Melanie Gow reflects on an epic journey across the USA with her young boys, and the lasting effect it had on how they view the world
It is no secret that travel can heal broken hearts, wounded minds and shattered lives. It does it in a way that is like the Japanese art of kintsugi ceramics. Kintsugi means 'golden joinery', and it takes broken pieces of pottery and repairs them, not by hiding the damage but by pouring gold into the cracks and making something more beautiful for having been broken.
For 18 months after my father died, the dream of my sons and I watching the sun set on the Grand Canyon was something to look forward to. Little did we know when we travelled across America people would pour themselves into the wounds, like a gold that bonded us stronger and happier than we were before.
There we were. We had made the dream come true, sitting outside the restaurant at the edge of the Grand Canyon as the sun set. We were waiting for a table to come available, checking the alert-buzzer and making small talk, when my eldest son, Ben, farted.
It smelt so bad the family waiting outside with us began to comment, and we had to admit to the deed. Their eldest son, a collage football player, stood up to his full height and reached out saying; “I want to shake the hand of any man who can fill something the size of the Grand Canyon with a smell that bad.” He crushed my slight 11-year-old’s hand with his football catching fist warmly, as he turned any embarrassment into pure glory.
That reframing, that desire to magnify the best, and resilient optimism, made a lasting impression; one that still informs my sons’ attitudes.
Later than evening, we were finishing hickory-sauce coated ribs, creamed sweetcorn and double-fried chips, this meal we had dreamed of eating for so long, I realized my debit card wasn’t accepted in the restaurant. Now I was the one who was mortified, wondering how we were going to stop this turning into a nightmare.
I called the waiter over to explain and he said; “Ma’am your check has been picked up by that family.”
Ben pushed his chair back from our table, got up and strode over to them and, reaching out his hand this time, he said, “One day I will do this for someone.” That family not only made a dream better than we imagined it could be, they left a legacy in us.
Throughout our road-trip through America, the people we met did more than help, they made a conscious effort to leave an impression. My children learnt to surrender to the gentle wash of human generosity, and in-turn to ask how they could make a difference to someone’s day.
We swam in the great lakes of Michigan, and line-danced in Nashville, we saw the sword-swallowers on the beach in Los Angeles and surfed in New Jersey, visited the John Ford museum, rode rollercoasters in Cleveland, shopped in New York and jet-skied on Lake Wallenpaupack in the Poconos in Pennsylvania, but the people we met became the gold dust in the lacquer gluing us back together.
After a day in Yavapai Indian territory, still wet from swimming in a hidden canyon lake, we drove back under Superstitious Mountain, past three rainbows, and straight into an Arizona macroburst storm. These are like upside-down tornados, 16 blocks big with winds up to 150mph. Pylons were falling in the road, tree branches flew past, and we pulled off the road into a the car-park for a restaurant just as the power went down.
Despite not being able to legitimately serve us, Brian the chef insisted we came in to shelter, and took us on a tour of the food bars, using his lighter to see. We sat in the dark, in damp swim-suits and cowboy hats, as plates were piled up next to us, followed by more with slices of cake, ice cream and bowls of sweets, until the storm passed. And that is my memory of America, being nurtured until the clouds broke and the sun came out.
America is a country that stretches right across a continent and six time zones, with nearly 390 million citizens; where the Amish in Michigan are not just geographically far away from the gamblers in Las Vegas, but also in world-view, attitude and daily experience. The trailer parks and Apache spiritual lands of Arizona are as different from Broadway and Times Square, as the Alaskan tidewater glaciers are from the Buddhist temples and beaches of Hawaii, and yet they are all informed by a united culture.
As we criss-crossed the country hands reached out to help, and people made us laugh, made our day and made s’mores on a campfire they taught us to build.
For us, America built a groundswell of gratitude I see my children pay-forward still, and I am not the same having seen the sun set on the other side of the world.
America, and those random acts of kindness, should be on every family’s dream list. Especially as it is so easy to do with children. The variety of ways to get about, the infrastructure, the sheer array of activities: it's easy to find things that interest everyone, and that help your children grow.
You don’t need to take to the road to recover to be improved by travel, it teaches you that nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect. It’s kintsugi – it’s how the gold gets in.
Melanie Gow is a writer, speaker and photographic artist who believes life is a brief shot at something incredible. Her book, Walking With Angels, is the inspirational story of walking the Camino de Santiago with her sons, aged 12 and 16, and is available on Amazon. For more details about Melanie and her book, visit her website, myofficetoday.co.uk.