Most of the trips we take these days are definitely not a result of our spontaneous desire to get in the car and go. We would probably never leave the house if we didn't receive invitations from our friends and family members to travel with them. I am coming to realize how important it is to say yes to these opportunities, even though we don't know how Erik will eat/sleep/cope with a change in scenery. What parent knows for sure how their kid will react to something new, anyway?
Friday we headed to the beach to meet my friend and her family. On the way, we stopped at Brian's parents' house for a quick visit. We had a beautiful lunch by their manmade waterfall and pond. Erik was encouraged to feed the koi, some of which have grown to the size of salmon in their roomy habitat. Their white, gold, and orange scales glistened in the sun but failed to really capture Erik's attention. Instead, he wanted to kick at the neat layer of pea gravel or run unfettered under the trees. Brian and I traded off the sweaty duty of chasing after him to prevent him from tripping and falling head first into the pond with the fish or destroying flowerbeds. Erik did stop moving long enough to devour an alarming amount of fruit and homemade muffins.
After lunch we said goodbye and drove across one more mountain range to the coast. We wouldn't see the sun for the rest of the weekend, but the air was fairly warm and pleasant. We located the beach house my friend had rented in a housing development striped with wide, soft drifts of sand. Rows of ranch-style houses surrounded by more sand and beach grass lined the streets, most of which were empty and/or for sale, but a few families milled about in driveways around vehicles bulging with suitcases and beach accessories.
Our two-bedroom, two-bath house was relatively new and full of soft light with an open kitchen. The guys set up two small barbecues in front of the open garage door, and oysters and slabs of steak were grilled for dinner. Shaena and I baked chicken breasts in the oven and fed the kids hot dogs and pasta. By the end of the day, Erik had briefly cried himself to sleep in his bunk in our room, and his friend Samantha had retired to her toddler mattress on the floor of her parents' room. We all poured ourselves cocktails and relaxed. The guys retired to the family room in front of the television/stereo, and Shaena and I found ourselves in chairs on the front deck underneath a relatively rare coastal lightning storm playing across the sky. We talked and drank until we were exhausted and could no longer keep our eyes open.
We tackled touring the aquarium up the highway the next morning. Erik seemed only slightly interested in the exhibits. He did enjoy the creatures that were available to touch. The place was crowded with strollers and noisy children, however, and it was soon apparent he was completely overstimulated, a phenomenon I assumed was history at his age. Brian finally resorted to carrying all 38 pounds of boy on his shoulders, something we do when Erik refuses to walk any further and begins completely melting down. We hastily found the exhibits we wanted to see, briefly separating from our friends and texting each other our locations, finally meeting up in large, plastic tubes surrounded by saltwater and marine life, including sharks. By now, Brian and I were both on edge, as Erik was in a full, defiant meltdown. He whined and whimpered. He refused to walk on his own. His limbs flailed spasmodically. He yanked on our arms and refused to hold our hands.
Against my better judgment, we drove on to lunch on the waterfront. Tourists crammed themselves in shops full of gifts and candy. One of the oldest, most popular restaurants we love had a long line snaking along the front. We decided to attempt waiting for a seat, which would take approximately 20 minutes. We stood on the sidewalk in front of the tiny restaurant with strangers for nearly half an hour. Erik found one woman with spiky, bright blond hair and an easy smile unusually irresistible, and she allowed him to hold her hand. Finally, we were led into the tiny, bustling dining room and seated at a long table in the middle of the crowd. I ordered a bay shrimp sandwich with an ice-cold beer for myself and a grilled cheese with apple juice for Erik. He devoured nearly the entire sandwich with gusto. We ended up having a really nice lunch before heading back to the house. As Erik had reached his limit long before lunch, we decided the brewery we thought about visiting was a no-go.
Erik's friend Sammy invited him to watch videos with her from time to time on the leather couch in the family room of our beach house. He really took a liking to the Pixar feature called Cars. He did very well inside the house or playing with sand on the deck without the extra stimulation of strangers and unexpected noise. He interacted with Sammy in new ways and was able to converse with her a little more than he had in the past. Brian took him to the beach, which apparently went well until it was time to go. When I met up with them on my way to the ocean after a trip to the grocery store, Erik was walking down the street with Brian. His toes were bleeding very characteristically from the beating of being exposed, and he was blubbering. He told me very dramatically that he loved me, and I had to giggle. His clothing and coat were soaked with seawater and covered in a thin layer of wet sand. Through his exhausted fit, I could tell he had loved every second of what he had just done. He had apparently splashed in the chilly water thigh deep and fallen at times, explaining his condition. He absolutely loved it. I spent a little time on the beach myself, feeling the sand erode under my soles as the waves rushed back into the ocean and felt my toes begin to lose feeling in the frigid water. I stood still, feeling the power of the ocean vibrate every cell in my body. I guess I had a little word or two with God while I was standing there, too.
Sunday we packed our things and vacated the house, which seemed to be hard for all of us to do. We drove to the valley and met at Wendy's for lunch, where Erik began the familiar signs of nuclear meltdown yet again when a family with noisy children seated themselves directly behind us. He put his head in my lap and covered his ears. His feet kicked. Finally, I asked him if he wanted to go for a walk. He said yes, and we amused ourselves in the parking lot next door in front of a Chinese restaurant, a Mexican bakery, and a dark barbershop. Erik walked atop the parking curbs, sometimes requiring my help to maintain his balance but becoming annoyed when I tried to help him. When everyone else exited the restaurant and it was time to go, he had another major malfunction. He stopped short of sitting down, but his legs became heavy and extra clumsy. He burst into tears. He yanked roughly on my hand when I tried to move him along. Losing my temper, I snapped at him with a raised, impatient voice. He cried even harder.
