride. Like the flowered pair I bought in seventh grade, my new boots are a symbol of my individuality and confidence. But more important, they remind me of the much-needed earful I got in Memphis and my decision to leave my blues there, where they belong.

What Happens in Vegas

As a little girl, I didn’t dream of walking down the aisle in a white satin dress while Prince Charming waited worshipfully for me at the altar. I didn’t imagine him carrying me off into the sunset on his white steed to a castle where we would live happily ever after. While my Barbie dolls sometimes wore the wedding gown my mother made from her own dress, they preferred the stewardess uniform. My favorite Barbie, a brunette like me, traveled the world with Pilot Ken. They went on dates during layovers in exotic places, but they never discussed marriage. Brunette Barbie had other plans.

When I was a preteen, my plan was to leave Michigan once I turned 18 and relocate to California or maybe New York. Next I would travel to Europe and possibly settle in London. My roadmap grew sketchy after Europe, but I was certain I’d stay single wherever I landed. I didn’t want kids, so there was no point in getting married. I wouldn’t even think about settling down until I was old, like 40 or something, and had seen the world.

At 18, my plan went decidedly south. I wound up living at home with my dad and his wife while I went to the University of Michigan-Dearborn and then moved out and took a job in nearby Birmingham when I graduated. I promised myself I’d only extend the deadline for leaving Detroit by a few years and that I’d be on my way by age 25. Two months before my 26th birthday, I quit my second post-college job, sold my car and moved to Chicago. Six weeks later, I met my future husband.

The prince of Lincoln Park (and later Bucktown) and I lived together for two-and-a-half years before he proposed. I was fine with that, happily focusing on my career and enjoying our big-city lifestyle. Marriage remained the “m” word for me, and the idea of planning a wedding held no appeal. Still, I knew that if I were going to embark on the journey down the aisle and into the unknown, he was the one I wanted beside me.

During a visit to Michigan to celebrate our engagement, my father and his wife tried to sell us on getting married in Livonia. We politely agreed to check out some locations with them, but we never made it past the first generic reception hall or the talk of which of their friends should be on the guest list. The prince wanted a church wedding, but suddenly my crazy idea of eloping to Las Vegas looked good to him. Or at least it looked better than a bunch of my parents’ friends doing the chicken dance under a disco ball.

The prince and I were married in a gazebo at the Island Wedding Chapel of the Tropicana Casino by a minister named “Hap,” which, as he explained, is three-fifths of happy. I had wanted a drive-through wedding performed by an Elvis impersonator, but we compromised. Twenty friends and family members celebrated with us, and a handful of us partied well into the night. I think we rode the rollercoaster at the top of the Stratosphere at 3 o’clock in the morning, but I can’t be sure.

Sometimes what happens in Vegas is only the beginning of the adventure. The prince and I have been to both coasts multiple times in our 16 years of marriage, but we decided the Midwest is where we belong for now. This summer we took the two kids I swore I would never have to Europe for the first time. It seems the plans I made when I was a little girl didn’t change, although the order of them did.

I guess Brunette Barbie just needed to find the right copilot.

The prince and I celebrating our 15th wedding anniversary in November 2011 where our adventure (or at least the marriage part) began: Viva Las Vegas!

Rome if You Want To

I don’t have fond memories of early travels with our children. I recall long, stressful car trips from Chicago to Detroit, one of which included a detour to the emergency room, and a particularly grueling weeklong “getaway” to South Haven, Michigan. During the latter trip, which was peppered with temper tantrums — both ours and the kids’ — I learned that when babies and toddlers are involved, vacations can be more work than the regular life you intend to escape. No matter how long the trip, we returned exhausted rather than rejuvenated, and the piles of mail and laundry that awaited us quickly erased any small moments of pleasure we had enjoyed while we were away.

Back then, if someone had told me things would get easier, I would have given him or her an earful that included a string of profanities.

Based on the trauma of those early trips, my husband and I decided to wait to take a major (i.e., extensive and expensive) vacation that involved plane travel until the kids were 4 and 6. We figured these were reasonable ages because they would both be out of diapers and nap-free, and, we hoped, old enough to remember something of the vacation.

Do they recall anything from our first family trip to Disney World? Our daughter, then 4, remembers the teacup ride, which terrified her. The kind operator of the ride stopped it after the first go-round so my hysterical, non-spin-friendly child could escape. Our son, the 6-year-old, recalls the luau and fire dancers at the Polynesian Resort, the teacups (for obvious reasons) and the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. Oh, and he liked the pizza at Pizza Planet.

I guess it’s a good thing we took lots of pictures.

Epcot, which the kids and my husband hated. Good thing there was wine and ice cream.

Did my husband and I enjoy the trip? I, for one, could have done without pushing that rented double stroller, with a combined 80 pounds of kids, for five days and through four amusement parks, while listening to endless whining, fighting, and begging for overpriced snacks and souvenirs. But watching their sweet faces light up with first-time Disney joy at least partially compensated for their sometimes not-so-cute behavior.

Despite our early bumps in the road, our family became fairly well-seasoned travelers in the years that followed. We flew to visit family in Florida and Los Angeles — with a stop in Disneyland, of course — and we even ventured to my favorite U.S. city, San Francisco. We took a marathon road trip several spring breaks ago to Philadelphia; Washington, D.C.; and New York City. And one summer we caravanned with a family we barely knew on a two-week trip across the country to Yellowstone National Park. After surviving a week together in a shoebox-size cabin, we were travel buddies for life.

Yellowstone National Park: Our best road trip ever.

This summer our son turned 13, and we decided it was time for another family travel first: Europe. My ecstatic husband became obsessed with planning his dream trip to Italy. He learned Italian with Rosetta Stone — the kids halfheartedly joined him for the first couple of weeks — and labored over every detail of the vacation. We had 12 days, and he wanted to cram in as much as possible.

The beauty of this family trip, however, was its relaxed tone and spontaneity.

We each had a passport, a plane ticket and a piece of carry-on luggage. We arrived in Rome, traveled all over Tuscany and flew out of Venice. The kids trekked through airports, from hotel to hotel, and in and out of taxicabs, trains, water buses and gondolas. Together we learned to order food in Italian, to navigate the country’s maze of a highway system in a clown-size car, to respect cultural traditions, to appreciate ancient art and ruins, and to enjoy long, leisurely meals and relaxing afternoon siestas.

Tuscany, especially the tiny village of Semproniano, was the hardest to leave.

On our family trip to Italy, we guided and our kids followed. But in some cases the opposite was true, and they taught us something. In one situation, my son, who can read a map better than anyone in our family, got us back on track when a wrong turn took us three hours in the opposite direction of our destination.

Were there other snafus? Many. Every family vacation has them, and it was our first trip abroad together. But despite the things that went wrong in Italy, we discovered just how easy and enjoyable traveling with our kids had become.

My husband’s trip of a lifetime turned out to be the family’s as well — at least so far.

Growing Pains and Purple Teeth

In case you missed my guest post on The Three Under blog, my son went away to band camp for the first time last week. It was his first taste of independence, and he couldn’t wait to go.

I, on the other hand, was a nervous wreck. How would he do on his own? What if he got homesick? What if he became ill or was injured? These questions began to plague me as soon as I signed him up for camp in March.

The thought of dropping him off two hours away from home and then spending a week without him made me crazy. To make matters worse, his 13th birthday was the same week. It’s a huge milestone, and I dreaded the idea of him celebrating it away from home and without his family. Obviously, camp was going to be a challenging step for me in the “learning to let go” department, and I knew I needed a distraction.

The rock star (not really, but he is in a band) and I talked about it and decided it was the perfect opportunity to plan the trip to Napa we had always dreamed of. A close family friend even volunteered to take care of our 11-year-old daughter. How could we not go?

Drop-off at camp was just as difficult as I’d imagined. I was anxious and agitated all morning and struggled not to let my son see it. I cried for a solid 15 minutes after leaving him (the rock star says it was more like 30). Later that evening we dropped our daughter off with our friends — a far easier experience, since we knew she would be staying with people we love and trust. And the next morning we left for Napa.

I had a lot of doubts about being so far away from my kids, especially since one of them was two hours from home himself. The plane ride was turbulent and stressful, a perfect metaphor for my state of mind.

Things took a turn for the better when we arrived in San Francisco. The rock star and I were both born and raised in the Midwest, so the breathtaking scenery of the West Coast — the mountains, the valleys, the ocean — leaves us awestruck every time.

Before our Napa adventure began, we planned to stay one night at The Triton Hotel in Union Square, less than a block from Chinatown. If you’ve never stayed at a Kimpton hotel, it’s a unique boutique chain that offers guests a lot of quirky, personal touches. Check out the mini bar at The Triton.

Triton minibar: Rubber duckie, anyone?

We spent a fun evening in our favorite city, meeting an old friend and his girlfriend for sushi and then drinking martinis at the Top of the Mark. The next morning we ran from Chinatown to the bay. The hills in Chinatown were brutal for two Midwestern runners like us. But the view was worth it.

The rock star during our run by the SF Bay

It’s about an hour’s drive from San Francisco to Napa Valley, so after a quick Thai lunch we hit the road. We arrived at our hotel, the River Terrace Inn, in the early afternoon and decided to hit a few nearby wineries before dinner.

Our first stop was Del Dotto Historic Winery & Caves, which we later learned is nicknamed “Del Blotto” because of the extremely large pours. We decided to share a tasting since it was our first winery of the day, and that was a wise idea: Our new friend Luis gave us about 10 different wines to taste. (One we found especially interesting was the rich, smoky 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon.)

Our introduction to Napa did not disappoint. In fact, we struck oenological gold at the majority of wineries we visited in Napa and Sonoma. I have to credit the rock star for this. He did his homework before the trip, and we received a lot of great tips from wine-loving friends at home and knowledgeable folks we encountered in Napa and Sonoma.