I got us both into the Jeep and felt my emotions seep through the exhaustion that comes with packing and traveling. Tears rolled down my face silently for a minute or two, and Brian patted my knee. I was tempted to give up and go home without our scheduled trip to the amusement park at this point, but we finally decided to press on.
Up the interstate we went.
I finally spotted the large sign in front of the familiar theme park, a place I have not been to since I was small. We parked in front of a castle wall and joined our friends. Erik seemed excited and held Sammy's hand. The guys paid our admission and tickets for the rides inside the park, our optimism bleeding through once again. My sense of humor spurred me on as I read the rules that were posted on a Medieval-looking sign at the start of the trail and added my own. No outside food or drink. No toplessness. No pooping in the moat. Shaena and I giggled ourselves silly.
We followed the trail into the darkness of the park under a gorgeous, green canopy of foliage. Brightly painted concrete buildings illustrated assorted fairy tales. I entered the ones that would accommodate my adult body, peeking through windows at ancient exhibits that sparked memories I thought were lost. The audio portions of many of the featured tales were garbled beyond recognition, even for my transcriptionist's ears, but the tales were easily recognizable. Erik reluctantly entered a large rabbit hole with his father, who was on all fours, and Shaena and I ran ahead, looking for the place where they would emerge.
By the time we had come to the portion of the park featuring rides, Erik was melting down yet again. He entered a wooden door labeled "saloon" in the Wild West section. Inside was a straight, dark hall, and the floor was soft and unstable, designed to make you feel like you were intoxicated. He ran back and forth, almost frantic. He began making the incessant engine noises he makes when he is in full freakout mode. Sammy was across the narrow street, patiently allowing a man who looked like Abe Lincoln to put period clothing over her own outfit for a photo opportunity. Brian wondered aloud if Erik would hold still long enough to do the same. We quickly came to the conclusion that he would not. Instead, we watched and let our kid run back and forth.
All six of us stood in line on wooden stairs for the little roller coaster in the trees, which would be Erik's first. It had been constructed in the late 1980s and was intended to look and feel as if its riders are in bobsleds. Shaena and I decided to ride together. We crammed ourselves in one capsule with Shaena sitting between my outstretched legs and me with my chin resting on her shoulder. An opaque plastic cover with large holes in it was snapped down over our heads. I couldn't help but think of Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels on that moped in a scene from the movie Dumb and Dumber. She began discussing the sign she had happened to read about getting splashed with water on this ride and how interesting it was that I had chosen the seat in the back. I began giggling, wondering if I could possibly survive this experience without wetting my pants. The ride jerked to a start and we began screaming immediately, despite the fact our car had just begun to move. I was thankful Erik's car was in front, away from our gleeful hollering. We gained speed and rocketed through the forest for two and a half minutes, our screaming gaining new volume with every violent turn. When we all escaped at the end and made our way down another flight of wooden stairs, my knees were actually a little shaky. Brian reported that Erik emitted a "YEE HAW" or two but that he quieted down as the ride progressed. However, he protested and thew a fit as we walked away from the attraction. His defiance would only intensify. We came across a tiny Ferris wheel and debated on whether or not to trap Sammy in a cage with Erik on the thing. Brian wondered aloud regarding the worst thing that could happen, and we all laughed. Erik refused to ride, however, still upset about leaving the roller coaster and mumbling about the promise we had made about him seeing a train. We kept going until we saw the psychedelic-looking kiddie train, its lights merrily flashing in the rain. Erik agreed to ride with Sammy. Shaena and I took shelter from the weather by the bumper cars, where we could watch and snap photos. Erik and Sammy were seated in the first car shaped like the train's engine and patiently waited as other children found their way to their seats. Brian yelled over the fence to the kids to push the illuminated button in the dash, and when they did, various animal and train noises blared from speakers. Erik covered his ears but was interested. The ride finally began. Lights flashed, and the cars rocked gently as the train went a few times around an area decorated with giant toadstools and tiny village scenes.
When this was over, we gave our remaining tickets to our friends, and Brian carried a now hysterical Erik out of the park through the rain. I used Ye Olde Restroom on the way to the parking lot one more time and we found our Jeep. I was kicking myself for forgetting the cord to Erik's DVD player, a device we never seem to really need until the trip home. We listened to music for a while, but Erik finally snapped at me to turn it off. Erik never really falls asleep in the car, but he finally lost consciousness, surprising us, and the ride over the mountains was fairly pleasant. We feasted on coastal fudge and salt water taffy until I felt happy and more than a little sick.
In the end, the trip was enjoyable, but I wouldn't say we had time to completely relax. I was on edge a lot of the time. I told my friend that trying things with Erik is scary but always rewarding in some sense. Even a day afterwards the memory of the disastrous diaper blowout in the driveway and the tantrums are fading. After all, we will never know what will work and what won't if we don't make an attempt. Would I do it again? Of course.
There is, however, always a price to pay.