Our next stop was Jarvis Winery, where we took a cave tour. (Del Dotto and many other wineries offer these too.) The entire wine-making and business operations of Jarvis are contained within a 45,000-square-foot cave, complete with a stream and waterfall running through the center. For those of you novices like me, a cave is optimal for winemaking because the humidity levels are high and the temperature is constant.

Jarvis Winery cave tour

The wines at Jarvis were exceptional; we particularly liked the Cabernet Franc and the Finch Valley Chardonnay. We also loved the story of Will Jarvis’ Science Project, a wine that started as the eighth-grade science experiment of winery founder William Jarvis’ son.

After Jarvis we headed into town for dinner. A Yelp search led us to Bottega, Food Network Chef Michael Chiarello’s restaurant in Napa. If you go — and you should — order the short ribs. They are smoked and braised, served with whole-grain mustard spaetzle, Sicilian pickles, quince paste and smoky horseradish jus. Unbelievable. I am drooling over the memory alone.

The nights end early in Napa, or at least for us they did. I guess the combination of day drinking and California sunshine was too much for us. Or maybe just enough.

The next morning we took a limo tour of Sonoma with our brassy driver/wine expert, Paula. Our first destination was Domaine Carneros Winery, known for its premium sparkling wines and pinot noir. It was by far the best view I’ve ever enjoyed while sipping bubbly. I am by no means a sparkling wine connoisseur, but these were phenomenal — and also quite affordable.

Enjoying some bubbly, and the view, at Domaine Carneros Winery

Our Sonoma itinerary then led us to Ledson Winery, where we found more wines we loved and what I can only dream will be our next home. While we sipped Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc, Paula set up a picnic lunch for us near the vineyard. If a salami and bacon panini sounds like an odd combo, all I can say is “don’t knock it till you try it.” It was our favorite lunch of the trip.

Ledson Winery: our dream house

A stop we particularly enjoyed in Sonoma was Benziger Family Winery, which practices sustainable, organic, biodynamic farming. We took a tractor tour around the vineyard and learned about how the “green guys” do it. The wine we brought home from Benziger was the Signaterra Sauvignon Blanc, crisp and delicious.

Benziger, a biodynamic winery

After a few other brief stops in Sonoma, we headed back to Napa for sushi at Iron Chef Morimoto’s restaurant (my second favorite dinner after Bottega) and then decided to call it a night. Paula had given us a list of “must sees” in Napa for the next day, and we needed to rest up.

Our last day in wine country began with a run along the Napa River followed by brunch at Oxbow Public Market, which sells local and artisanal foods and wines. If you’re looking for a quick bite or a place to pick up a picnic lunch, check out Oxbow.

We had scheduled a tour at Beringer that day, and in retrospect I wish we had skipped it. If you’re planning to do a tour, I’d suggest a cave tour of a smaller, less commercial winery. The impeccably tended gardens and Rhine House are worth a visit, but we didn’t get much out of the tour.

The Rhine House at Beringer

Lunch on our last day was at Farmstead (another of Paula’s picks), the restaurant at Long Meadow Ranch. Executive Chef Stephen Barber offers a menu of farm-to-table dishes, made using the ranch’s grass-fed beef, vegetables, extra virgin olive oil and honey. We loved and brought home LMR’s Sauvignon Blanc.

There were a few other wineries on Paula’s list, but we only had time to hit one more. We decided on Charter Oak Winery, which Paula had emphatically labeled “you will LOVE this stop!!!” Charter Oak is a four-generation family-run winery that operates out of the home of the original winemaker, Guido Ragghianti. Robert Fanucci and his son, David, run Charter Oak using the 100-year-old basket press, homemade punch-down tools and other wine-making equipment he inherited from his grandfather. Guido continued making wine until he died at age 99, and the family still uses his recipe.

The rock star dabbles in winemaking, and so did his father and grandfather, so this was right up his alley. The wines were outstanding, but my favorite part about Charter Oak was our hostess, Robert’s wife, Layla. The former music teacher turned artist is an absolute delight. We truly felt like guests in her home rather than strangers on a wine tour. After you tour Guido’s cellar and sample the wines, be sure to check out Layla’s artwork. She is as talented as she is gracious.

Layla's artwork appears on some of the Charter Oak wine bottles

Our homecoming was a bit of a whirlwind. We left for Chicago the following day, picked up our daughter that evening and headed downstate to pick up our son the next morning. The look on his face when he saw us was happy and relieved, but I could tell he’d had the time of his life. His buddies had even thrown him a surprise birthday party. Mama bear was happy and relieved too — to say the least.

In the days that followed I noticed some changes. He seemed more confident, more independent. He had grown during his week away.

The changes in him made me think of something one of our Napa wine tasting hosts had said: “Violated expectations are the key to learning.” The host, of course, was speaking in terms of expectations about taste. But his statement also applied to my negative expectations about my son going away to camp and being separated from him.

That week turned out to be a learning, and growing, experience for both of us.